With a population topping 300,000 and a reservation the size of West Virginia, the Navajo Nation is the largest tribe in the United States.
Its wild desert vistas have starred in films for the last 75 years – from the 1939 Western Stagecoach to the 2013 flop The Lone Ranger, and have enticed some of Hollywood’s biggest names to the reservation – from John Wayne to Johnny Depp.
But what do we really know about the Navajo or Diné people? To answer this question, we caught up with Ernie Tsosie III, who makes up half of the Navajo comedy duo James & Ernie. He contributed to the following list:
Navajo land is among the most scenic in the world.
Clearly, Hollywood already discovered this. At least 12 movies have been shot in Monument Valley alone, including Back to the Future Part III and Forrest Gump, not to mention all those Westerns from the 1940s and ’50s.
What may not be common knowledge is the fact that the Navajo have always lived on land within the four sacred mountains, and they have always relied on a desert economy.
The Navajo are really superstitious.
Navajo tradition is full of don’ts designed to keep people safe from harm or misfortune. Don’t point at a rainbow or throw rocks into the wind. Don’t look at slow-moving clouds or fast-moving rivers, and never stare at the moon.
Above all, watch out for the trickster coyote and a wide variety of night creatures.
“If we whistle at night, evil spirits will whistle back,” Tsosie said. “If a coyote traveling north crosses your path, it’s a message of something bad to come.”
When in Navajo country, Indian tacos are Navajo tacos.
You know what we’re talking about – frybread on the bottom and heaps of beef, beans and greens on top. If you’re ordering one on the Navajo Nation, call it a Navajo Taco.
Traditional Navajos believe in skinwalkers.
Skinwalkers have the ability to transform into animals – usually to cause harm. Also called shape shifters, witches or sorcerers, their presence is accompanied by a bad smell. Do they exist? If you experience sudden cold, the sensation of hair rising on the back of your neck and a thick odor, don’t stick around to find out.
Navajos live in hogans.
There are no teepees on the Navajo Nation. The traditional dwelling is an eight-sided log structure with an earthen roof.
The Navajo Code Talkers are national heroes.
More than 400 Navajo Marines contributed to a wartime code that confounded the Japanese during World War II. The Code Talkers are recipients of Congressional gold medals.
The Long Walk is a painful memory and a shameful one to the United States.
In 1864, the Navajo people were deported from their traditional land and forced to walk at gunpoint to an internment camp. They were held until 1868 when they were allowed to return to their traditional boundaries. The Long Walk is considered a collective trauma and is central to the Navajo identity today.
Navajos tease each other harshly.
OK, maybe this one isn’t unique to Navajo. Just like all Natives, Navajos love jokes about Columbus and Thanksgiving, but they also are credited with making up the first mother-in-law jokes.
Don’t worry, though. According to Tsosie, even the worst jokes are cracked in fun.
“Indian humor seems rude and mean to outsiders, but it’s actually not as bad as it sounds,” he said.
Mutton is not the traditional food.
Sheep are an important part of the culture – and the cuisine (think frybread and mutton stew), but sheep were introduced to the Navajo when the Spanish arrived around 1600.
Chubby is not the traditional shape.
Some of Tsosie’s favorite jokes are about Navajos’ expanding waistlines, but chubby is not how they always were.
“We use to all be lean and mean,” Tsosie said.
Perhaps too much mutton stew is a bad thing?
This story was originally published on July 24, 2014.