Canyon de Chelly from  White House Ruins trailhead; photos by Lauren Loftus

Navajo Nation

Written by Lauren Loftus Category: Travel Issue: December 2017
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Yá’át’ééh, or hello, from the sovereign nation on the northern border of Arizona, where we explore the customs, culture and stunning natural beauty of its community

When my family moved to Arizona from Southern California halfway through the fifth grade, everything I knew about this strange desert land was wrapped up in my grandparents’ retirement house in Sun City. It was my first-generation Irish grandfather’s attempt to embrace the culture of his adopted home: Southwest-themed decorations like a howling coyote lawn ornament, Kachina dolls and throw pillows with covers of scratchy wool in blocky zigzag patterns.

I bring all this up not to knock my beloved late Papa – a respectful, gentle man – but to establish a certain uncomfortable fact about growing up in Arizona: Despite living in a place where Native American reservations are, sometimes quite literally, in our backyards, many of us know woefully little about this state’s native people beyond turquoise jewelry and lawn kitsch.

The Arizona American Indian Tourism Association is attempting to change that. As detailed earlier this year in PHOENIX (“Native Advertising,” September 2017), the AAITA is working to devise new tourism initiatives and expand the marketing of existing ones to boost travel to the state’s numerous tribal lands. (Arizona is home to 22 tribes in all, with more than a quarter of all state land under tribal ownership, according to the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona.)

Among the tribes more keen on receiving visitors is the Navajo Nation, the largest American Indian reservation in the country, with more than 330,000 people living across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. This is where I found myself in early September, ready to immerse myself in a culture and community that always seemed elusive despite being right next door.

The Navajo Nation Tribal Government complex as seen from behind the Window Rock arch
The Navajo Nation Tribal Government complex as seen from behind the Window Rock arch

WINDOW ROCK
On a map, the Navajo Nation appears vaguely loaf-shaped, puffing out north of Flagstaff and spilling east into New Mexico. It covers 27,000 square miles in all, save a small chunk in the middle where the Hopi Reservation resides. Despite all that acreage, most Arizonans settle for occasional visits of Antelope Canyon and the Grand Canyon (which technically isn’t Native land, though the national park butts up directly on the reservation along the Colorado River). To escape the beaten path, we start in the capital of Window Rock.

Window Rock is a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Phoenix – an almost direct northeast shot past Payson and Holbrook to the border of New Mexico. Turning north onto Indian Route 12, we seem to be the only car for miles across a vast stretch of high desert brightly colored by ruddy red rocks and a green spectrum of sage bushes and hardy trees. We see signs declaring this the home of the Diné – or “the people,” as the Navajo call themselves. I feel as if we’ve crossed the border into another country and, I suppose, we have.

I meet my guide, Donovan Hanley, at our hotel, the Navajo-owned Quality Inn Navajo Nation Capital (48 W. Highway 264, Window Rock, 928-871-4108, choicehotels.com/arizona/window-rock/hotels), which is the nicest lodging option in town, with one of the few non-fast-food restaurants. You’ll find more dining and hotel options 25 miles across the border in Gallup.

Hanley, who is Navajo, heads up DETOURS Native America (detoursofthewest.com/native-american-tours), a new offshoot of the private DETOURS company that coordinates custom tours around the American West. He organizes immersive trips and voluntourism packages for non-natives to Native lands. He tells me that a large number of travelers he’s worked with have been writers or businesspeople from Europe rather than local journalists or other Phoenicians interested in their neighbors to the north. Before me, his most recent excursion was with a German company on a team-building trip. “I help supplement their business goals and missions with Navajo traditions,” Hanley says.

Later, Hanley shows us around the Navajo Nation Capitol Complex (navajo-nsn.gov), which sits at the base of the red sandstone formation the town is named for – Tségháhoodzání, or, literally “the perforated rock” in English. There are a few easy hiking trails behind the rock, with clear views of the town below. The Navajo Nation Council sits in a round rotunda, much like the traditional Navajo dwelling known as a hogan. Though closed for renovations this day, Hanley says visitors are welcome to sit along the muraled walls during open legislative sessions.

“The new administration is more open, and the staff is very welcoming,” he says as we pop our heads into the executive chambers where Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has his office. We see a framed copy of the Treaty of 1868, which marked the end of the Long Walk, when the United States government forcibly relocated the Navajo people to internment camps in eastern New Mexico, and established this place as sovereign land. Were it so easy to interact with my representatives in the West Wing.

CANYON DE CHELLY
The Anasazi once lived here. “They were already gone when [my ancestors arrived],” says Ben Teller of the area’s former residents, whose name translates to “the ancient ones.” Like them, Teller was born and raised in a hogan among the shady trees lining the bottom of Canyon de Chelly – a pretty, one-hour drive through Navajo canyon land from Window Rock.

Teller is filling in for his son Adam, who runs Antelope House Tours (928-674-5231, canyondechelly.net), and is describing the White House Ruins – a white stone dwelling built directly into the wall of the sheer sandstone cliff, about 300 feet above the canyon floor. According to the National Park Service, these ancient predecessors of today’s Pueblo and Hopi Indians occupied the cliffside village from 1060 to 1275 A.D. (though archaic people have lived here on and off since as far back as 2500 B.C.E.) “The Diné in Canada and Alaska followed the sun to where it was warm,” Teller says of the Navajo people of modern history arriving at the Canyon around 1700 A.D. “But they said they didn’t want to live like [the Anasazi]” so they didn’t touch the buildings and tools mysteriously left behind, instead choosing to farm in the canyon during summer and move up to the rim in winter.

Sanctioned 4x4 tours like the Tellers’ are the only way to travel on parts of the canyon bottom, and are a fun, bouncy ride along the sand. While you need to book Antelope House Tours ahead of time, you can also sign up for a four-hour tour with lunch and snacks at the Thunderbird Lodge (Rte. 7, Chinle, 928-674-5842, thunderbirdlodge.com), the only hotel in Canyon de Chelly (and home of the best corn stew and fluffiest frybread I had all weekend).

We opted to do as the Diné did and walk down into the canyon along the White House Trail (nps.gov/cach), which is free and open to the public. From above, Canyon de Chelly National Monument looks like a gaping slit in the earth – vast, arid land interrupted by a deep crack in its foundation. Chelly – pronounced “shay” – is a Spanish interpretation of the Navajo word tséyi, which means canyon, or “the place deep in the rock.” At first, it feels like we’re descending into something ancient and dead, but as Hanley shows us, running his hand along the swirling red sandstone walls so that tiny grains of sand sprinkle to the trail, the canyon is constantly changing and thus very much alive.

the Painted Desert
the Painted Desert

PAINTED DESERT/PETRIFIED FOREST
According to Navajo creation stories, the Diné had to pass through three different worlds before entering this one, the Glittering World. The people, these stories say, are an integral part of the universe so they must do everything they can to live in harmony with the earth, sky, animals and plants. It’s a philosophy that explains why the Navajo didn’t touch the Anasazi ruins of Canyon de Chelly, preferring to build temporary dwellings and move their farms around according to season. It’s a respect deeply felt in the Painted Desert, which we detour through en route back to Phoenix.

Part of the Petrified National Forest (nps.gov/pefo), the Painted Desert is an unearthly expanse of layered clay and sandstone that reflects back the harsh Arizona sun in a constantly changing array of colors. Swaths of blush pink morph into royal purples and dabs of pure white. It takes about an hour to drive the park, not counting numerous turnoffs for photos and short hikes.

The Mars-like badlands of the Painted Desert give way to the Petrified Forest to the south, where you’ll see scattered logs of petrified wood, which are fallen trees from 225 million years ago fossilized into brilliant crystals and gems. At the turnoff for the Jasper Forest, I gaze at the shards and hunks of rusty red logs glinting atop the bleached white earth and try to imagine how those people felt when they came across this place so long ago. Was it here that they, like me, were wowed by the glittering world laid out before them? I can’t know for sure. But what I do know is, I sure am glad I finally met my neighbors.

Zuni dancers perform powwow dances at the 71st annual Navajo Nation Fair paradePOWWOWS
The Navajo Nation Fair – the largest North American Indian Fair in the country – is held each September. Featuring a parade, the Miss Navajo pageant and a pow wow (featuring singing, drumming and dancing in some of the most intricate, colorful ceremonial garb you’ll ever see), the intertribal event draws Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Apache and some Plains tribespeople from far and wide. Hanley explains that powwow dancing is something learned at a very young age, and many American Indians grow up dancing the way suburban kids played soccer every Saturday. Planning your visit around a powwow is highly recommended. An event calendar can be found at discovernavajo.com.