A Guide to the Navajo Tribe: Location, Population, and More

Navajo people ethnic flag, USA. 3D illustration
© iStock.com/daboost

Written by Jennifer Gaeng

Published: October 13, 2022

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The Navajo Nation has around 399,500 enrolled tribal people as of 2021. They own the biggest reservation in the nation. Over 27,000 square miles of land make up the reservation, which covers New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. The Navajo Reservation is bigger than West Virginia. Most Navajos speak English, and the language is frequently utilized. New Mexico and Arizona have the most Navajos (over 108,000). These two states have more than 75% of the Navajo people. Few ethnic Navajos are members of the Colorado River Indian Tribes outside the Navajo Nation. The Navajo and Apache’s Athabaskan ancestors arrived in the Southwest around 1400 AD, as per archaeological and historical sources.

Navajo people ethnic flag, USA. 3D illustration

The Navajo flag


Early Navajo were hunters and gatherers. Later, they adopted Pueblo farming traditions, mainly growing beans, maize, and squash. As a commerce and sustenance method, they herded sheep and goats like the Spanish. The Navajo diet grew meat heavy. The sheep would become a symbol of riches and connection. Women began weaving and spinning wool into clothing and blankets, which they traded and sold.

History suggests a long-standing connection and a desire to acquire Puebloan concepts and language. Both groups have traded in the past. Spanish documents from the 16th century say the Pueblo traded bison meat, stone, and woven cotton items for maize with Athabaskans that visited or lived nearby. In the 18th century, the Spanish said the Navajos raised large herds and farmed large regions.


The Navajo call themselves Diné, an abbreviation for “The People,” and they include their arrival on Earth as part of their origin narrative. The Navajo are believed to have quickly learned the fundamentals of farming upon their arrival in the Four Corners area. The term “Navajo” has been in use since the late 18th century; it comes from the Tewa word navah, meaning “agricultural grounds adjacent to a valley,” and the Spanish (Apaches de) Navajó, “(Apaches of) Navajó.” The Navajo refer to themselves as Diné.


The Navajo Athapaskans settled in the canyons, mesas, and rivers of northern New Mexico. The first Navajo homeland was known by its name, Dine’tah. Dine’tah, in New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley, was situated near the confluence of the Largo, San Juan, and Gobernador rivers. The Navajo Nation spans the states of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. The Navajo Nation is the biggest reservation in the United States, with 27,673 square miles of land.

A woman riding on Horse  from John Ford's Point overlook in Monument Valley Tribal Park in Arizona, USA

Over 27,000 square miles of land make up the reservation, which covers New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona


Big uranium deposits were discovered on Navajo land in the 1940s. From that time until the turn of the millennium, the United States legalized mining without providing adequate protection to workers, streams, and land. The Navajo people believe that the high rates of cancer and lung disease are directly attributable to pollution in their surroundings. Since the 1970s, legislation has helped regulate the industry and reduce the toll, but the government has yet to give complete and adequate compensation.


The original Navajo social structure was based on matrilineal kinship, and decisions were made through consensus among loosely knit family groups. There are still groups like this, but their leadership is commonly elected at the local level, and membership is based on where people live rather than on blood ties. A local group, as opposed to a village or town, is a cluster of houses or small settlements spread out across a vast area.


Navajo spiritual practice is based on Hózhóój and strives to promote health by restoring harmony and balance. According to Diné Bahane’ (Navajo creation myths), the first woman and the first man were created in the first world, or the Dark World. Such a world couldn’t support life, so they left. In the Second World or Blue World, dwelt the Swallow Chief, Táshchózhii, and other recognizable creatures. He angered First Worlders and asked them to leave. They then journeyed south to the Third World or Yellow World. This is where the first woman, the first man, and the holy people were forced to leave because of a flood. They stayed in the Fourth World this time, known as the Glittering World. This world invented death, seasons, the moon, the stars, and the sun. This world invented death, seasons, the moon, the stars, and the sun.

Complex Navajo religion is widely practiced. Some mythology describes how humans evolved from subterranean worlds, while others explain rites and ceremonies. Some are widespread customs that people or families adopt to safeguard crops and livestock and to bring luck to business and travel. Complex rituals require a professional and factor in cost and duration. Most rituals treated physical and mental diseases. Traditions and ceremonies are important to them as well. For example, flower petals and pollen may be utilized to make dry paintings at major events. Thousands of Navajos also attended public exhibits and dances. Many of these ceremonies are still practiced today.


From the 16th through 20th centuries, Navajos lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, like the Apacheans. Their extended families had seasonal residences for farming, collecting, and maintaining livestock. Navajo villages may have coordinated commerce or raiding teams and traveled far. Clans define family ties. Individuals can only marry or date members of other clans, including their grandparents’ clans. Some Navajos want their children to marry their father’s kin. No clan possesses exclusive access to a certain location, even if desired. Clan connections can exist hundreds of miles away.

In the past, Navajo culture had a matrilineal community where women owned livestock, residences, planting areas, and grazing grounds. Once married, a Navajo male would reside with his bride in her home, near her mother’s family. Usually, daughters inherited generational property. Divorced women care for children and possessions. Children “belong to” and are “born for” their mother’s clan. Adult tribal men represent their mother’s clan.


The Navajos’ language, referred to as Apachean, is classified as an Athabaskan language. Although most Athabaskan speakers still live north of the border, the Apache and Navajo are thought to have migrated to the United States in antiquity. The specific timeline of the relocation is unknown; however, it probably took place between the years 1100 and 1500 C.E. Diné bizaad, literally translates to “people’s tongue,” and is the name given to the Navajo language. This is a Southern Athabaskan dialect. The Pueblo Indians, who were identified as the Diné, were known as the Navajo by Spanish explorers and historians.

Most Athabaskan speakers live in northern Canada and eastern Alaska, the purported homelands of the Apache and Navajo peoples. Similarities exist between the Navajo language and the Apache language. Despite the phonological and grammatical differences, many native Canadian speakers of other Athabaskan languages may be able to communicate in Navajo. Some Navajo also use Navajo Sign Language, which is either an offshoot of Plains Sign Talk or an entirely different language.

Navajo Code Talkers in World War II

Many young Navajos moved to the cities during World War II to find industrial jobs. True to their warrior tradition, many Navajo men enlisted in the military and served in battalions with members of other ethnicities. Separate units for the Indian people were proposed by the BIA in 1940, but the plan was shot down by the War Department. After seeing firsthand how easily they might fit in with the rest of civilization, many Navajos decided against returning to the overcrowded, underemployed reservation. During World War II, 400 Navajo code talkers gained notoriety by relaying radio signals in the Navajo language.

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About the Author

Jennifer Gaeng is a writer at A-Z-Animals focused on animals, lakes, and fishing. With over 15 years of collective experience in writing and researching, Jennifer has honed her skills in various niches, including nature, animals, family care, and self-care. Hailing from Missouri, Jennifer finds inspiration in spending quality time with her loved ones. Her creative spirit extends beyond her writing endeavors, as she finds joy in the art of drawing and immersing herself in the beauty of nature.

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