The Spanish arrived in 1598, and the Navajos, large and powerful by that time, raided their settlements frequently. By the end of the century they had acquired livestock-horses, cattle, sheep, and goats-by raiding and trading with the Spaniards. The Navajos considered these raids to be economic pursuits rather than war. Being very adaptable, they also learned agriculture, architecture, weaving, and improved pottery techniques from the Pueblo people who were already here when the Navajos arrived. Then the United States took possession of the southwestern territories in 1846. The Mexicans and the Navajos had been fighting and stealing from each other for centuries, and they didn't stop just because the Americans were in control.
The Navajo social structure was flexible, and underwent enormous changes over several centuries, but the reason they have been able to survive when other tribes have since disappeared has been their ability to adapt to their situation and environment. Certain themes have persisted in their culture, however: the primacy of age, individualism, reciprocity, and the female principle. Old people are honored. Age has as much to do with the power structure in a community as wealth does. Even the poorest of people are treated with the utmost respect if they are advanced in years. The rights and wishes of the individual are extremely important. No person has the right to speak for another, or to tell them what to do. Every debt must be repaid no matter how long it takes. The ledger is never closed. This is also true for a favor. It must be recompensed. If someone is unable to repay a debt, either of material goods or a kindness, his family feels obligated to do so.
Children are usually considered descended matrilineally. At the center of the social unit is a core of women - mother, daughter, sister - and their sons and brothers. Women are often the instigators in matters of romance. At the Squaw Dances, for instance, the girls most often select the partners. The wife's desire to live with her mother usually takes precedence over the husband's wish to stay with his, and often a brother/sister relationship is more important than a husband/wife one. This "female principle" could explain the low occurrence of rape on the Navajo reservation, which is nearly half that of the general American rural population.
Next: More on the female principle.