The Navajo Nation: Background information when reading Yellow Dirt

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Yellow Dirt

An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed

by Judy Pasternak

Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2010, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2011, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Stacey Brownlie

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
The Navajo Nation

Print Review

The Navajo Nation is a semi-autonomous political and cultural entity within the United States which covers northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and parts of southeastern Utah. This is part of the area known as the Four Corners region, where the borders of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet, which became USA territory in 1848 after the Mexican American War. At about 26,000 square miles it is the largest land area assigned primarily to a Native American jurisdiction in the USA, and larger than 10 of the 50 states. The Navajo people refer to themselves as Diné ("the people"); Navajo is a Spanish word. The center of government for Diné Bikéyah (Navajoland) is in Window Rock, Arizona.

The basis of the present-day Navajo Nation was created by treaty with the U.S. Government in 1868. Four years earlier, in what is known as the "Long Walk", the Navajo had been forced off their traditional land and marched at gunpoint for 18 days to what is now Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where over 8,000 people were contained in an area of 40 square miles designated to support less than 5,000. The 1968 treaty allowed the surviving Navajo to return to a 5,500 square mile reservation carved from a portion of their former land, which was later extended to its current boundaries.

Navajo Nation Map

A map of the Navajo Nation. The white area in the middle belongs to the Hopi Nation; the pink area to the west is the Grand Canyon.
Click the map for a larger image.

Perhaps the episode in Navajo history that is most commonly known to Americans is the Navajo's participation in World War II and the success of the Navajo Code Talkers. The U.S. Marines relied on the Navajo and their language to keep communications secure from the Japanese. The Navajo code talkers took part in every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945, and served in all six Marine divisions. They were especially critical in the battle to take Iwo Jima.

The political organization of the Navajo people has gradually become more defined. The Navajo Tribal Council officially declared the reservation to be the Navajo Nation in 1968. The Navajo Nation flag was also adopted that same year. After governmental reform, the first Nation president was elected in 1990. The current president is Ben Shelly.

There are estimated to be about 300,000 people of Navajo descent in the USA, almost 180,000 of whom live within the Nation's boundaries. In total, the Navajo Nation is home to about 250,000 people.

More Information

Article by Stacey Brownlie

This article was originally published in November 2010, and has been updated for the July 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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