According to historian Barry M. Prtizker, the American Southwest has been inhabited by people longer than any other part of North America except Mexico and Central America. The Hopi, Zuni and Navajo are among the region's best known tribes. Sharing the same environment has given their cultures similar traits such as agriculture; however, they also have many differences such as religion and language.
Anthropologists group related Native American languages together in divisions called families. Each Southwest tribe's language is derived from a different family. The Hopi language comes from the Uto-Aztecan language family and is related to Shoshone, Comanche and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The Navajo language comes from the Athapaskan language family and is related to the languages of the Cibecue and Tonto Apaches and languages spoken in California, Alaska and Canada. The Zuni language is what linguists call a language isolate and isn't related to any Southwestern languages. However, some linguists believe it might have broken away from a California language called Penutian around 7,000 years ago.
Each tribe lives in a different region of the Southwest. The Hopi consider themselves North America's oldest human inhabitants. Other tribes even call the Hopi the "oldest of the people." Anthropologists believe that the Hopi have lived in northeastern Arizona for 10,000 years. The Zuni have probably lived in the Zuni River valley of Arizona and New Mexico since at least the 8th Century. Anthropologists believe the Navajo left Canada in the 11th Century and settled the Colorado Plateau in northern New Mexico and Arizona in the 14th Century.
The Hopi and Zuni, like other Pueblo Indians, live in settled villages and towns consisting of multi-story houses called pueblos. The Navajo, on the other hand, have never lived in towns. In the past, they lived in small camps consisting of small, dome-shaped wood and mud dwellings called hogans. With the arrival of Spanish settlers, the Navajo became semi-nomadic, wandering the region in small bands. In the 1860s they were settled on a reservation and began living in scattered camps consisting of two to four families. Many extended families have a summer camp near the corn fields and winter camps near wood and water.
Religion is an important element in all three cultures. The Hopi and Zuni have similar religions involving priests and dancers performing ceremonies for maintaining harmony between humans and supernatural beings including gods, animal spirits and nature spirits called kachinas. These ceremonies follow ritual calenders based on the movements of the sun and stars. The Navajo religion teaches that everything is interrelated and exists in perfect harmony. Unlike the Hopi and Zuni, the Navajos perform their religious ceremonies whenever they need to restore this harmony. Ceremonies are conducted by singers and "curers" who have learned one or more of the Navajo's 24 chant systems. In the past Navajo performed these chants for every aspect of life including war, agriculture and curing illness. When the Navajos began living on the reservation, the focus became restoring harmony between the Navajo and the supernatural.
- Michael Ledger/Hulton Archive/Getty Images