The Diné people are descendants of the Athapascan people who migrated to what is now the southwestern United States about 500 years ago. They migrated as primitive hunters and gatherers in separate clans from the Canadian Pacific Northwest by way of Nevada and California. The first Diné settlements in the Southwest in the early 1500's were east of their present territory in the canyons and mesas of the San Juan River. By the early 1600's, some Diné had settled as far west as Black Mesa. Interaction with the various Pueblo peoples (the Tewa, Zuni, Moqui, and others) greatly changed the Diné, for it was from these peoples that the Diné first learned sedentary agriculture, especially the cultivation of maize (corn).

The contributions of the Spanish also helped make the Diné character, for it was the Spanish who brought the beloved horse and sheep to the Americas. At first the Diné had almost no contact with the Spanish and kept little livestock. Witnessing the brutal subjugation of the Pueblo peoples, the Diné kept to themselves in the mesas and canyons. From the first, they were totally opposed to the presence of the Spanish colonizers and pressured the Pueblos to resist. A short ten years after Anate and the first Spanish settled in "New Mexico," several Spanish military campaigns were launched against the Diné because they were giving refuge to resistant Pueblos and were holding secret meetings to plan the expulsion of the Spanish. The Diné retaliated for these early raids. After the 1650's, the Pueblos, Apaches, and Diné began open resistance and the Diné supplied warriors in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt that expelled the Spanish from the region.

After the expulsion of the Spanish in 1680, the Diné acquired livestock in large numbers. Diné life was further changed when many Pueblos exiled themselves with the Diné after the Spanish reconquered "New Mexico" in 1693. The Pueblo exiles increased the population in the Diné communities by two or three times and new families, clans, and villages were created. While many of the Pueblos returned to the Pueblo communities around 1775, many others stayed and became a part of the Diné people. Indeed, one Diné clan, which to this day has somewhat distinct traditions (including a greater dependence on agriculture than livestock), is descended from the people of the Jimez Pueblo who joined the Diné en masse after a revolt against the Spanish in 1696.

The eighteenth century was a period of expansion of territory and population and of great social and cultural changes. Agriculture flourished with fields of maize, beans, squash, and peaches. The Diné began to amass large herds of sheep, goats, horses, and mules. Women learned weaving from Pueblo men, and clothing and pottery changed with Pueblo influence. Diné men learned and adapted Pueblo religious ceremonies. Trading with the Spanish, Utes, Comanches, Apaches, and Pueblos became common.

In the 1770's, as many of the Pueblos returned to their homes, the Diné spread out to occupy the land between the Four Sacred Mountains. Raids against the Spanish, and now Zuni and Moqui settlements as well, became increasingly important. After a massacre of Diné women and children in 1804, a permanent state of war and plunder existed between the Diné and the Spanish and Pueblo settlements. Diné raiders stole horses, sheep, and even women and children (to be used as slaves) as far south as Chihuahua and as far east as Kansas. The Spanish, Moqui, and Zuni seized Diné animals and slaves. As the Diné became increasingly wealthy and sedentary, they also became targets of raids by Utes and Apaches. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Diné were becoming a dominant force in the Southwest and envisioned driving the Spanish settlers (who were now independent of Spain and known as New Mexicans or Chicanos) out of the region.

Because of the expansion of their wealth (measured primarily in livestock) and the use of slave labor, Diné society was by this time emerging out of the period of primitive communism and an embryonic feudal-like system was developing. Society was being divided into rich and poor. A few families with large herds of livestock were coming to dominate the life of the clans, making use of the labor of poorer relatives (and in some cases, slaves) and in return providing them with subsistence.

The Diné people had a common language, culture, and history, and had established for themselves a definite and stable territory. The fact that no raiding took place within the Diné was the result of their sense of tribal unity. But the Diné people were not, at this time, united as a modern nation is. The pastoral-agricultural economy of the Diné still allowed each clan and, in fact, each multi-family outfit, to live more or less autonomously. They produced mainly for their own consumption. As of yet, little was produced for trade either among the Diné or with the neighboring people, although this trade had existed on a small scale for many years. This economic autonomy was accompanied by political decentralization. Each clan recognized a number of Headmen (a War Chief, a Peace Chief, and a Medicine Man), but these Headmen did not have absolute authority and, moreover, their authority was limited to the clan. There was no centralized leadership of the entire Diné people; each clan operated independently, deciding on its own where to make its home, whether to live in peace or at war with the neighboring peoples, etc. However, all this was to change rapidly over the next century.4

U.S. Conquest

In 1846, the United States annexed what is now the Southwestern United States after defeating Mexico in the Mexican-American War. The Diné, however, did not submit to U.S. rule, as they had not submitted to Mexican or Spanish rule, and remained unconquered for more than 15 years. In 1860, over 1000 Diné warriors led by Barboncito and Manuelito assaulted Fort Defiance, which the U.S. government had built within the Diné territory. Then in 1862, the United States launched a devastating war on the Diné. U.S. Army officer Kit Carson recruited Chicano, Ute, and Pueblo soldiers and waged a scorched-earth campaign against the Diné. Every field crop and orchard was burned, every house was destroyed, every horse and sheep stolen, and many people were murdered. Facing starvation, most of the Diné surrendered. The US Army rounded up the Diné and forced them to walk 400 miles across the desert to a desolate concentration camp in eastern New Mexico known as Bosque Redondo. There the Diné were supposed to be converted into "Christian farmers." Lack of water, alkaline soil, and lack of funds prevented successful farming and four years later the U.S. government grew tired of feeding the people at Bosque Redondo and allowed the Diné to return to their homeland. The long Walk, as the Diné call their forced march across the desert, and the four-year travail of homesickness, illness, and starvation at Bosque Redondo had led to the deaths of 2000 people, about one in five of those who had been incarcerated.

During the ordeal at Bosque Redondo the Diné began to perceive themselves as a political unit. In 1868, the majority of the Diné united under the leadership of Barboncito, Manuelito, and Ganado Mucho to negotiate a treaty with the U.S. government. The Treaty of 1868 allowed the Diné to live in their homeland, but conceded only a small part of their traditional territory. Moreover, this treaty placed the Diné territory and the Diné people under the rule of the U.S. government.5

The original 3.5 million acre reservation was expanded numerous times over the next fifty years until it encompassed some 17 million acres. (The Diné's land before conquest had occupied about 20 million acres.) This territory, which is mostly arid, was conceded to the Diné because it was considered useless by most Anglo-American capitalists at the time. Throughout this period portions of the territory were taken back by the U.S. government for mineral exploration, and then returned to the Diné when no minerals were found. Many of the best lands, however, were permanently lost to Anglo ranchers and the railroads.

After 1868, the Diné reconstructed their lives, rebuilding their livestock herds and creating a relatively prosperous economy once again. Elements of a feudal economic system, which had emerged prior to the U.S. conquest, were further developed. A few of the Diné established large herds, the products of which were increasingly bound for trade. The captivity at Bosque Redondo had created a dependency on U.S. goods – especially flour, coffee, sugar, and woven fabric. In exchange for these manufactured goods, the Diné traded wool blankets, rugs, meat, lambs, pinon nuts and silver jewelry.

Trade in the Diné nation was controlled by a number of Anglo "wool traders," many of whom had been officers in the army of occupation. These traders made fortunes selling U.S. manufactured goods at inflated prices while buying Diné goods cheap and selling them in the East for huge profits. The Anglo trading posts became economic centers on the reservation and established a usurious credit system based on the livestock seasons.

In 1899, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior was given the power to grant railroad right-of-ways through Diné territory. In 1900, public roads were added. In 1902, the telegraph came through and in 1910 telephone lines were strung up. In 1904 and in 1917, pipeline right-of-ways were authorized. Then in 1921 and 1922, critical events took place that were to drastically alter the lives of the Diné people: natural gas was discovered at Ute Mountain and oil was found near Shiprock.6

Diné leaders Barboncito (left) and Manuelito (right)

The Development of the Diné Bourgeoisie and the Tribal Government

The Treaty of 1868 had stated that no Diné land could be leased without the consent of three-quarters of the male population. However, in 1891, the U.S. Congress unilaterally "amended" these treaty rights, authorizing "a council speaking for such Indians" to sign mineral leases. In 1923, a Diné Tribal Council was created by the Secretary of the Interior. Its only function initially was to legitimize mineral leases drawn up by the Secretary of the Interior and the oil companies. At its first meeting the Tribal Council granted the Commissioner of the Navajos (the Anglo-American colonial governor) the authority to sign "on behalf of the Navajo Indians" all oil and gas leases on Treaty lands. In exchange for signing away the Diné oil and gas, the Tribal Council members were promised "aid" in securing more grazing land by expanding the reservation. In actuality, the discovery of gas and oil in the Southwest was a critical factor, along with the general Anglo-American expansion into the Southwest, that guaranteed that the U.S. government would cede no more land to the Diné.

In creating the Tribal Council, the U.S. government overrode the traditional authority among the Diné, the Headmen of the various clans. U.S. imperialism had been systematically destroying the Diné's traditional system of authority. For example, the Headmen had been denied any part in the distribution of U.S. government rations, and the Tribal Police Force that was established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which serves as the colonial administration over the Native peoples) overturned traditional methods of settling conflicts within the tribe.

The U.S. government promoted the leadership of a few members of the embryonic Diné bourgeoisie who had been educated in U.S. schools and had begun to play the role of compradors. This new Diné bourgeoisie was tied to capitalist economic development, which was being rapidly and forcefully thrust upon the Diné by U.S. imperialism. Embryonic capitalist relations among the Diné were exemplified by the development of large commercial herds raised for export trade, the founding of Diné owned stores, and the payment of wages by Diné employers to Diné employees. Like all capitalists, the Diné bourgeoisie looked forward to the development of a unified Diné nation, through the expansion of trade and capitalist production relations, and the development of a centralized Diné government. Their national aspirations, however, were limited by their comprador role. They accepted the domination of U.S. imperialism and looked to the Anglo-American capitalists and the U.S. government to promote capitalist development in the Diné nation.

Chee Dodge was elected the first Chairman of the Tribal Council and he dominated Diné politics for many years. Dodge exemplified the embryonic Diné bourgeoisie. He owned a large commercial livestock herd and a general store and was one of the most wealthy of the Diné. Educated in U.S. schools and one of the few Diné who could speak English, he acted as a go-between in the relations of the Diné people and the U.S. occupiers, and was a "natural" choice to head the BIA-created Tribal Council.

Although Dodge promoted the penetration of U.S. imperialism, he opposed the complete subsuming of-the Diné people by the Anglo-American nation. He promoted Diné language and culture and waged limited struggles to defend Diné autonomy. He bitterly opposed the assimilationist policies of another Diné bourgeois faction led by J.C. Morgan. Under Dodge, the Tribal Council was expanded and became an organ of the Diné bourgeoisie, taking on some of the functions of governing the Diné people, including the repression of their resistance. The Tribal Code was expanded and the tribal judicial system and the Tribal Police were further developed and placed under the authority of the Tribal Council.7

The Creation of the Diné Proletariat

At the turn of the century, the Diné people were almost entirely a peasant people who lived by the raising of livestock and subsistence cultivation. The development of capitalism in the Diné nation meant the ruin of the Diné peasantry. The encroachment of U.S. imperialism, and the railroads and the large Anglo ranchers in particular, prevented the Diné herders from expanding their grazing area. The limited land on the reservation became severely overgrazed and eroded and by the 1840's this had brought the growth of Diné livestock to a halt. The small holders began to be driven out, particularly as large livestock owners used more and more of the grazing land.

The problems of the Diné herders were intensified by the disappearance of the rug market and the decline of wool and mutton prices after World War I. The severe economic crisis that began in 1929 had a devastating effect. By 1931, the price of wool had fallen from 25˘ to 17˘ per pound; the price of lambs from 44˘ to 5˘ per pound. The goat market disappeared altogether.

In 1934, the BIA organized the Stock Reduction program, which resulted in the massive expropriation of the Diné peasantry. The U.S. government refused to grant the Diné more land and instead declared that half of their livestock had to be slaughtered immediately to solve the overgrazing problem. BIA agents rounded up the livestock, many times taking the sheep to the desert where they were shot and burned or left to rot – to the horror of the people who saw their only means of livelihood destroyed. The stock reduction program was especially damaging to women whose social responsibilities revolved around the raising of sheep. Women were dispossessed by a program whose only compensation was wage work for men. The stock reduction program is remembered by the Diné as a horror comparable only to the Long Walk.

Between 1934 and 1940, the stock reduction cut Diné livestock holdings from 1,111,589 sheep units to 621,584 sheep units. In 1931, there had been 31 sheep and goats per person; by 1940, there were only eight. Many small holders were ruined. Although the large commercial herds were also reduced, their owners gained in the end, taking over grazing lands vacated by the ruined small holders.8

The ruin of the Diné peasantry was accompanied by the growth of the Diné proletariat. As early as the 1870's, many propertyless Diné had been recruited to join labor gangs to build the railroads and harvest crops on the large capitalist Anglo farms that were being developed throughout the Southwest. During World War I, many more Diné joined the wage labor force as the war created a great demand for labor. After the war, the Diné laborers were thrown out of work, returning to the reservation. A typical case, involving Native workers in Southern California (one of the regions where Diné laborers were recruited to work), was described in a report of that period.

Several hundred Indians were brought to Torrence during the world war to work in the steel industry. They were allowed to settle as squatters on land owned by one of the steel companies. A few years ago [early 1920's] the camp was broken up for sanitary reasons, industrial needs and conditions of the town changed, and only a few Indian families remained.9

The experience of World War I was to be repeated again many times as the Diné proletarians were used as a reserve army of labor by U.S. imperialism. As the U.S. economy recovered from the post-World-War I economic crisis, Diné laborers were once again recruited to help build the new industrial and agricultural enterprises that Anglo-American capitalists were establishing in the Southwest. Children as young as 11 years old were "recruited" from the federal boarding schools to labor in the beet fields of Colorado and Kansas for 9-12˘ a day.

Until the 1930's, the Diné proletariat was still a small part of the population. Then, as the stock reduction expropriated the Diné peasantry, federal public works jobs were extended to the reservation. Although the public works jobs were short-lived, they introduced wage labor on a mass scale for the first time.

World War II cemented the dependence of the Diné on selling their labor power. Some 19,000 people left the reservation during the war: 3,600 served as soldiers and over 15,000 served as laborers. Many of these new proletarians were recruited to work in the shipyards of Los Angeles and the Navajo Ordinance Depot in Arizona. Others worked in the copper mines, the coal fields, and on the railroads as far north as Idaho. Still others worked the cotton fields of Texas, the lettuce fields of Arizona, and the sugar beet fields of Utah and Colorado. Once again, after the war the jobs vanished and the Diné soldiers and proletarians returned to their homeland. This time, however, the peasant economy and their means of subsistence had been sharply reduced. The war was followed by several years of severe hardship and starvation in the Diné nation.

By this time, the Diné people had been largely transformed into a proletarian reserve army of labor for U.S. imperialism, recruited to work in Anglo-American industry and agriculture as they were required, and subsisting on agriculture and welfare when their labor was no longer needed. By 1958, wage labor provided over63% of all earned income in the Diné nation. Nearly half of wage earnings were brought home by the Diné railroad labor crews. Statistics from the Arizona State Employment Service in 1957 showed that more than half of all Diné job placements were in agriculture, about 10% were in mining, construction, and manufacturing, about 17% were employed by government agencies, and another 17% were employed as domestic servants.l0

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