Historical Cross-Comparison of the Hopi and the Navajo


The Hopi and the Navajo peoples, two of the best known indigenous American peoples north of Mexico, inhabited roughly the same landscape, with occasional changes due to warfare or Anglo-American military interference. The modern-day Hopi Reservation is in fact an island inside the large Navajo Reservation, and there have been historic conflicts over land. upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_commons_thumb_c_c8_hopi_reservation_partion_26_navajo_reservation.jpg_729px-hopi_reservation_partion_26_navajo_reservation.jpg

While most of the information Wendell H. Oswalt presents in "This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Native North Americans" about the Hopi refers to their aboriginal development, he points out that such an exercise is much harder for the Navajo, since they did not emerge as a distinct tribe until after Spanish contact. The Navajo fluidly adapted from sedentary farmers, to raiding nomads, to hunter gatherers, and to herders, depending on geographical and temporal circumstances. Before the reservations were instituted by the United States government, the two cultures had adjacent territories in their area.

The area is what is now the American state of Arizona, primarily its north-west quadrant. This land of mountains, valleys, canyons, mesas and rock formations presented both the Hopi and the Navajo with the challenge of developing lifeways that could endure the low rainfall, sporadic flooding, and intense heat. As a result, both peoples relied on heat-friendly crops such as maize, and squash. By the 1930s, the Hopi were cultivating over 40 different kinds of plants, both introduced and aboriginal. They wildcrafted 10 more species. The Navajo relied at various points in their mercurial history on cottontails, hare, and deer for food and hides, as well as introduced herd animals, especially sheep.

Access to streams for floodwater farming allowed the Hopi to have a network of ununified small agrarian villages, whereas the Navajo quickly and fluidly adapted lifeways due to external pressures.


Due to similar material resources, the Navajo and Hopi developed several of the same technologies, such as weaving. In Hopi culture weaving was usually done by men, on vertical and “waist” looms, but women did use vertical looms to weave rabbit skin blankets.


In Navajo culture, on the other hand, weaving was primarily the province of women, who wove the world-famous Navajo blankets, wool dresses, and tunics for personal use and trade. The Navajo also wove globular baskets coated with pitch to carry water. As a result both cultures wore tailored garments, though in the case of the Navajo, these were heavily influenced by Anglo-American styles in later years.

Both cultures also developed pottery manufacture, which for the Hopi was a woman’s art. Pottery could be for decorative or ceremonial use, and women altered clay aggregate depending on the vessel’s intended use. Both cultures also relied heavily on mortars and pestles to grind corn. Silver work, another famous art form of the Navajo, was actually a skill they acculturated from the Spanish in one of many demonstrations of the Navajo people’s extreme adaptability. Silver jewelry became decorative and also a source of concentrated wealth for hard times. The Navajo adapted the use of tumplines or straps of leather that could be braced on the forehead, chest, or shoulders to carry loads. Oswalt continually points out how the Navajo constantly transitioned to new and more efficient technology, whether this was the improvement of their silver working skills, or the abandonment of chert and chalcedony stone tools to traded metal knives.

Despite their similar environments, the Navajo and the Hopi developed very different housing. The Hopi traditionally had the square, multi-story pueblos many Anglo-Americans associate with the indigenous cultures of the southwest, made of adobe, roofed by wooden beams, and plastered with mud. The Navajo instead developed a conical, wooden-framed and earth-covered approach in winter, known as a hogan, and in their nomadic phases, relied on tents or a Spanish-inspired porch-like shelter.

Social and Political Organization

The primary early differences between the Hopi and the Navajo is that the latter migrated to the Southwest much later than the Hopi, and therefore belong to a different linguistic group. The Hopi are a pueblo people, while the Navajo, who speak an Athabascan language, are most closely related to other indigenous North Americans in Canada. They do, however, maintain very similar societal structures up to a point.

Both are matrilineal, matrilocal cultures divided into matriclans, then further into phratries (in the Hopi the phratries were named, and in the Navajo unnamed). Women owned the homes in both cultures, but Hopi women usually lived in the same home, while Navajo women usually lived (and live) in adjacent homes. Marriage was governed by many taboos about phratry and clan exogamy, or village endogamy. Polygamy was forbidden in Hopi society, but the Navajo sometimes practiced sororal polygyny, but each wife had her own hogan. Oswalt describes that divorce was easy in both cultures, simply meaning that a marriage was terminated and a man returned to his mother’s home. A woman did not need the support of their husbands to raise their children since they had their extended female family rely on, as well as their unmarried brothers and sons. Neither culture made much distinction between mothers and maternal aunts (the Navajo distinguished a biological mother by calling the the “real mother” when necessary), or fathers and paternal uncles, and some sets of cousins were referred to the same as siblings.

The Hopi’s network of open and secret societies added many layers of complexity to their societal organization. Though the Hopi desired a peaceful existence, they did would defend themselves against enemies. There were the two warrior societies headed by the war chief, the regular society, and the elite “stick-swallower” society. Non-warrior Hopi were either inducted into the elite Kachina society.

Religion and Ideology

Hopi and Navajo ideology began with basic concepts about social and environmental harmony that expressed themselves in different ways. The Hopi expressed this in their self-identity, as “hopi” or “good.” An ideal Hopi was peaceful, helpful, and self-effacing. A person who was seen to oppose this idea was “kahopi.” Hopi ideology also relied a great deal on conformity and socialization to Hopi ideals. This was enacted through visitation of men dressed as kachinas, sacred Hopi figures, who sought to ensure good behavior and conformity in children by threatening to take bad children away. The children were taught to believe that kachinas were actually gods, while adults believed they were the gods’ friends. Children had to offer gifts to the kachinas that fit their gender roles– girls offered ground cornmeal, and boys offered small animals that they had trapped. Interestingly, Oswalt says that while the girls’ offerings were always accepted, the boys’ were refused, and the parents as participants in the ritual, appeased the kachinas by offering them meat.

The Navajo express a similar concept in striving for “hozho” a word that Oswalt translates as “beauty, harmony, goodness, normality, and success.” The Navajo believe that all the world was in balance, which every single element having an equally vital role to play, and that failure to achieve hozho is always because of human error. In order to achieve hozho, the Navajo seek to convince or compel the Yei, or Holy People, who created the Dine (or “the people” as the Navajo self-refer), to restoring the cosmic balance. They do this by faithfully performing the proscribed rituals, such as the Blessingway.

Both cultures believed in witches as sorcerous humans causing the misfortune or even death of others. The Hopi believed a witch was probably a close relative, and the Navajo believed a witch was probably a stranger, and that the presence of close family could help ward against them.

Interestingly, despite their different origins, both the Navajo and the Hopi have subterranean origin myths involving caves, whereas many Native American cultures have aquatic origin myths. They differ though, that in the Navajo story it is the Holy People, or Yei, who originate from underground, whereas the Navajo were known as the Dine, or “earth surface people.” In the Hopi story, humanity lived in the bottom-most of three caves, were led to gradually better and better circumstances in each of the caves until they reached the surface.

See Also


Oswalt, Wendell H. "This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Native North Americans" chapters 10 and 11. Oxford University Press.


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