origin of the names for Southwestern Indian tribes is an interesting
and challenging field of study. In almost every case, we have to
rely on guesswork when it comes to the source of these names and
their original meaning. Navajo furnishes a good example.
One early explanation suggested that the name may have derived
from the Spanish word navaja, meaning a large folding knife, often
referred to as a peasant knife. Supposedly, warriors of the tribe
long ago carried great stone knives.
Ive been told that in the tribal language there exists
the word Navajo, meaning pool or small lake, but I havent
verified it. In any case, Navajos, in their own tongue, call themselves
the Dine, which means People, or more specifically the Earth People.
The first written use of the name Navajo dates from 1630 when
Fray Alonso de Benavides referred to the Apache de Navajo in his
famous Memorial to the Spanish King. The Navajo people at that time
still were linked so closely to their cousins, the Apaches, that
the Spaniards regarded them merely as a branch of that tribe.
Father Benavides tells us that Navajo, pronounced with an accent
on the o, was a Tewa Pueblo word meaning great planted fields.
Since the Apaches de Navajo once occupied abandoned farmlands of
the Tewa west of the Rio Grande, it seems likely the Tewas spoke
of them as the Apaches who live on the great planted fields
(that is, the Navajo).
By the middle colonial years, they had emerged as a distinct
tribe from the Apaches and were now called the Spaniards simply,
Navajo. From Spanish the name passed into English.
In the late 1800s, the Bureau of American Ethnology in Washington
decided to change the spelling to Navaho, because it was easier
for most people to pronounce. Thereafter, it used that form in all
of its government reports and bulletins and many others went along.
Today, the traditional spelling, Navajo, is preferred.
A few years ago the Navajo president Peterson Zah campaigned
to abandon the use of Navajo and replace it with Dine. He said that
bringing back the old native name would promote ethnic pride and
cultural identity. However, the Tribal Council voted down the idea.
Papago of southern Arizona were more successful in adopting a name
change. The original meaning of the word Papago is unknown, but
by that term the Spaniards first knew them.
In recent times, the tribe decided it wanted to be called the
Tohono O Odham, which is the Indians own name for themselves
in their native language. One trouble with that is the correct pronunciation
of Tohono OOdham is very difficult for an English speaker
to get. I know because Ive tried, with the help of a native
Another problem in abolishing usage of Papago or Navajo is that
both words have been around for several hundred years and now are
understood universally as the name for each tribe. And, of course,
in the historical literature, the terms occur frequently.
Today, whenever I refer to the Tohono OOdham in writing,
I feel compelled to pause and add in parenthesis, the people
who used to be called Papago. What a nuisance!
Still, in theory any group can call itself whatever it pleases.
But the Papago and Navajo have always done that, when speaking their
own languages. The question becomes, do they have a right to decide
what name will be used for them in English.
In reality many tribal names now current were first learned
by Europeans from a tribes hostile neighbors and they were
apt to be uncomplimentary. The word Apache, for instance, is thought
to have come from an old Zuni term signifying enemy, which obviously
has a negative connotation.
Nevertheless, that original connotation has been lost and forgotten,
so it can scarcely provide justification or sanction for a modern
name-change, with all the confusion that inevitably results.
All the controversy over ethnic names and over the very word
Indian (which historically is perfectly proper) has arisen in the
last couple of decades, with the mushrooming of hyper-sensitivity
and the spread of the cult of victimization.
Notwithstanding, the issue raises interesting questions that
are grounded in the complex story that makes up New Mexicos
From controversies new perspectives often emerge.