Centered around northeastern Arizona, but passing into Utah and New Mexico as well, the Navajo nation is physically larger than ten US states and has a population greater than that of 18 UN-recognized countries. Now, according to the US, the Navajo Nation is sovereign, but it’s certainly not a country, so what is it? Now, like all Indian Reservations, the story of how the Navajo Nation came to be is complex and tragic.
The Navajo Nation is amongst the largest of the existing tribes who eventually were settled in northeastern Arizona after being forced to walk about 400 miles, first to Fort Sumner in New Mexico then to their current location. Many of the Navajo tragically died along this trail.
Its Diné people have inhabited the Southwest since their migration from Arctic America around the 15th century AD, but the path that directly led to the establishment of the reservation began with the Long Walk. After years of conflict between European Americans and the Diné, the US Federal Government directed the Army to end what was, in their eyes, the “Navajo problem.”
Since that time and under the influence of elected officials, the Navajo has established themselves as a country within a country. The Navajo and other Native American tribes can determine who enters their land, who can live on their land, and who governs their land, up to a point. The tribes cannot enter into agreements or declare war on another country outside the United States authority, they cannot issue their own currency nor are they allowed national representation in Congress, as they already have state representatives within the US Government. This makes them independent, “dependent”, states that are still nebulous to most.
So, the answer to what the Navajo Nation or any Native American reservation is is that nobody knows. They’re what the federal government lets them be, and so far, there hasn’t been enough time or money for them to explore their boundaries.