Traditional Navajo Songs

The NAVAJO, who call themselves Diné ("the people"), speak a language that belongs to the Athabaskan group. They occupy the second largest U.S. reservation covering northeastern Arizona, southeastern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico. Many historians believe that the Navajo migrated from the Bering Strait region to the Southwest via western Canada and the Rockies, a theory which is supported by Navajo oral tradition. Originally a hunting and gathering people by the 17001 We Navajo adopted a farming and ranching lifestyle with new agricultural methods and ceremonial ideas learned from contacts with Pueblo peoples. With the arrival of the Spanish, the Navajo established themselves in the safety of Canyon de Chelly and experienced a period of great cultural and religious growth. After conflict with the U.S. military, they were forcibly relocated to eastern Mexico to be assimilated. The government's efforts failed and the Navajos returned to their homeland in 1868 starving and poor. Within a few years, however, the numbers of livestock had grown and the arrival of the railroad in 1886 provided necessary jobs and trade opportunities that provided relief for the emerging Navajo Nation. Today, the population numbers approximately 220,000.

The Navajo have succeeded in preserving their traditional culture and language while adapting to the changing world and have done so on their own terms. Navajo society is constructed around an intricate matrilineal clan system and these family relationships provide a strong foundation for the vitality of the people. A complex system of ceremonials provides a spiritual base for the community. A number of the songs on this recording are taken from the "Squaw Dance." The squaw dance is the centerpiece of the important Navajo ceremony known as the Enemyway. Used as a rite that exorcises the ghosts of outsiders and pacifies anger and violence, the ceremony was originally performed to protect warriors from the spirits of those they had killed. Now chiefly a healing ceremonial, the "enemy" is usually a sickness and the rite is performed to bestow curing blessings upon the afflicted person. In its original form, the relatives of the person to be healed would plan the ceremony. Mutton and beef would be prepared for the accompanying feast. Word of the event would spread throughout the reservation and often hundreds of people would travel to the encampment site to participate in the squaw dance.

Held on three successive nights at different encampments around a ceremonial bonfire, the squaw dance is the only traditional dance of the Navajo in which men and women dance together socially. Women invite the men to the dancing area where, arm-in-arm, they circle clockwise. Squaw dances include two-step and skip dances and the songs almost always have a short lyric on the subject of love and the relationships between men and women though an honoring lyric is sometimes used. Songs can be performed by a soloist or a group of as many eight or One singers. In more recent times, squaw dances are known as "traditional song and dances" and can be performed as purely social gatherings apart
from the Enemyway.

Play song


Performed by


Native Words



I Didnt Care Reg Begay This solo by the immortal Reg Begay is a love song. He sings of a beautiful, desirable girl with curly hair. They had to part because love between them was not to be. He tries to act nonchalant, "I didn't care" is the repeated refrain, but his thoughts keep going back to her. Navajo
Natays Hoop Dance Song Ed Lee Natay This song was composed by Ed Lee Natay, Canyon Records' first recording artist, at the request of some young hoop dancers. The dancer, while performing a war dance step in perfect time, manipulates several hoops around his/her body in varying patterns and designs. Navajo
I'll Take You Back To Arizona Reg Begay This song sings of a man who has apparently been living off the Navajo reservation for an extended time and has become enamored with a girl he has met. In wooing her, he tells her he'll take her back to his home on the reservation. Navajo
Navajo Love Song Ed Lee Natay During squaw dances, a group of singers on the sideline will provide the music or rhythms for the dance. Here the singers, led by Ed Lee Natay, call to the dancing girls, "I should be dancing, not singing. I wonder if that girl is looking for me?" Navajo
Old Time Squaw Dance Song Joe Lee of Lukachukai and singers This very traditional song is used to begin the social dancing phase of the squaw dance ceremony. Navajo
Shoe Game Songs Reg Begay The Shoe Game is one of the most popular games played by the Navajo, often during the long winter nights in the hogan (the traditional eight sided home) in isolated areas of the reservations. Songs are sung and the game continues until one side wins all the counters. Navajo
Competition Song Roger McCabe The social aspect of the squaw dance often continues on into early morning hours. Tiring singers often engage in competition songs to see who still has a voice. Navajo
Gift Dance Song Joe Lee of Lukachukai and singers The gift dance song is one of the last songs to be performed in the squaw dance cycle. It calls on those attending to bring forth gifts to be exchanged. Friends and relatives of the afflicted person bring monetary gifts, food, etc. and heap them on a blanket laid out to receive them. Later during the song these are distributed to the recipients. The exchange provides a peaceful conclusion that reflects former times, when enemies exchanged gifts as a token of peace. Navajo
Two-Step Song Ed Lee Natay Along with the skip dance, the two-step is one of the most popular dances performed during the squaw dance. Navajo
Squaws Pole Dance Song Reg Begay Navajo
Circle Dance Songs Mesa Verde National Park Team These songs are sung on the third day of the squaw dance presentation. Circle dances are for diversion during a break in the activities. The subject for whom the ceremony is held is often present (if able) within the circle of dancers. Navajo
Lets Go Together Roger McCabe A courting song sung by a man to his beloved. Navajo
Goodnight Song Mesa Verde National Park Team This is the finale of the social dances of be squaw dance ceremony. The singers let it be known "It's all over, everybody break camp and go home." Navajo
Corn Grinding Songs Male singers with women grinders In Navajo culture it is the role of the female to grind the corn for meals. Men would perform these lighthearted songs to try to keep the women in good spirits as they worked. The rhythmic sound of the corn being grounded can be heard as the women kneel on the ground before the grounding stones. Navajo
Sun Dance Song Tseyia Chee Here Canyon Records has the great privilege of presenting Tseiya Chee, a greatly revered medicine man. His clear voice and his knowledge of many traditional songs brought him a position of renown in Navajoland. He is accompanied by singers and beats the rhythm with a wooden stick against a basket drum (an inverted basket over a hole in the ground) which is used mostly in sacred rituals. Navajo
Round Dance Song Navajo Centennial Dance Team: Alfred Yazzie (leader), Wilson Walter Yazzie, William Wilson, Arthur Newman, and Mark Slickey Round (or circle) dance songs are performed in the late afternoon on the final day of the squaw dance ceremony. All present who wish to dance are welcome. Two circles are formed with the men locking arms in an outer circle while the women do the same in a circle on the inside or joining the men in the outer circle. The circle moves in first one direction, then in the opposite direction each time the song ends. The dancers use a side-step in rhythm with the singing and drumming. Navajo
Yei-Be-Chai Chant Yei-Be-Chai dances or Night Chant are held during the winter months and are very sacred among the Navajo. They are healing ceremonies, staged over a period of eight days and nine nights with the various phases of the rituals being performed each day and night by the chosen medicine man. These rituals are reported to have been given to an ancient Canyon de Chelly visionary named Bitahatini by the council of the twelve gods known as the Yei-Be-Chai. Bitahatini was taught the songs and rites and the making of the ceremonial masks worn by the dancers. The dancers also hold a spruce twig in one hand and a rattle in the other. Traditional sandpaintings are created to specifically suit the person for whom the ceremony is being held. On the ninth night, one single song is repeated continuously throughout the night, bringing the ceremonial to a close. Both songs included here are performed by the Navajo Centennial Dance Team composed of Alfred Yazzie (leader), Walter Yazzie, Mark Slickey and Leroy Martin. Navajo
Yei-Be-Chai Chant Navajo