At Navajo Evangelical Lutheran Mission, we serve the Navajo people of Rock Point, Arizona by providing spiritual education, feeding the hungry, and providing access to critical resources. The Navajo, or Diné, in their own language, have been in the American southwest for hundreds of years (some scholars estimate as early as 200 AD). Despite this, there is a lack of knowledge about the basic facets of Navajo culture – that’s why we’ve put together this overview. Of course, the best way to get to know Navajo culture is to spend time listening to and supporting Navajo people but let’s start out with some basics.
Historically, the Navajo people have lived in the region known as the “Four Corners” where modern-day Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet. In 1864, the Navajo were forced off of their land to an internment camp in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. This hardship was known as the Long Walk, and it is estimated that 200 Navajo died in the process.
In 1868, the Navajo Reservation was established and the Navajo people were permitted to return. This makes it one of the few reservations in the United States where Indigenous people were allowed to return to their historical homeland.
Today, the Navajo Nation’s land covers 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.
Navajo language comes from the Athabascan language family, and is a tonal language. This means that words spoken with different tones have different meanings, though the pronunciation remains the same. Tonal languages can be difficult to master for those raised speaking non-tonal languages. Navajo is also a spoken language, not written. This combination of features made Navajo the ideal language to support American forces during World War II through the famed Navajo Code Talkers.
The Code Talkers were a Marine Corps unit of Navajo men recruited during the second World War to send encrypted messages to different units over radio. Whereas the typical decryption process for standard codes at the time would take hours, the Code Talkers were able to encrypt, send, and decrypt messages in just two and a half minutes!
The Code Talkers played a vital role in the success of major battles, such as the Battle of Iwo Jima. The code was so secure that it was never broken by enemies.
Navajo people are very family-oriented, and are traditionally a matriarchal society, meaning lineage and inheritance are traced through the mother’s side. Age is also highly respected in Navajo culture. The expectation is that children will honor their parents and grandparents, and that behavior will be respectful to the family’s reputation at all times.
Traditional Navajo houses are known as hogans. These are rounded structures with pine poles built in an octagonal shape with walls constructed out of wood or clay, with a hole in the roof’s center for ventilation.
Today, many elderly continue to live in hogans. However, younger Navajo live in modular structures or stick-built homes more similar to those in urban areas of the country.
Traditional foods include fry bread, lamb, goat, root vegetables, beans, corn, and melons.
Traditional Navajo spirituality values harmony, good character, prayer, discipline, love, community, and respect for nature. Hózhó, or balance and beauty, is a core concept in Navajo culture and spirituality.
Modern Navajo spirituality combines elements of traditional Navajo practice with the Christian biblical tradition as taught by early missionaries. Sand painting, herbs, biblical readings, poetry, songs, and dance are representative of the practices of the Native American Church.
House of Prayer on the NELM campus seeks to honor the innate spirituality of the Navajo and to include Navajo thought and traditional values as central to the interpretation of the gospel. Designated members of the congregation called “Wisdom Keepers” are training to serve the House of Prayer as pastoral leaders and spiritual guides.