Considering a Navajo Name Change: Self-Identification, Land, and Liberation


By Majerle Lister

Land is the source of political and economic power. Settler-colonialism is predicated on it. This is demonstrated by the power relationship between indigenous people and colonial entities. Yet, national self-identification is necessary for the Diné people to protect ourselves and our lands from continued colonialism. The interrelated nature of capitalism and settler-colonialism makes indigenous lands a prize worth exploiting at the expense of the land and the people. Colonial forces are always on the prowl looking for ways to limit the power of indigenous people to gain access to land and mineral resources. To expedite this process, colonial entities mold the structures and identities of indigenous peoples in order to gain access to indigenous homelands and resources. The Navajo Nation is an example of this process.

“Navajo” is not a Diné word or concept, despite its use as our official name for more than a hundred and fifty years. In the 1960’s, at the birth of the Navajo coal economy, the tribe changed its name from the “Navajo Tribe” to “Navajo Nation” due to a growing sense of national identity. By the early 1990s, then Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah suggested for the first time changing our name from Navajo to Diné, proposing “Diné Nation” to further strengthen and control our own identity. But nothing came of the recommendation.

November of 2016, the Navajo Nation Council discussed changing the Navajo government’s name from the “Navajo Nation” to “Diné Nation”. Delegate Jonathan Hale, who proposed the legislation, said that the legislation’s intent “was to question how we identify ourselves”[1]. In the end the Navajo Nation Council declined to consider the question, suggesting it was too controversial. But it is telling that the Navajo Nation Council is more willing to embrace coal, consider development on the “Confluence,” a sacred place where the Little Colorado River runs into the Colorado River, and buy up lands far from our traditional homelands before they will consider reaffirming our identity as Diné people.

These moments in Diné history signify critical changes to our Diné political identity. Identities are important for indigenous people who are constantly threatened by settler-colonialism. They not only tell us who we think we are, but who we aspire to be.

But, self-identification reclaims and strengthens identities that are constantly threatened by a settler-colonial system that made our identities legible to the colonists. Settler-colonial legibility reshapes and simplifies indigenous identities to the advantage of the settler. The “name change” legislation is just a symptom of settler colonialism and its malicious intent at making Native people legible to the state. It pretends that the tribe is taking its own initiative to self-identify and exercise sovereignty by resisting a term imposed on us.

Diné national identities confronts the rigid system of colonial legibility. Diné national consciousness is reshaping the political identity that is finally breaking from settler-colonial legibility which only perpetuates colonial domination. Diné nationalism can maneuver beyond the limits of legibility. This allows the Diné people to protect ourselves and our homelands.

With the rise of Diné nationalism, the incorporation of traditional ties to land became a means for protecting ourselves from the exploitative nature of settler-colonialism. The resources of the Diné people are often in the hands of mineral corporations. The formation of the Navajo government was formed to facilitate the exploitation of the Diné resources.

First, we must define settler colonial legibility to identify the processes of limiting tribal identities. Second, we must articulate the link between settler-colonialism and capitalism in a way that will show the importance of self-identification in resisting colonialism and capitalism. Thirdly, tracing the identity of the Diné people throughout history demonstrates how the Diné people must continuously re-orient our political identity to the political circumstances at hand. Locating the materialization of a national identity in the political structure. It is important to note that both attempts to change the tribe’s name represents our process of self-identification, which is a powerful tool of resistance in a colonial system. Finally, with the swell of Diné nationalisms across the Diné political landscape, it is important to define and utilize an identity that is tied to the land as a form of sovereignty and protection.

Names and legibility

The term “tribe” began in the Greek city state to describe a group of people that share a common language, ancestry, culture, and land base.[2] With the rise of nation states in Western Europe at the beginning of capitalism, U.S. colonists labeled Indigenous communities as tribes as a form of “legibility”, thus solidifying control and domination in the colonial relationship.

Legibility is “the process of making an indigenous group in the Southwest into standardized and simplified ethnic group within the United States”, and its relation to the Diné people.[3] Settler-colonial legibility “standardizes and simplifies” Indigenous communities into “tribes”. This legibility maintains and strengthens settler-colonial relation that is inherently dominating, genocidal, and exploitative. Most tribes are shaped by this “colonial mold” and it limits sovereignty.

In settler-colonial discourse, the term “nation-state” supersedes “tribes” as the former often asserts control over the latter. The power relations between the settler and the indigenous people is set in terms of nation-states and tribes. The relationship is meant to be permanent despite colonists claiming that tribes will be held in trust until they can rule for themselves. Yet the name change form “tribe” to “nation” represents a step toward a nation-state political entity which shakes the power relation of settler-colonial relationships. The development of tribal political authority threatens the settler-colonial system but it lacks the power of self-identification. Nationalism can be an instrument of decolonization and indigenous liberation as it allows indigenous people to self-identify and organize their structures accordingly.

Identity and resource capitalism

Capitalism is tied closely to settler-colonialism and it works to erase indigenous identity to gain access to resources. Glen Coulthard suggests the importance of indigenous identity as it relates to “equitable distribution of land, economic resources, and political power”.[4] Identity for indigenous people is beyond the leftist critique of “identity politics” due to ontological relationship Indigenous people share with the land, identity is considered sacred. Yet it is easier to extract from indigenous people if their identities are formatted for extraction. If the institutions are in place, the process is expedited to favor of the colonizers/capitalists. The Navajo Nation was formatted to facilitate and accelerate the extraction process. Michael Francisconi wrote that the mineral revenue mainly benefited the corporations and the jobs provided were far too little and in between to benefit the Diné people, he believes that many colonizers invested in the Navajo Nation but most of the revenues covered the cost of the tribal government while the relationship between the Diné people and “the dominant economy” is characterized by dependency and underdevelopment.[5]

Settler-colonial legibility standardizes and simplifies Indigenous people for controlling resources: water, land, and mineral resources. Indigenous land was the first resource colonizers came for justified by the “doctrine of discovery,” terra nullus, and other colonial schemes. Major “Indian policies” revolved around removing or killing indigenous people to gain the land for the use of American citizens. Despite the loss of indigenous lands, Diné people managed to expand from its reservation boundaries defined in the Treaty of 1868. But mineral extraction and water became prominent in the history of the Navajo Nation. As was mentioned before, the formation of the Navajo Nation government was created for oil leases and because of this oil and mineral resources were an important factor in Navajo nationalism.

“Navajo” in limiting national consciousness

Tracking the emergence of Diné national consciousness and the materialization of it through political structures demonstrates the significance of self-identify. Our national consciousness emerged around the signing of the Treaty of 1868 but did not materialize until a hundred years later in the name change legislation.

The term “Navajo” comes from the Spanish use of a Tewa term. The Diné people became the Navajo people after the signing the Treaty of 1868. The Navajo identity became politically formalized as “Navajo Tribe of Indians” [6] without the consent of the Diné people through violence and political coercion. Many Diné people were killed on The Long Walk to Bosque Redondo and conditions did not change when they reach their destination. Claudia B. Haake writes that the negotiations between Diné Leaders and Federal government contributed to the emergence of a national consciousness.[7] Diné leaders signed the treaty with the promise of returning home and avoiding more state violence against their people.

Prior to the signing of the treaty, the Diné people were not centralized but socially and politically organized into regional clan and headmen systems. The Diné people maintained a complex system of local structures that placed authority in twenty-four Nataaniis who acted as political leaders.[8]  These leaders would meet and discuss issues on Dinétah. Centralization often supports national identity but the Diné people were dispersed throughout Dinétah so a national identity was non-existence if not lacking support. It was not until the Diné people were rounded up and forced to speak as one collective that a national consciousness began. E.J Hobsbawn would describe this proto-national sentiment as a “popular movement” for survival.[9] Colonial violence forced the exiled Diné people to see themselves as one and to create a “popular movement” rather than regional entities. Despite the complex social and political organization of the Diné people, they were simplified and shelved for later use. Settler-legibility simplifies the complex identities of tribes to rob them of land.


The national consciousness was just a sentiment but it had yet to materialize until after the formation of the Navajo Nation government. In the 1920s the proto-government was formed under the pressures of resource extraction. The Business Committee of the Navajo government was created to expedite the signing of oil leases in the interest of oil companies. The Navajo Nation flag, created at this time, features an oil pump in its center to signify the importance of extraction in the formation of the government. The Navajo government has a legitimacy crisis because the Diné people see its foundation as illegitimate and exploitative.

The beginning of the era of self-determination, the Diné people and our government sought a more appropriate form of national identity. During a centennial celebration of the Treaty of 1868, the Navajo tribe changed its name from “Navajo Tribe” to “Navajo Nation”. This was also at the time when the Navajo Tribe became the Navajo Nation dependent on coal mines for jobs and revenues. The inclusion of the term “nation” reflects the growing national sentiment but it was also meant to describe “the lands and the people of the Navajo tribe”.[10] This sentiment went further in the 1990’s when President Zah wanted to change the name to “Diné Nation” with the reasoning being that it was a name given by the great spirit but it was expression of self-determination and tribal sovereignty.[11] During this time, the 1960s sentiment did not change but the identity shift to a more appropriate term for the people, Diné. The legislation did not pass.

The name change addresses the convergence of a national identity and its location within the settler-colonial system. A national identity is important but with current political climate involving mineral extraction and pipelines, land is still threatened. From the development of the national identity, it becomes necessary to associate identity and land to protect the sovereign borders of Indigenous people.

The importance of identity and land

Many, if not all, indigenous identities are tied to our homelands. Land dispossession plays its role in erasing identity, disrupting the ties between people and their homelands. As Patrick Wolfe notes the link between identity of indigenous people and the places in which we live, “where they are is who they are”.[12] If they were not relocated or killed, their communal lands were fractionalized with the allotment policies with the surplus land being sold to White settlers. The indigenous land base suffered, about 90 million acres was loss during the allotment periods as did the identities of indigenous people.[13] The combination of these tactics proved to be strong obstacles that still have tremendous consequences on indigenous peoples.

Indigenous identity becomes an important form of power and resistance in a sinister system of colonial domination and violence. When the US state violence could not erase the tribes of North American, another form of genocide was created to fulfill the task of eradication. Boarding schools abused Indigenous children if they spoke their language and banned cultural practices, thus erasing any semblance of indigenous identity. In the 1870s, assimilation became the US policy for erasing cultural identity. In a State of the Union Address by Ulysses S. Grant stated that the Indian policy should be conducted in this method of cultural eradication because it was “human, Christian-like, economical, and the right thing to do”.[14] But indigenous peoples continue to hold communal lands in common and we maintain our Diné identity through culture, how we conduct our relationships, and the spaces we occupy. Settler-colonialism tried to erase indigenous claims through different tactics, all malicious.

Indigenous land bases are constantly under attack by mineral corporations with Standing Rock and other countless sites of mineral extractions of 2016 as examples. The formation of the Navajo government is tied heavily to resource extraction and it highlights how tribes need to remove themselves from that association to protect themselves and their land bases.

Diné nationalism moving forward

Even though the Navajo Nation Council ultimately tabled legislation on changing the tribe’s name, claiming a name change did not have enough support, the name debate remains an important area of movement and debate for resisting the structures of settler-colonialism. The rigidity of settler-colonial legibility will continue to hinder the Diné people. Continuing in this fashion, the Navajo Nation Council ignored the importance of self-identity, despite continued claims of working towards revitalization of identity, culture, and language. “Diné Nation” is a good start but it lacks an important quality, a territorial identity. For land, identities are connected to the homeland of the people and it is important because it signifies the land base of the people. The US policy on indigenous lands requires tribes to claim areas and evidence in support those claims. It provides a cultural and political link between the people and their land which is important because many sacred homelands are under attack by mineral extraction and land dispossession.

Diné people are at a critical moment to establish an identity that fits us. Diné identity and all other indigenous identities are complex and always changing, which is why it was simplified and made stagnant through settler-colonialism – as a mechanism of disempowerment and ultimate extinguishment. The Navajo Nation is facing many developments that will threaten the land and the Diné people. The pipelines and proposed fracking on the eastern end of our land base, uranium mines and hauling on the western end, the Navajo Generating Station and continued coal mining, proposed development near the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers, and the lingering effects of the Gold King Mine Spill. These are issues that affect the Diné people and our land. Fanon said that colonialism seeks to impose its control over the past, present, and future. With the name “Navajo Nation,” colonial frameworks straitjacket our history and our future. Our only way toward liberation is to reclaim our identity as a source of national consciousness. Diné people can replace an identity imposed in the past that is currently in use for an identity that will strengthen resistance to colonialism in the future. It will not be done overnight but the discussions of Diné nationalism and its instrumentalization are important. We should not limit ourselves to an identity imposed and we should not cater to the colonizer’s tongue. Movement toward Diné liberation is the development of a Diné national consciousness.


[1] Legislation No”0395-16 23rd Navajo Nation Council Office of the Speaker Press Release

[2] Gregory, Robert J. “Tribes and Tribal: Origin, Use, and Future of the Concept.” Studies of Tribes and Tribals 1.1 (2003) 1-5.

[3] Curley, Andrew, and Gregory Cajete. “The Origin of Legibility: Rethinking Colonialism and Resistance among the Navajo People, 1867-1937. “Dine Perspectives: Revitalizing and Reclaiming Navajo Thought, edited by Llyod L.Lee, University of Arizona Press, 2014, pp129-150. JSTOR,

[4] Coulthard, Glen Sean. Red skin, white masks: rejecting the colonial politics of recognition. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2014. Print.

[5] FRANCISCONI, MICHAEL J. KINSHIP, CAPITALISM, CHANGE: the informal economy of the navajo 1868-1995. Place of publication not identified: ROUTLEDGE, 2016. Print.

[6] Treaty of 1868

[7] Haake, Claudia B. “Resistance and Removal: Yaqui and Navajo Identities in the Southwest Borderlands.” Native Diasporas: Indigenous Identities and Settler Colonialism in the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.


[9] Hobsbawn, EJ. Nations and Nationalism since 1780.New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[10] 1968 Navajo Council Resolution


[12] Patrick Wolfe (2006) Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native, Journal of Genocide Research, 8:4 387-409, DOI:10.1080/14623520601056240C Italics were the authors use.


[14] http://www/ “I recommend liberal appropriations to carry out the Indian Policy, not only because it is humane, Christian-like, and economical, but because it was right”.