Nez was born in Chi Chil Tah, New Mexico, to the Navajo Dibéłizhiní (Black Sheep Clan) of the Tsénahabiłnii (Sleeping Rock People). He was raised during a time when there were difficult relations between the U. S. government and the Navajo Nation. His mother died when he was only three years old. Nez recalled children often being taken from reservations, sent to boarding schools, and told to not speak the Navajo language. At eight years old, Nez was sent to a school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. His English given name, Chester, after US president Chester A. Arthur, was assigned then. It was from one of the government-run boarding schools, in Tuba City, Arizona, that Nez was recruited into the Marine Corps.