The Navajo are part of the Apache, a mobile, independent group that has been traced to roots in Canada’s Northwest Territories and Alaska. Their language is of Athabascan stock, and can still be understood, to some degree, by tribes in the North-Country. The name “Apache” is a corruption of a Pueblo term, Apachu, variously suggesting a translation as “strangers” or “enemies,” depending on the context. This reveals the age-old antagonisms that have existed between the Pueblo (including the Hopi) and the Apache.
The Apache were hunter-gatherers who survived by constantly moving into new, fresh hunting grounds, drifting on as game was thinned, and by being tough and aggressive. This tradition of expansion and migration repeatedly brought the Apache into conflict with the prior inhabitants of the new lands which they were entering. Relations between the Apache and the more-settled groups that they met during these wanderings were generally strained, at best.
At least one sub-group of the Apache found a comparatively rich land and way of living, in the Four Corners region, where they showed great flexibility, intelligence, and willingness to adapt to new ideas. These sharp-witted members of the Apache nation adopted a lifestyle which allowed them to abandon their long tradition of constant wandering and total dependence on hunting. This was a revolution for this tribe, but the tribal members were a quick-minded and observant band, who watched the world around them, and displayed a willingness to learn from what they saw.
The Navajo nation was to go through at least three major lifestyle changes over the next few centuries, as new problems arose and new opportunities presented themselves. These people would come to be called the Navajo, and they would successively settle down for an extended period, then partially resume a life on the move for several additional generations, revert to “hunting,” or “raiding,” depending on one’s viewpoint, and, finally, settle down again in the modern world, with many members of the tribe adapting to the white man’s world and becoming businessmen.
As the Apache reached the region of northern Arizona, a number of the more innovative tribal members, who would become the Navajo (from the Pueblo Apachu de Nabahu, “Strangers of the Cultivated Fields”), saw possibilities in the agricultural practices which they were witnessing for the first time among the local natives, the Anasazi. Previous wanderings by the Apache had taken them through lands occupied by other nomadic groups. The Anasazi villages were the first permanent settlements which the Apache had ever encountered. Once the more-curious of the hunter-gatherers saw what could be done with some water and some seeds, they became interested in the potential of this lifestyle. Some family groups of the tribe began to settle down, becoming the first distinctive Navaho.
The exact time and place of these earliest Navajo settlements are still unidentified, but they probably well preceded the arrival of the Spaniards, and apparently lay somewhere in the Four Corners-Grand Canyon area, around the Black Mesa. In this region, the Navajo copied corn- and bean-growing practices from the Anasazi. The Navajo apparently learned well. They may have even located their new fields immediately around old Anasazi centers. Adjacent old Anasazi/Hopi and Navajo structures have been found, side by side, implying the existence of a period of relatively peaceful coexistence between the two farming groups, for some period of time.
With the addition of nutritious grains to their diet, the Navajo apparently began to increase in population. The size of their tribe has been on the rise, more or less continuously, since the point when they first took up farming. From a few small family bands, they have become the largest Native American nation in the US. They are almost the only Native American group that is larger today than it was when it first encountered Europeans. The Navajo population roughly doubled in just the thirty years between 1870 and 1900. The growth in population took time, however, and the earliest Navajo were too few to present any threat to the Anasazi. Thus, cooperation was viable in the early years of contact.
Courtesy of The Native American Nations of the Black Mesa Region