“Do you ever get tired of that view?” I asked, sitting in the cafe of the visitor centre. “How could I?” said the young Navajo waitress, “John Ford said Monument Valley was the place where God put the West. He was right.”
She is from a nation living in an area roughly the size of Scotland, and with a population of 300,000, which you will search hard for on the map – though you will possibly have been there in your celluloid fantasies. In that nation lies Monument Valley, scene of John Wayne and his director John Ford’s films, such as Stagecoach and The Seekers, and of many other westerns. There is even a John Ford Point, a favourite film location of the director. But it is in reality far from being the home of cowboys.
On the contrary, this area stretching through much of northern Arizona, northern New Mexico and southern Utah in the American south-west, with its world-famous scenery is part of the Native American Navajo Nation, a self-governing territory, with its own education and legal system, and its own police force. Size and devolved political powers may be similar to Scotland’s but similarities end there.
On arrival, to get some background visit the excellent museum at the visitor centre in the Monument Valley Tribal Park, which gives information on both Navajo history and on movie-making. Sure to surprise is the nation’s proudest achievement. In World War Two, the US military, seeking a code the Japanese could not break, used the Navajo language and Navajo code-talkers. It is ironic to think that, while they made this contribution to victory, the Navajo were denied civil rights in the US. These only came in the 1950s.
The environs of Monument Valley, with such icons as the Mitten Butes, constitute the Navajo Tribal Park, administered by the Navajo Nation, or the Dine, the People, as the Navajo proudly designate themselves. Traversing what must be some of the most astounding scenery on the planet, you can take a scenic drive on a (pretty rough!) road through the most majestic sandstone formations in the valley. Further, there are possibilities for horse riding with Navajo guides.
People still live and farm here year-round, and many sites are sacred, and off-bounds, unless accompanied by a guide. I drove with my guide firstly to his farm and hoghan (a ceremonial sweat-lodge, still in almost universal use with the Navajo) and there we picked up our horses, exploring into a pinnacled wonderland. He was like a character in the movies, dignified, impassive, impressive. But then I asked why all the Navajo lived in separate, scattered houses, the impassive face broke into a deep smile, “Because we don’t like Injuns.”
Canyon de Chelley
The Navajo are great jokers and garrulous conversationalists, much less reserved, more confidently outgoing than many other Native Americans. Whilst Monument Valley, in the north-west of the Nation, is certainly the most famous region within Dinetah – as the Dine designate their land, there are other equally scenic areas which are of more historic and religious significance to them. Far towards the east lies Canon de Chelley, a deep complex of eroded canyons and towers where, according to their myths, Spider Woman taught the Navajo to spin. The Navajo have a creationist mythology on a par with the Greeks.
Canyon de Chelley was once the impenetrable heartland of the Navajo people until the white man, suspecting that gold lay here, laid siege to the canyon. Under the leadership of all-American hero Kit Carson they eventually forced the Navajo, about 10,000 of them, to surrender and start on a several hundred mile walk, resettling them in the arid desert of New Mexico. Many starved or died from disease during and after The Long Walk, as the Navajo call this experience. In 1868 they were allowed back to their ancestral lands, where their homes had been burned, their apricot orchards cut down and their corn fields grubbed over. They fell to the ground, cried, then started over.
At Canon de Chelley there is a designated and quite demanding hike from the canyon rim to the valley floor, where people still farm corn and raise cattle. (Other than this walk, you must enter the canyon with a Navajo guide). Back at the canyon rim car park I met Creighton Begay, a Navajo jewellery maker who was having a lean day with his wares, and he asked me for a lift back down the canyon. He was surprised that I knew about The Long Walk and the Navajo suffering, adding, “American’s don’t know about it. We need to keep teaching our own young people about The Long Walk. But though we should never forget, we should forgive. Hatred is self-destructive.”
Creighton was expressing the central tenet of Navajo morality, summed up in the notion of hozho. Cultivating an attitude of being in balance with yourself, forgiving hurt, and not being consumed by vengeance. The Navajo people even have a traditional curing ceremony for those whose souls are out of hozho.
The Navajo People
The Navajo are eternal learners and survivors. Originally nomadic, they learned agriculture from settled peoples they found living in the south-west, learned to keep sheep from the Spaniards, learned silver-smithing from the Hispanics.
Today they weave carpets as fine as those from Persia, and often as expensive. One can take a year’s work for a woman. They make jewellery (largely a man’s job) – silver and torquoise wear , they make fine pottery articles. In the more visited areas of Dinetah you will find stands by the roadside, manned by the Dine selling their artisan production at half or less the price you will pay in the towns outside the Nation.
In the remoter parts, there are still Trading Posts where the Navajo come to exchange their products against goods, or deposit them for sale, and these are great fun to seek out, though in the more visitor-frequented areas, Trading Post can mean an up-market tourist hotel. Gouldings Lodge and Trading Post in Monument Valley is not really a trading post any more, but a comfortable hotel, once patronised by John Wayne, and splendidly situated. There the so-called John Wayne Cabin has another movie museum. Gouldings is a good base for exploring in and around Monument Valley
The empty landscape of Dinetah
The empty landscape of Dinetah away from the few towns allows fine opportunities for back road driving along almost deserted roads. Roadside sellers thin out but still there will be the occasional jewellery stand or a van selling that irresistible and calorific Navajo delicacy, fry bread and honey. But back country restaurants are almost nonexistent and B&Bs – never mind hotels – likewise. Away from Monument Valley lodging options are limited to the few small towns, like Window Rock or Tuba City but these places, put tactfully, lack much charm.
A good base for the eastern part of the Nation and Canon de Chelley is the town of Gallup, and the El Rancho Hotel, located on Route 66. Technically, just, outside the nation, Gallup is the self-proclaimed Indian Capital of the World, with a majority Native American population. El Rancho was used by generations of film stars and the walls of this classically kitchy joint are decorated with their signed images and draped with Navajo rugs. The hotel also has an excellent shop selling Navajo crafts. Double rooms come in about $100 a night.
The Navajo have their problems; diabetes rates are very high. Alcoholism (despite prohibition of the sale of alcohol) is widespread amongst males, and under-employment is the rule rather than the exception. Cancer rates reach dizzy heights, in part due to the past practice and present residues of uranium mining. Waste dumps, many still untreated, litter the Nation, often polluting the water table. At the quaintly named clachan of Mexican Hat, just outside the Nation and across the San Juan River in Utah, I stopped at a diner. The staff were Navajo – some 100,000 live outside the Nation, working on its fringes. I asked the server what the huge heap of waste I had seen a few miles back was. Uranium waste. He told me that his father and two elder brothers had worked in that uranium mine, and all had died of cancer.
“The white workers were given protective clothing. The Dine were not and we were not told about the dangers. It was good money for them back then. I was too young to work in the mine. Fortunately.”
There are positive developments in the Navajo Nation. Poverty previously prevented them dosing their cows and sheep with antibiotics but now they have craftily managed to market their meat as grass fed, organic…and expensive. The possibilities of replacing coal and gas extraction by solar and wind energy production in the Nation are being opened up.
A people treated badly over history have managed to maintain much of their culture and traditional values. You will fall victim to the magic of the unique and stunning scenery of Dinetah, and to the fascination of its people. And may the hozho be with you.
Getting there; Fly to Phoenix, Arizona, hire a car and head north past Flagstaff and on to Monument Valley. A day’s drive takes you there.
Take the detective novels of Tony Hillerman concerning the work of the Navajo Police – Fallen Man, Shape Shifter, Thief of Time, and others. These are set in Dinetah and deal, very sympathetically with the issues facing the inhabitants.