By Shady Hartshorne
Tony Hillerman, the author who featured Navajo detectives in his fantastically successful mystery stories, once said, “I want Americans to stop thinking of Navajos as primitive persons, to understand that they are sophisticated and complicated.”
When you visit the natural wonders of Arizona, you will undoubtedly spend a great deal of time in the Navajo Nation.
Spreading across 27,000 square miles in three states, it is the largest area of land assigned to a Native American group, and the Navajo (or Dineh, as they call themselves) are the largest American Indian tribe with 180,000 registered residents.
As you pass through these areas, marveling at the natural beauty, your Navajo guides will remind you that many people still live, work and raise their families there. They are happy to share their beautiful land with you, though they ask that you treat it – and them – with respect.
In 1864, the Navajo were forced to leave their homeland for the “Long Walk” to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. Many died along the way and the survivors endured terrible conditions in the camp.
In 1868, a treaty was signed establishing the Navajo Reservation and the people were allowed to return. Since then, the Navajo have faced many challenges, including how to preserve their traditional culture and language.
The question of what is tradition can be debated on many levels. Some “traditional” Navajo crafts, such as rug weaving, weren’t part of the culture until the arrival of Europeans. Originally, Navajo weavers made blankets, but after the influx of cheap, machine-made blankets, they switched over to weaving rugs, which are more durable and have greater artistic value.
Buying Authentic Arts & Crafts
Like many markets in America, the Navajo crafts market has been flooded with cheap Asian-made knockoffs. If you’re looking for authentic Navajo-made jewelry or baskets or textiles, you need to buy from the maker or look for a label that identifies the artist who made the piece.
If you’re shopping in a store, you can ask the cashier. According to the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, “it is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced.”
The Navajo Arts & Crafts Enterprise, a non-profit organization owned by the Navajo Nation, has five stores in Arizona. You can also get authentic pieces at Cameron Trading Post in Cameron, AZ. They have a huge gift shop full of affordable arts and crafts, and right next door you’ll find the Gallery.
Some of the most beautiful Indian-made art pieces you’ll ever see are for sale here –- incredibly expensive, but for sale nevertheless. They also have lots of information about the history of Native American arts and crafts and how they are made.
The Heard Museum
If you start your Arizona trip in Phoenix, I would strongly suggest a visit to the Heard Museum before you leave for the Navajo Nation. They have an extensive collection of Navajo and other Indian artifacts going back hundreds of years.
One of the most powerful exhibits is the walk-through experience of the Indian Schools, which were set up in the late 1800’s to deal with the “Indian Problem.”
Children were taken from their homes at 5 or 6 years old, had their hair cut off and were indoctrinated in American language and culture in order to “help” them assimilate into the mainstream population.
The Navajo are still dealing with the effects of this cultural warfare today, though they are proud of the role their language played in World War II when the US Marines used native Navajo soldiers, the “Code Talkers” to relay messages.
Using the normal Marine Corps code, it could take up to four hours to encode and decipher messages, but the Navajo were able to send urgent battlefield instructions instantly over telephone lines.
The Japanese were never able to break the “code,” and many lives were saved thanks to the contributions of these soldiers. There’s a nice museum exhibit about the Code Talkers in Kayenta just outside Monument Valley.
Monument Valley is one of Arizona’s most recognizable areas with its buttes and mesas towering over sandblasted desert. Hollywood westerns immortalized the area after John Ford “discovered” it in the 1930’s.
Between 400,000 and 450,000 visitors come to Monument Valley each year to marvel at these massive formations with names like Mittens, Three Sisters, Snoopy on his Doghouse and Ear of the Wind.
In 1958, 30,000 acres were set aside by the Navajo government as their first tribal park, and in order to see the massive rock formations up close, you will need to go with a native guide. I went with Harold Simpson of Simpson’s Trailhandler Tours. Harold is an albino Navajo, the “white sheep” of the family as he puts it.
He grew up in Monument Valley so he is able to give you an authoritative account of the history of the area and its cultural significance to the Navajo people. Simpson’s Trailhandler Tours offers different packages for sightseeing involving a two-and-a-half hour tour of the valley, dinner and Q&A around a campfire.
You can also enjoy an overnight stay in an authentic hogan, the eight-sided house that is the traditional Navajo dwelling.
For a cushier overnight in Monument Valley, you might want to check into The View, a new hotel built right next to the visitor center by a Navajo clan that resides in the valley.
The View Hotel was designed and built to respect the sacred area it occupies, using green building techniques and indigenous material wherever possible.
The architect designed the hotel with a low profile to blend in with its surroundings. Each room has a spectacular view of the Mittens and the prices are set to fit the budgets of ordinary travelers.
Canyon de Chelly
About 100 miles southeast of Monument Valley, you’ll find Canyon de Chelly (de-SHAY) near the little town of Chinle. Inside the park are thousands of ancient Indian ruins, petroglyphs and pictographs left by the Anasazi, an ancient people that lived in this canyon hundreds of years ago.
Early settlers found the bones of these people lying in the clay houses built into the canyon walls, and since then debates have raged about how these people lived and died.
Even the name Anasazi is controversial. Originally the Navaho word for “ancestors of our enemies,” it has come to mean the “old ones” or “people who passed on” and you can instantly see why these sites are sacred to the families that still live and farm in the canyon today.
For a tour of Canyon de Chelly, you can contact Thunderbird Lodge to have one of their Navajo guides take you on a half-day or full-day tour of the 84,000-acre park. They also offer a “Magical History Tour” that includes two nights of lodging.
At the mouth of the canyon, take notice of the short shelf of red rock on the side of the road. As you go deeper into the canyon, this shelf will grow to be hundreds of feet high, the deep, rich red of Navajo sandstone with the dark black iron/manganese staining called “desert varnish.”
Amid this beauty and tranquility, your guide will describe the battles and massacres that took place in Canyon de Chelly, which was a formidable stronghold. In 1805, a Spanish expedition led by Lt. Antonio Narbona fought an all-day battle with the Navajo, killing 105 people in a part of the park called Massacre Cave.
Later, in 1864, Kit Carson brought the US Cavalry to round up and forcibly remove 8,000 Navajo, relocating them 300 miles on the “Long Walk” to Fort Sumner in New Mexico.
Daylight Saving Time
It’s important to know that the Navajo Nation recognizes Daylight Saving Time while the state of Arizona does not. To make it even MORE confusing, the Hopi Reservation – which is located within the Navajo Nation – also does NOT recognize Daylight Saving Time.
If you visit during the summer, Navajo time will be one hour LATER than Arizona time (and Hopi time).
My advice is to allow for the time difference when making plans but don’t waste your breath discussing it with anyone. All parties involved are convinced they’re right and won’t accept any other argument.
If you’re interested in a Tony Hillerman tour, you can contact Detours, a full-service tour operator that covers the entire southwest. They offer the only “Hillerman Country” tour sanctioned by the author himself.
Many authors use real places and people as inspiration in their books, but Tony Hillerman portrayed the Navajo and their land so faithfully that you can not only visit the settings of your favorite books, but you can meet and speak with some of the people who inspired many of the characters.
Tony Hillerman was – and still is – revered in the Navajo Nation and it would be a good idea to read a few of his mysteries before setting out on your Arizona vacation.
Shady Hartshorneis a travel writer and video editor who lives in Arlington,
Massachusetts with his wife Laurie Ellis.
Read the other stories in Shady Hartshorne’s series, “Arizona Rocks”:
Read Janis Turk’s story:
Husband and wife team Shady Hartshorne and Laurie Ellis of Arlington, Massachusetts are among our most adventurous travel writers. Whether it’s open-water swimming in the British Virgin Islands, house-boating on the Suwannee River, zip lining in Costa Rica or soaring over the Grand Canyon in a Maverick helicopter, they go the extra mile to bring us great stories from all over the world. They live in Arlington, Mass.