The direct dependence of the savage on nature as he finds it is nowhere better illustrated than on the Navaho reservation. In the three essentials of land, water, and vegetation, his country is not an ideal one. The hard conditions under which he lives have acted directly on his arts and industries, on his habits and customs, and also on his mind and his mythology. In one respect only has he an advantage: he is blessed with a climate which acts in a measure as an offset to the other conditions and enables him to lead a life which is on the whole not onerous.
In these dry elevated regions the heat is never oppressive in the day and the nights are always cool. Day temperatures of 120 deg. or more are not uncommon in the valleys in July and August, but the humidity is so slight that such high readings do not produce the discomfort the figures might imply. In his calico shirt and breeches the Navaho is quite comfortable, and in the cool of the evening and night he has but to add a blanket, which he always has within reach. The range between the day and night temperature in summer is often very great, but the houses are constructed to meet these conditions; they are cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather.
The extreme dryness of the air has another advantage from the Indian point of view, in that it permits a certain degree of filthiness. This seems inseparable from the Indian character, but it would be impossible in a moist climate; even under the favorable conditions of the plateau country many of the tribes are periodically decimated by smallpox.
The habits of a people, which are to a certain extent the product of the country in which they live, in turn have a pronounced effect on their habitations. New Mexico and Arizona came into the possession of the United States in 1846, and prior to that time the Navaho lived chiefly by war and plunder. The Mexican settlers along the Rio Grande and the Pueblo Indians of the same region were the principal contributors to their welfare, and the thousands of sheep and horses which were stolen from these people formed the nucleus or starting point of the large flocks and herds which constitute the wealth of the Navaho today.
The Navajo reservation is better suited for the raising of sheep than for anything else, and the step from the life of a warrior and hunter to that of a shepherd is not a long one, nor a hard one to take. Under the stress of necessity the Navajo became a peaceable pastoral tribe, living by their flocks and herds, and practicing horticulture only in an extremely limited and precarious way. Under modern conditions they are slowly developing into an agricultural tribe, and this development has already progressed far enough to materially affect their house structures; but in a general way it may be said that they are a pastoral people, and their habits have been dictated largely by that mode of life.