The 200,000-member Navajo Nation has begun holding public hearings across the Four Corners region on a proposal to abandon the term Navajo in favor of the name it has always called itself, Dine .
Pronounced "di-nay," the term derives from the group's traditional Athabaskan language and can mean both "people of the Earth" and "man."
The term Navajo has no clear meaning and was bestowed by the Spanish when they claimed control over the 17 million acres that is now Navajo land.
Interpretations of the term among scholars and U.S. government officials over the years have ranged from "clasp-knife" to "thief." But many older Navajos cannot even pronounce the word because the "v" sound does not exist in their language.
Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah is expected to formally announce the proposal, which would not require approval of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, at a news conference in Farmington, N.M., today.
Zah organized the hearings to gain members' input, which will be presented to the Navajo Nation Council next month. The council may reject the proposal, accept it or place it before the Navajo Nation in a referendum vote next November.
"We were called Dine by the Great Spirit," Zah said. "By changing our name, we are simply exercising self-determination and tribal sovereignty."
Interest in the name change comes at a time when the largest group of Native Americans in the United States is struggling with a 120-year-old land dispute with neighboring Hopis, as well as with deplorable housing conditions and chronic unemployment.
In addition, media coverage of the hantavirus "mystery illness" that plagued the Four Corners region earlier this year, killing 18 people, has been blamed for reviving racist stereotypes. Navajos deeply resented headlines and television commentary that referred to the rodent-borne hantavirus as "Navajo flu" or the "Navajo illness."
But the Navajo image problem began long before, said David Brugge, a retired curator for the National Parks Service.
"This tribe has an image problem, partly because it has been independent for a long, long time," Brugge said. "They fought whites and they fought Indians who were ruled by whites, such as the Pueblo people, who now have an image of being people of peace."
The Navajo, he added, continue to suffer from "residual prejudice from those Indian wars."
Harry Walters, director of the Hatathli Museum at Navajo Community College in Tsaile, Ariz., agreed, saying: "Throughout our history, the word Navajo has had a negative connotation.
"Now the Navajo want to manage their own affairs while they deal with problems such as gambling, water and land disputes, and the name change would be a boost toward that end, and enhance tribal identity," Walters said.
But even Zah acknowledged that winning a consensus among the 110 chapters that elect representatives to the Navajo Nation Council will not be easy.
He pointed out that other Native American groups already have changed the names given to them by outsiders to names they called themselves before settlers arrived.
The southern Arizona Native Americans known for years by the Spanish word Papago , which refers to a type of bean, changed their name in 1986 to Tohono O'odham, which in their language means "desert people."
The Navajo Nation fine-tuned its name in 1969. At that time, it passed a resolution requiring the use of Navajo Nation instead of the old Navajo Tribe.