A Tribe by Any Other Other Name? : Culture: Some Navajos want to be known as <i> Dineh</i> --The People. Critics worry a change would confuse the public and say there are bigger issues to deal with.


At Darrell and Marshall Arviso’s Fina station--a faded blue metal building where locals stop for gas, soft drinks and conversation--everyone has an opinion about Peterson Zah’s crusade to change the name of the Navajo people.

It’s been a hot topic ever since Zah, the tribe’s president, proposed last month that, as a matter of tribal pride, the Navajo Nation should be renamed Dineh Nation.

But in this dusty, sun-baked settlement of 2,500 near the eastern edge of the reservation, Zah’s plan is playing to mixed reviews.

“It doesn’t make no difference,” says an older man in a battered black cowboy hat who stands at the counter nursing a Diet Sprite. He doesn’t want his name used. “We don’t care what they call us. We just want to live the way we’re supposed to.”


But Jason Arviso, who works for his brothers, favors the name change. “It’s what we call ourselves, not what the white man gave us--Navajo.”


Dineh (pronounced din-AY)--The People--is what members of the nation’s largest Indian tribe have always called themselves in their own language.

Outsiders have called them Navajos for more than 350 years, at least from the time the Spanish ventured into the Southwest. In recent years, the name has been appropriated by big business and applied to everything from aircraft and cars to trucking companies.

While the meaning of Navajo is open to scholarly conjecture, Zah and others say the word is insulting. Adopting Dineh, they argue, makes a strong statement at a time when American Indians are focusing on the power of language to shape consciousness.

“As I understand it, Navajo is a word that came from the Spanish, and it means thief ,” Zah says during a visit to Albuquerque for a seminar on how Indians view Columbus’ legacy. “Some weird guy gave us that name, and it stuck with us.”

Dineh, on the other hand, was given to Navajos by the Great Spirit, says Zah.

“When we emerged into this world, we were happy. Everything we needed to survive was at our disposal. It’s something that has a lot of positive connotations, especially if you want to look at yourself in a positive way,” says Zah, who has promoted greater cultural awareness among Navajos since taking office in 1991.

“We have been teaching our children to be proud of who they are--to relearn the clan system, for those who may not know,” he says. “We’re trying to teach them they should be a full Dineh person.”


The notion of changing the 160,000-member tribe’s name has been kicking around for years, Zah says, but with the Columbus quincentenary and a new focus on Indian issues, it is an idea whose time has come.

“It seems to me it’s really an exercise of self-determination,” Zah says. “It’s an exercise of tribal sovereignty and identity.”

He says he wants a consensus to emerge before he moves forward with the plan. He hopes the 110 chapters that elect representatives to the Navajo Nation Council will vote on the proposal before the council meets for its winter session in January. A Zah-sponsored resolution in favor of the name change already has been passed by the Shiprock (N.M.) Agency Council.

Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesman Carl Shaw says the federal government has no objection to the proposal. “It’s entirely up to the tribe as to what they want to be called.”

But around the reservation, some think Navajo leaders could better spend their time grappling with chronic unemployment and the troubled state of tribal finances.

“When I first heard about it a year ago, I thought, ‘It’s crazy,’ ” says Rita Capitan, an attendance clerk at Crownpoint High School and adviser to the school’s Indian Club. “When I saw it in the paper recently, I asked, ‘Is he serious?’ ”

Capitan, who supports Zah politically, nevertheless worries that the name change would be costly and would confuse a people who have finally learned to be proud of who they are.

“Why should we want to change it now?” she asks. “I’m a Navajo, and my kids are Navajos. I would rather be a Navajo than a Dineh.”

Capitan, who speaks the tribal language, says the proposed name change also strikes her as sexist. “To me, sometimes Dineh just means a man ,” she says.

On a Friday afternoon when most of the student body has gathered for a pep rally, Capitan calls together a dozen Indian Club members for an informal poll and discovers they all oppose Dineh.

“Tourists come over and the first thing they want to see is Navajo, " says Donival Pablo, an outspoken 17-year-old senior. Dineh--they don’t know what that means.”

Tracy Watchman, a 16-year-old junior, agrees: “Everybody knows us as Navajos. They say, ‘That’s the biggest tribe.’ ”

Despite their isolation from big cities and shopping malls, these students betray the influence of MTV and “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Some of the girls tease their hair and apply lots of makeup. The boys favor oversize basketball shoes and acid-washed jeans.

That’s part of the problem, according to Navajo police Capt. Bobby Etcitty, who favors changing to Dineh as a way to bolster tribal identity.

“They’re spending more time with TV these days, rather than with their elders,” says Etcitty, 40, who grew up in the Crownpoint area. “Movies, videos--they take up their time.”

Although almost everyone of his generation is conversant in the tribal language, he says, many youngsters hear it at home but cannot speak it.

“Most of the students,” Etcitty says, “are not familiar with what Navajo really means.”

At least one other tribe has taken the step of formally changing its name.

In 1986, when the southern Arizona Indians known as the Papago were drafting their new constitution, they changed their name from Papago (from a Spanish word referring to a type of bean) to Tohono O’odham, which in their language means Desert People.

The name change was not meant as a political statement, according to tribal chairman Josiah Moore. It came about when several members who’d been studying how to write their own language in the Roman alphabet suggested using the traditional name on the spur of the moment.

“Among our people it produced a lot of pride,” he says. “The very first time we did it, someone called from Navajo, and it was kind of a letdown (for them) because it wasn’t as rebellious as they thought.”

Zah suspects that if the Navajo tribe changes its name, “it’s going to have a snowball effect on Indian traditional names” and lead other tribes to follow suit.

Back at the Fina station, which doubles as a general store, the walls are lined with replacement engine belts and coils of copper tubing for plumbing repairs. No pays attention to the fuzzy “In the Heat of the Night” rerun on the wall-mounted TV.

Darrell Arviso says that he always heard Navajo means thief, but that he finds that definition to be a source of pride, hearkening back to the tribal military strategy of hit-and-run raids.

He’d just as soon be called a Dineh and notes that Navajos have for years sought to substitute traditional names for places around the reservation that have Spanish or English alternatives.

“It’s pretty trivial, really,” Arviso. “The Navajo already knows his name. It’s more for the benefit of the Anglo world to specify what his name is.”