This quiet, pastoral society rests on the matrilineal kinship system, although egalitarian relationships exist between Navajo men and women. The extended family included husband and wife, unmarried children, married daughters, sons-in-law, and unmarried grandchildren, who traditionally all lived together in camps. Among the Navajo, women are as likely to own sheep as men and their participation in herding, shearing, and butchering is no different. Their status is further elevated by their wool-weaving abilities and the artistry of their blankets (Nowak & Laird, 5. 2).
Since the central symbol of Navajo social organization is motherhood, a relationship between motherhood and sheep is formed and even though sheep are owned by individuals, the herds are kept communally within a matrilocal residential group (Nowak & Laird, 2010). The change from a subsistence economy to a wage economy among the Navajo is a direct result of white contact that disrupted their traditional way of life (Native, 1998), however, in the face of contemporary challenges, Navajo women remain respected for their wisdom and knowledge and still retain their roles as the carriers of their native culture.
Their ability to adapt and adjust to societal opportunites, while concurrently reclaiming cultural traditions, is the glue of the Navajo Nation. Prior to European contact and the introduction of livestock by Spanish settlers in the early 17th century, the Navajo farmed (corn and beans), hunted (deer, elk, and antelope), and gathered wild vegetable products (Navajo, 2008). After making the transition to a pastoral society a herding economy based on sheep and goats developed. This allowed the population and their settlements to gradually expand.
From 1868 to the 1930s, Navajos had amassed an impressive herd of livestock, over 1. 2 million (Denetdale, 2009) and when overgrazing finally destroyed the land, the Federal government stepped in with mandated stock reductions, thus diminishing the family herds, devastating their economy and altering every aspect of their traditional culture. Mens roles changed dramatically when they were forced to work for others for wages. They could no longer hunt, or pastor the herds, and most were uneducated to life outside the reservation.
This led to greater acceptance of non-Navajo religious beliefs and practices such as Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism, and the Native American Church (Navajo, 2004) and weakened the traditional ritual structures. Women, on the other hand, remained the caretakers of the tribe and the nurturers of future generations. Until that time, women had contributed significantly to the family through maintaining livestock and weaving textiles which was no longer an option. When women were forced to seek out wages because they could no longer make a traditional living, the Navajo culture was forever altered (Denetdale, 2009).
By becoming public and political advocates for their people, Navajo women have found ways to organize politically to promote the interests of their people (Native, 1998). Many native women reject the call to political activism in the wider womens movement while praising the importance of women in the maintenance of traditional tribal life (Women, 1996). There are those, however, whose primary concern is with community survival: treaty rights, the protection of native resources, and child welfare, etc. such as Annie Dodge Wauneka, A twentieth-century figure, who was born in a dirt-floored hogan in Sawmill (Deer Springs), Arizona, she has been called a one-woman Peace Corps for the Navajos (Wauneka, 2004). Wauneka has been a tireless advocate of improved health care for rural Navajos while serving as a steady supporter of tribal traditions and practices. She has used her prominence as the daughter of the tribal leader Chee Dodge to connect the worlds of white doctors and native healers (Women, 1996).
Her work, as well as the efforts of Navajo tribe member Lynda Lovejoy, who has been a New Mexico state senator since 2007 and was a state representative for nine years. Lovejoy made history in 2010 when her campaign for president was the closest any woman has come to heading the 300,000-member nation. According to an article in USA Today by Marisol Bello (2010), women have not been the public face of leadership, but they have played important roles traditionally. Since tribal heritage is still assed from the mother, women are often leaders in grass-roots social service, environmental and educational organizations, and women are being embraced as leaders with tribal members putting their faith in them to bring continuity and harmony to the People. Navajo women are the ties that bind together the past, present, and future of their nation. To be a Navajo woman means connecting the spiritual, intellectual, social, and the physical. Through their strength, wisdom, and obligations of lineage the Navajo tribe will remain a culturally viable force in a contemporary world.