February 13, 2017

Navajo Nation Indian Reservation


Of the 562 federally recognized tribes, the Navajo Nation is the largest tribe with a population of approximately 300,000+ with about 2/3 living on the reservation and most of the rest living in the urban areas of the United States. 

Modern homes on the Navajo ReservationModern homes on the Navajo Reservation

The land base of the Navajo Reservation covers 27,000 square miles of unparalleled beauty extending into the states of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Here, you can step back in time and see how the ancient ones – the Anasazi people (Navajo Ancestors), lived thousands of years ago. 

This land base of the Navajo Nation has an array of ancient ruins, including the world renowned Navajo National Monument and the tranquil Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  

From the towering formations of Monument Valley to the majestic red sandstone walls and lush green valley floor of Canyon de Chelly, this is a land of great contrasts. It is also home to more than a dozen national monuments, tribal parks and historical sites, and is peppered with a dozen lakes and ponds.

The Navajo Nation extends into the states of Utah , Arizona and New Mexico , covering over 27,000 square miles of unparalleled beauty. Diné Bikéyah, or Navajoland, is larger than 10 of the 50 states in America.

Border changes and expansions of the Navajo Reservation from 1868 to 1934.Border changes and expansions of the Navajo Reservation from
1868 to 1934. Photo via Wikimedia.
Unlike most Indian reservations, which have become smaller over time, the original territory of the Navajos has been expanded several times since the 1800s.

In 2016 under the Tribal Nations Buy-Back Program, some 149,524 acres of land were returned by the Department of Interior to the Navajo Nation for tribal communal use.

In the mid-19th century, the Navajo were forced from their lands by the US Army following defeat, and marched on the Long Walk to imprisonment in Bosque Redondo. After they were allowed to return, the Navajo Indian Reservation was established according to the Treaty of 1868 with the United States.

The borders were defined as the 37th parallel in the north; the southern border as a line running through Fort Defiance; the eastern border as a line running through Fort Lyon; and in the west as longitude 109°30′.

As drafted in 1868, the boundaries were defined as

“…the following district of country, to wit: bounded on the north by the 37th degree of north latitude, south by an east and west line passing through the site of old Fort Defiance, in Canon Bonito, east by the parallel of longitude which, if prolonged south, would pass through old Fort Lyon, or the Ojo-de-oso, Bear Spring, and west by a parallel of longitude about 109′ 30″ west of Greenwich, provided it embraces the outlet of the Canon-de-Chilly [Canyon de Chelly], which canyon is to be all included in this reservation, shall be, and the same hereby, set apart for the use and occupation of the Navajo tribe of Indians, and for such other friendly tribes or individual Indians as from time to time they may be willing, with the consent of the United States, to admit among them; and the United States agrees that no persons except those herein so authorized to do, and except such officers, soldiers agents, and employees of the Government, or of the Indians, as may be authorized to enter upon Indian reservations in discharge of duties imposed by law, or the orders of the President, shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in, the territory.”

Though the treaty had provided for one hundred square miles in the New Mexico Territory, the size of the territory was 3,328,302 acres (5,200.472 sq mi; 1,346,916 ha) or slightly more than half. This initial piece of land is represented in the design of the Navajo Nation’s flag by a dark-brown rectangle.

As no physical boundaries or signposts were set in place, many Navajo ignored these formal boundaries and returned to where they had been living prior to captivity.

A significant population of Navajo still resided along the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers, as well as on Naatsisʼáán (Navajo Mountain). They had never lived in the concentration camps at Hwéeldi (Fort Sumner).

Today, they are members of the Colorado River Indian Tribes of the Colorado River Indian Reservation, which is made up of Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo peoples.

The first expansion of the territory occurred on October 28, 1878, when President Rutherford Hayes signed an executive order pushing the reservation boundary 20 miles to the west. Further additions followed throughout the late 19th and early 20th century (see map above).

Most of these additions were achieved through executive orders, some of which were confirmed by acts of Congress; for example, President Theodore Roosevelt’s executive order to add the region around Aneth, Utah in 1905 was confirmed by Congress in 1933.

The eastern border was shaped primarily as a result of allotments of land to individual households under the Dawes Act of 1887.

In an attempt to assimilate Native Americans to the majority culture, the federal government proposed to divide communal lands into plots assignable to heads of household – tribal members, for their subsistence farming, in the pattern of small family farms common among European Americans.

The government determined that land “left over” after all members had received allotments was to be considered “surplus” and available for sale to non-Native Americans. At the same time, the tribal government was to be disbanded. The allotment program continued until 1934.

This process was controversial and is widely considered to be a failure, resulting in the breakup and loss of much Native American land holdings, and disrupting and weakening their societies.

While the Navajo reservation proper was excluded from the act’s provisions, the eastern border became a patchwork of reservation and non-reservation land, known as a “checkerboard” area, through sales of some property to non-Navajo people.

In the southeastern area of the reservation, the Navajo Nation has purchased some ranches, which it calls its Nahata Dzil or New Lands.

They are leased to Navajo individuals, livestock and grazing associations, and livestock companies.

Landmark lawsuit to reclaim mismanaged lease money

In 1996, Elouise Cobell (Blackfeet) filed a class action suit against the federal government on behalf of an estimated 250,000-500,000 plaintiffs, Native Americans whose trust accounts did not reflect an accurate accounting of monies owed them under leases or fees on trust lands.

The settlement of Cobell v. Salazar in 2009 included a provision for a nearly $2 billion fund for the government to buy fractionated interests and restore land to tribal reservations. Individuals could sell their fractionated land interests on a voluntary basis, at market rates, through this program if their tribe participated.

In 2016 under the Tribal Nations Buy-Back Program, individual Navajo members received $104 million for purchase of their interests in land; some 149,524 acres were returned to the Navajo Nation for its territory by the Department of Interior under this program.

The program is intended to help tribes restore the land bases of their reservations, and to use the land for tribal welfare. More than 10,000 Navajo citizens were paid for their interests under this program. The tribe intends to use the consolidated lands to streamline infrastructure projects, such as running power lines.

In years past, Navajoland often appeared to be little more than a desolate section of the Southwest, but it was only a matter of time before the Navajo Nation became known as a wealthy nation. The discovery of oil on Navajoland in the early 1920’s promoted the need for a more systematic form of government.

In 1923, a tribal government was established to help meet the increasing desires of American oil companies to lease Navajoland for exploration. Navajo government has evolved into the largest and most sophisticated form of American Indian government. The Navajo Nation Council Chambers hosts 88 council delegates representing 110 Navajo Nation chapters.

The Navajo people’s tradition of governance is rooted in their clans and oral history. This extends from before the Spanish colonial occupation of Dinetah, through to the July 25, 1868, Congressional ratification of the Navajo Treaty with President Andrew Johnson, signed by Barboncito, Armijo, and other chiefs and headmen present.

The clan system of the Diné is integral to their society, as the rules of behavior found within the system extend to the manner of refined culture that the Navajo people call “to walk in Beauty.”

In modern times, the Navajo people have had to transform their conceptual understandings of government to include the demands placed upon the tribe when it joined the United States at the Treaty of 1868.

Though social political historians continue to debate the true nature of the modern Navajo body of politic, the Navajo people have had to evolve to include the systems and economies of the western world.

Tségháhoodzání, the Window RockTségháhoodzání, the “Window Rock” Photo via WikimediaThe Navajo political organization is considered to be the most sophisticated form of Indian government. While the Council is in session, you’ll likely hear delegates carry on the tradition of speaking in Navajo, providing a perfect example of how the Navajo Nation retains its valuable cultural heritage while forging ahead with modern progress.

The Navajo Nation has an elected government that includes an executive office, a legislative house, and a judicial system, but the United States federal government continues to assert plenary power over all decisions.

When the Council is not in session, legislative work is done by 12 standing committees of the Council. Inside the circular Council Chambers, the walls are adorned with colorful murals that depict the history of the Navajo people and the Navajo way of life.

In Navajo, the geographic entity with its legally defined borders is known as Naabeehó Bináhásdzo. This contrasts with Diné Bikéyah and Naabeehó Bikéya for the general idea of “Navajoland.”

Neither of these terms should be confused with Dinétah, the term used for the traditional homeland of the Navajo. It is situated in the area among the four sacred Navajo mountains of Dookʼoʼoosłííd (San Francisco Peaks), Dibé Ntsaa (Hesperus Mountain), Sisnaajiní (Blanca Peak), and Tsoodził (Mount Taylor).

Rejection of Indian Reorganization Act

In 1933 during the Great Depression, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) attempted to mitigate environmental damage due to over-grazing on reservations. This created an environment of misunderstanding, as its representatives did not consult sufficiently with the Navajo. BIA Superintendent John Collier’s attempt to reduce livestock herd size affected responses to his other efforts to improve conditions for Native Americans, as the herds were central to Navajo culture, and were a source of prestige.

Also during this period, under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934, the federal government was encouraging tribes to revive their governments according to constitutional models shaped after the United States. Because of the outrage and discontent about the herd issues, the Navajo voters did not trust the language of the proposed initial constitution outlined in the legislation. This contributed to their rejection of the first version of a proposed tribal constitution.

In the various attempts since, members found the process to be too cumbersome and a potential threat to tribal self-determination, as the constitution was supposed to be reviewed and approved by BIA. The earliest efforts were rejected primarily because segments of the tribe did not find enough freedom in the proposed forms of government. In 1935 they feared that the proposed government would hinder development and recovery of their livestock industries; in 1953 they worried about restrictions on development of mineral resources.

They continued a government based on traditional models, with hereditary chiefs chosen from certain clans.

In 2006 within the Nation, a committee for a “Navajo constitution” began advocating for a Navajo constitutional convention. The committee’s goal was to have representation from every chapter on the Navajo Nation represented at a constitutional convention.

The committee proposed the convention be held in the traditional naachid/modern chapter house format, where every member of the nation wishing to participate may do so through their home chapters. The committee was formed by former Navajo leaders: Kelsey Begaye, Peterson Zah, Peter MacDonald, writer/social activist Ivan Gamble, and other local political activists.

Lands within the exterior boundaries of the Navajo Nation are composed of Public, Tribal Trust, Tribal Fee, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Private, State, and BIA Indian Allotment Lands.

On the Arizona and Utah portions of the Navajo Nation, there are a few private and BIA Indian Allotments in comparison to New Mexico’s portion which consists of a checkerboard pattern of all the aforementioned lands.

The Eastern Agency, as it is referred to, consists of primarily Tribal Fee, BIA Indian Allotments, and BLM Lands. Although there are more Tribal Fee Lands in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation government intends to convert most or all Tribal Fee Lands to Tribal Trust.

Local and regional government

In the traditional Navajo culture, local leadership was organized around clans, which are matrilineal kinship groups. Children are considered born into the mother’s family and gain their social status from her.

The clan leadership have served as a de facto government on the local level of the Navajo Nation. In 1927, agents of the U.S. federal government initiated a new form of local government entities called Chapters, modeled after governments such as counties or townships. Each Chapter elected officers and followed parliamentary procedures.

By 1933, more than 100 chapters operated across the territory. The chapters served as liaisons between the Navajo and the federal government, and also acted as precincts for the elections of tribal council delegates. They served as forums for local tribal leaders. But, the chapters had no authority within the structure of the Navajo Nation government.

In 1998, the Navajo Tribal Council passed the Local Governance Act, which expanded the political roles of the existing 110 chapters. It authorized them to make decisions on behalf of the chapter members and take over certain roles previously delegated to the council and executive branches.

This included entering into intergovernmental agreements with federal, state and tribal entities, subject to approval by the Intergovernmental Relations Committee of the Council.

In addition, regional government functions are carried out by the District Grazing Committees and Off-Reservation Land Boards, Major Irrigation Projects Farm Boards, and Agency Councils.

The Reservation and it’s neighbors

The land area of the Navajo Nation is 24,078.127 square miles (62,362.06 km2), making it the largest Indian reservation in the United States; it is nearly the same size as the state of West Virginia.

Adjacent to or near the Navajo Nation are the Southern Ute of Colorado, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe of Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, both along the northern borders; the Jicarilla Apache Tribe to the east; the Zuni and White Mountain Apache to the south, and the Hualapai Bands in the west.

The Navajo Nation’s territory fully surrounds the Hopi Indian Reservation.

In the 1980s, a conflict over shared lands peaked when the Department of the Interior attempted to relocate Navajo residents living in what is still referred to as the Navajo/Hopi Joint Use Area.

The conflict between the two tribes and neighboring communities ended with the Bennett Freeze Agreement and was completed in July 2009 by President Barack Obama. The agreement lessened the contentious land disagreement with a 75-year lease to Navajos with claims dating to before the US occupation.

Situated within the Navajo Nation are Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Monument Valley, Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the Shiprock monadnock, and the eastern portion of the Grand Canyon.

Navajo Territory in New Mexico is popularly referred as the “Checkerboard” area since the Federal Government’s attempt to diversify lands with non-native lands. Thus these Navajo lands are intermingled with fee lands, owned by both Navajos and non-Navajos, and federal and state lands under various jurisdictions.

Three large non-contiguous sections located in New Mexico are also under Navajo jurisdiction and are the Ramah Navajo Indian Reservation, the Alamo Navajo Indian Reservation, and the Tohajiilee Indian Reservation near Albuquerque.

Navajo Hogan (traditional home) and Sweat Lodge
Navajo Hogan (traditional home) and Sweat Lodge

While many Navajo do live in modern housing and pursue contemporary careers, others continue to live a traditional lifestyle, living in the traditional Navajo Hogan, herding sheep, spinning the wool into yarn, weaving rugs, and making traditional pottery from the clay.

Education on the Navajo Indian Reservation

Historically, the Navajo Nation resisted compulsory western education, including boarding schools, as imposed by General Richard Henry Pratt in the aftermath of the Long Walk. This does not negate, however, the scope and breadth of traditional and home education provided by Navajo families and Custom since before the US occupation.

Education, and retention of the Navajo student is a significant priority. Major problems faced by the Nation today surrounds building competitive GPAs for students on a national level, coupled with a very high drop-out rate among high school students (especially when compared to their boarding school contemporaries of the 20th century). Over 150 public, private and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools serve Nation students from kindergarten through high school. Most schools are funded from the Navajo Nation under the Johnson O’Malley program.

The Nation runs community Head Start Programs, the only educational program fully operated by the Navajo Nation government. Post-secondary education and vocational training are available on and off the territory.

The Navajo Nation operates Tséhootsooí Diné Bi’ólta’, a Navajo language immersion school for grades K-8 in Fort Defiance, Arizona. Located on the Arizona-New Mexico border in the southeastern quarter of the Navajo Nation, the school strives to revitalize Navajo among children of the Window Rock Unified School District.

Tséhootsooí Diné Bi’ólta’ has thirteen Navajo language teachers who instruct only in the Navajo language, and no English, while five English language teachers instruct in the English language.

Kindergarten and first grade are taught completely in the Navajo language, while English is incorporated into the program during third grade, when it is used for about 10% of instruction.

Health concerns on the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation

The population continues to disproportionately struggle with health problems, unemployment, and the effects of past uranium mining accidents.

Uranium mining and large-scale effects on the Navajo People

Extensive uranium mining took place in areas of the Navajo Nation before environmental laws were passed or enforced on the control of hazardous wastes of such operations, or their fallout.

Studies have proven the unregulated practices created severe environmental consequences for people living nearby. Several types of cancer occur at rates higher than the national average in these locations on the Navajo Nation.

Especially high are the rates of reproductive-organ cancers in teenage Navajo girls, averaging seventeen times higher than the average of all girls in the United States.


Diabetes mellitus is a major health problem among the Navajo, Hopi and Pima tribes, who are diagnosed at a rate about four times higher than the age-standardized U.S. estimate.

Medical researchers believe increased consumption of carbohydrates, coupled with genetic factors, play significant roles in the emergence of this chronic disease among Native Americans.

Severe combined immunodeficiency

One in every 2,500 children in the Navajo population inherits severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a genetic disorder that results in children with virtually no immune system. In the general population, the genetic disorder is much more rare, affecting one in 100,000 children. The disorder is sometimes known as “bubble boy disease.”

This condition is a significant cause of illness and death among Navajo children. Research reveals a similar genetic pattern among the related Apache.

In a December 2007 Associated Press article, Mortan Cowan, M.D., director of the Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Program at the University of California, San Francisco, noted that, although researchers have identified about a dozen genes that cause SCID, the Navajo/Apache population has the most severe form of the disorder.

This is due to the lack of a gene designated “Artemis”. Without the gene, children’s bodies are unable to repair DNA or develop disease-fighting cells.

Navajo Nation Economy

Early Navajo economy was based on the raising of Navajo-Churro sheep and cattle. The people processed the wool, making yarn and producing blankets and rugs of noted designs. Craftspeople also made highly valued turquoise and silver jewelry.

The people have added other Native American arts, such as sand painting, sculpture, and pottery, for sale or trade.

The Navajo Nation has created a mixture of industry and business which has provided the Navajo workforce with middle- and working-class opportunities. The unemployment level fluctuates between an overall 40 and 45 percent for the nation of reported U.S. taxed income. In some communities, it can go as high as 85 percent or as low as 15 percent.

Mineral extraction

Mining – especially of coal and uranium – provided significant income to the tribe in the second half of the 20th century. “The Navajo Nation’s extensive mineral resources are among the most valuable held by Native American nations within the United States.”

Mining provided such revenues to the tribe in terms of leases and incomes of workers that a Navajo middle class was established, which continues even as parts of the population struggle with unemployment.

The volume of coal mined has declined in the early 21st century, with the completion of the Chevron Corporation’s P&M McKinley Mine in New Mexico, and operational changes at mines near Shiprock.

The Black Mesa and Lake Powell railroad conveys coal from Nation mines to the Navajo Generating Station at Page, Arizona. P

eabody Energy’s Black Mesa coal mine near Kayenta, a controversial strip mine, was shut down temporarily on December 31, 2005 for its emission credits. The mine had fed the Mohave Power Station at Laughlin, Nevada, via a slurry pipeline that used water from the Black Mesa aquifer.

The Kayenta mine continues to provide significant revenues for the tribe, and incomes for the Navajo middle class.

The uranium market, which was active during and after the second World War, slowed near the end of that period. The Nation has suffered considerable environmental and human contamination as a result of changes in and poor regulation of uranium mining.

As of 2005, the Navajo Nation has prohibited uranium mining altogether within its borders.

Navajo Tribal Parks

Tourism is important to the Navajo, and they maintain many tribal parks:

  • Monument Valley (between Utah and Arizona border, near the town of Kayenta, Arizona)
  • Shiprock Pinnacle (large volcanic remnants, elevation 7,178, located in New Mexico near Shiprock)
  • Navajo Mountain (mountain along Utah and Arizona border, elevation 10,318)
  • Navajo Nation Tribal Memorial Park
  • Chaco Canyon
  • Bisti Badlands
  • Canyon De Chelly
  • Window Rock Tribal Park
  • Antelope Mariana/Canyon
  • Lake Powell
  • Navajo Bridge
  • Little Colorado River Gorge
  • Kinlichee Ruins
  • Four Corners Monument
  • Hubbell Trading Post
  • Grand Falls
  • Rainbow Bridge

Utah Dineh Corporation Inc

The Utah Diné Corporation is a nonprofit organization established in order to maintain the Utah Navajo Oil Reserve revenues in the Aneth Oil Field section of Utah. Much of this area is within the Utah Navajo side of San Juan County, Utah.

In 1933 the Special Trustee for American Indians testified to the House Committee on Natural Resources and stated that his office did not have the capacity to administer the Utah Navajo Trust Fund in a manner required by the 1933 Act.

The Utah Diné Corporation was established in order to maintain the Utah Navajo Oil Royalties after passage of Senate Bill 1690, proposed and sponsored by US Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT). It was to amend the Act of March 1, 1933, to transfer certain authority and resources to the Utah Diné Corporation, and for other purposes.

Navajo arts and craft enterprises

An important small business group within the Navajo Nation is the handmade arts and crafts industry, which markets both high- and medium-end quality goods made by Navajo artisans, jewelers and silversmiths.

A 2004 study by the Navajo Division of Economic Development found that at least 60 percent of all families have at least one family member producing arts and crafts for the retail market.


In early 2008, the Navajo Nation and Houston-based IPP entered into an agreement to monitor wind resources, with the potential to build a 500-megawatt wind farm some 50 miles (80 km) north of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Known as the Navajo Wind Project, it is proposed as the second commercial wind farm in Arizona after Iberdrola’s Dry Lake Wind Power Project between Holbrook and Overgaard-Heber. The project is to be built on Aubrey Cliffs in Coconino County, Arizona.

In December 2010, the President and Navajo Council approved a proposal by the NTUA, an enterprise of the Navajo Nation, and Edison Mission Energy to develop an 85-megawatt wind project at Big Boquillas Ranch, which is owned by the Navajo Nation and is located 80 miles west of Flagstaff, Arizona.

NTUA plans to develop this to a 200-megawatt capacity at peak. This has been planned as the first majority-owned native project; NTUS was to own 51%. An estimated 300-350 people will construct the facility; it will have 10 permanent jobs.

In August 2011, the Salt River Project, an Arizona utility, was announced as the first utility customer. Permitting and negotiations involve tribal, federal, state and local stakeholders.

The project is intended not only as a shift to renewable energy but to increase access for tribal members; an estimated 16,000 homes are without access to electricity.

The wind project has foundered because of a “long feud between Cameron [Chapter] and Window Rock [central government] over which company to back.” Both companies pulled out. Negotiations with Clipper Windpower looked promising but that company was put up for sale after the recession.

Diné Development Corp.

The Diné Development Corporation was formed in 2004 to promote Navajo business and seek viable business development to make use of casino revenues.

Further Reading:

Bridging the Digital Divide on the Navajo Reservation

American Indian Reservations L to N
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