Who we are
Navajo or Dineh?
When I was a kid, I ask my mom one day ' Mom, what does Navajo mean' and she answered ' it
means thieves'. 'Thieves...' I wondered. 'How come?' I continued to ask ' Well, the white people call
us thieves because when the wagon trains use to go by, we use to go in and steal from the wagons.'
'Oh, I see' I said.
Well, this conversation stuck in my head for a long time and I 'sort of ' accepted because my mom
knew a lot more than I did. This meaning bother me a little bit, but not to a point of despair. Until I
noticed the word 'Dineh' became the preference that the Navajos wanted to be called. I figured that
maybe it is because, our tribe did not want to be known as thieves. So, I went along with it.
Until one day I heard the word 'Dineh' coming from a real German coworker. It sounded awkward
with his accent, but I knew he was just being cultural respectful. After that, I became more
sensitive to the word 'Dineh' and I realized that more and more Navajos wanted to be called 'Dineh'.
This made be wondered why we accepted to be called Navajos, in the first place. So I became
determined why this was. If I could not find out why, then I would at least, find out where the word
'Navajo' originated from. So, I started to do research and I started from a reliable source - 'Tony
Hillerman' books (God bless his soul).
Well, after reading most of his books, the only thing I got out of it was that the Navajos were known
to the Paiutes as 'Sharp knives'. I thought to myself 'YES!'. I had found out the real meaning of
'Navajo' and it meant that we were known as warriors and not thieves. Soon after that, I was
hosting a Native American culture booth at a local city diversity event and I met a man of Mexican
descent. We start talking and he said he knew what the word Navajo meant. I asked ' What does it
mean?'. He said, it is a Spanish word for Sharp Knives - 'Navajas'. Well now, I was feeling good
about this and I was sure that Navajos were warriors. I was happy, but to confirm this, I went to a
different source: the internet or another words 'I googled it'.
When I started my search on google, I was in the middle of reading historical books. And in one of
those books, a journal from a Franciscan Priest wrote a phrase that struck me. It was 'Apachu de
Nabajo', hmmmm..... I thought. 'Apachu de Nabajo'. I knew Apache was a word for enemy from
either the Zuni or Pueblos. So, I thought to myself ' Apache what?!?'. Turns out, from the books
that I've read and googled, Navajo originated from this term - 'Nabajo'. Nabajo means ' cultivated
fields' or ' a place near a canyon with cultivated fields' in the Pueblo language. So, the Pueblos
named us ' Apaches that farm or Apaches with cultivated fields'. This made more sense to me.
Later, the Spanish drop the 'Apachu de' and called us 'Navajo'.
The Navajo Tribe
Well, we are from the Athabaskan language group. The Athabaskan groups are from Canada
around a lake called Athabasca, thus the name Athabaskan. We (the Dineh or Navajo) are part of
what I call, the Southern Athabaskan group. The Southern Athabaskan groups consist of the
Apache (Chiricahua, San Carlos, Mescalero, White Mountain, Jicarilla, Lipan,), Navajo, and the
Kiowa. From what I have read, there were 2 migration to the southwest region. The first formed the
Jicarilla, Lipan, and the Kiowa and the 2nd-the Apache and Navajo groups.
I do not know much about the 1st migration, but the 2nd may have been around the 12-13th
century. Maybe even later. This is when the Apaches and Navajos came into the Southwest region. It
is very possible that we were one group at one time. Then we may split into 2 main groups: one half
continued south into Southern Az, Southern NM, and Northern Old Mexico. The other half stayed in
the Northern NM region. Remember, I said possible.
The Navajos are the 2nd largest tribe in the US and the size of our reservation is about 26,000
square miles. 26,000 square miles if roughly half the size of Alabama. If you are reading this from
an Asian perspective, the Navajo reservation is the twice the size of Taiwan. If you are reading this
from an Indian (India) perspective, it is the size of Sri Lanka. European - half the size of Greece.
We consist of 4 reservations and a lost child: the main Navajo reservation, the Alamo Navajo
reservation, the Ramah Navajo reservation, and the Canoncito Navajo reservation. As far as the
lost child, it is a group of Navajos that became part of the Colorado River Indian Tribe or CRIT.
CRIT consist of 4 tribes: Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo. So send some love to CRIT.
One day, a co-worker came to me and told me this story. ‘I went to a cultural diversity event
and there were a lot of booths showing each culture. And I heard of Indian frybread before and I
wanted to try some. So, I went to a booth that I thought was related to Indian Frybread. And I asked
them ‘So, where can I get some Indian Frybread and some Indian tacos.’ They looked confused.
Then one person behind the display table said ‘Indian Tacos?......Pardon me, but we do not make
Tacos (with an Eastern Indian accent)…..I think, you may have the wrong booth, but please try
some tofu and curry’. I laughed and I said to him ‘ Man…you are from the East Coast’. Well, this
made me think. Where did the Frybread come from?
To begin with, the Frybread is a round, deep fried, tortilla bread that is about 8-12” in diameter. It
is similar to the pop-over, claimed by Minnesotians and Wisconsiners. Frybread is great with honey,
powered sugar, soup, or if you want to go real Native - just SALT. Also, the frybread is the very core
of the Navajo/ Indian Taco and also, one of the core identities of the Navajo Tribe.
The origins of the frybread is not certain, but most likely evolved from the time when the Navajos
were held in captivity at Fort Sumner. After the round up at Fort Defiance, the Navajos were forced
on the 'Long Walk' to Fort Sumner, which were already occupied by Mescalero Apaches. At Fort
Sumner, Navajos were given rations of bacon, coffee, flour, and at times, beef. Obviously, one could
say, well there you go….bacon grease + flour + water and presto! You have Frybread. Well, I believe
it was more involved than that. You see, at Fort Sumner, Mescalero Apaches were already there and
knew the routine and the distributions of rations. Also, both Navajo and Apaches tribes had captive
slaves from other tribes and Mexicans slaves. Bring the combinations together: Flour + water
+bacon grease or maybe lard (lard may have been a ration as well) + Navajo ingenuity + captive
knowledge + possibility of an accidentally dropped tortilla bread in hot greased pan = Frybread.
I am sure there are many versions out there, but the combinations of the mentioned factors
at Fort Sumner seemed to have brought out the Frybread.
So, if you are wondering where the frybread came from, I believe it came from Fort Sumner.
If you are also wondering who makes the best Frybread..........…no contest......hands down..... the
Navaaaaa......aahhh..................my wife........................................(next to my mom, of course).