Descent, land use and inheritance: navajo land tenure patterns in Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto

TitleDescent, land use and inheritance: navajo land tenure patterns in Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication1985
AuthorsAndrews, T
Academic DepartmentAnthropology
UniversityUniversity of Arizona

The development of and changes in human social organization have been a concern of anthropological research since the inception of the discipline. A perspective that focuses on the interaction between exogenous (ecological and historical) variables and social organization is argued for herein. This study tests the idea that inheritance patterns reflect both land use and sociohistorical factors. Further, it is suggested that after their move into the American Southwest, the inheritance of agricultural land was influential in the development, although not necessarily the origins, of matrilineality among the Navajo.

Data were obtained on land tenure practices in Canyon de Chelly and its major tributary, Canyon del Muerto, historically important centers of Navajo agriculture. Detailed interviews with 93% of the Navajo families owning land in the canyons provided information on land use and inheritance patterns since the 1880s. Data from over 400 cases of land transfers were analyzed. Historical documents and archaeological studies also provided information on Navajo settlement patterns, changes in farming practices and environmental fluctuations since the mid-1700s.

Within the past fifty years, and probably longer, topographic and physiographic differences between Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto have contributed to variations in land use within the canyon system. Ditch irrigated feed crops are now only grown in Canyon del Muerto, and they are commonly used by families involved in market oriented cattle ranching. Further, as a result of erosion problems, the production potential of some canyon areas, as well as the quantity of arable land, is declining. Not all families are able to meet the increasing need for labor and capital intensive practices that could maximize agricultural production on their canyon land, but it remains a highly valued resource.

This research indicates that since the 1880s agricultural land in Canyon de Chelly has been transferred more frequently along matrilineal lines, and the explanations for the differences in land tenure patterns between the canyons over time relate both to ecological and socio-historical variables. In conclusion, it is argued that the complexity found within this canyon system reflects a heterogeneity common to any culture, but which anthropologists tend to overlook.