Multihued desert hills, broad mesas, soaring buttes, vast treeless plains, and massive mountains give an impression of boundless space. All of northeastern Arizona lies atop the Colorado Plateau, which averages 4,500–7,000 feet in elevation. Several pine-forested ranges rise above the desert near Arizona's borders with Utah and New Mexico. Navajo Mountain, just across the border in Utah, stands as the highest peak in the area at 10,388 feet. Nearby you'll find Rainbow Bridge, the world's highest natural stone span over water. Monument Valley's sheer-walled spires evoke awe farther east. The beautiful canyons in Navajo and Canyon de Chelly National Monuments shelter some of the Southwest's best-preserved prehistoric dwellings.
Ancient cultural traditions of Native Americans—ways of life that have survived to the present—make this region a special place. The hardworking Hopi have lived here longest. Ruins, occupied by their ancestors as long ago as 1,500 years, lie scattered over much of northeastern Arizona and adjacent states. The once warlike and greatly feared Navajo, who call themselves "Dine," came relatively late, perhaps 500–700 years ago.
Navajo and Hopi differ greatly in their lifestyles. The Navajo spread their houses and hogans across the countryside, often far from the nearest neighbor. The Hopi usually live in compact villages, even if this means a long commute to fields or jobs.
Today, Navajo and Hopi welcome visitors who respect tribal customs and laws. Here you'll have an opportunity to glimpse unique ways of life in a land of rare beauty.
In 1878 the federal government began ceding to the Navajo land that has since grown into a giant reservation spreading from northeastern Arizona into adjacent New Mexico and Utah. The Navajo Nation, with more than 250,000 members, is the largest Native American tribe in the country. In 1882 the federal government also recognized the Hopi's age-old land rights and began setting aside land for them. Approximately 10,000 Hopi live today on a reservation completely surrounded by Navajo land. Government officials have redrawn the reservation boundaries of the Navajo and Hopi many times, never to the satisfaction of both parties. In 1978, congressional and court decisions settled a major land dispute between the two tribes in favor of the Hopi. The victorious Hopi regained part of the territory previously designated for joint use but largely settled by Navajo. To the Hopi this was long-overdue justice, while the Navajo called it "The Second Long Walk."
NAVAJO CODE TALKERS
The idea of using the Navajo language as a code for the military came to Philip Johnson, a son of missionaries to the Navajo. He convinced the U.S. Marines of the potential by assembling a group of Navajo and quickly passing coded messages back and forth. Recruiting began in May 1942 with a pilot program of 29 Navajo for the Pacific Theater. Success led to calls for more recruits and about 400 had qualified by the conclusion of World War II. The code used 211 Navajo words—increased to 411 by war's end—for common military terms, plus a code word for each letter of the alphabet. The code talkers knew, for example, that besh-lo (iron fish) meant "submarine." Navajo servicemen had to memorize the code and be ready for communications at all times and conditions. They participated in grueling amphibious assaults and jungle combat in such places as Guadacanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Adding to the dangers of combat, both Americans and Japanese sometimes mistook the Navajo, with their dark skin, for Japanese.
The code proved unbreakable and gave an added element of surprise for the American forces. Even after the war, the code remained a secret. Not until 1969 did the Marines declassify it and allow the Navajo code talkers to tell the full story. All received Congressional medals in 2001. You can learn more in books such as the Japanese author/photographer Kenji Kawano's Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers, a very personal account with portraits and thoughts of the code talkers.
The region's sights fit well into a loop drive of a week or more. You'll not only enjoy the destinations, but also the beautiful wide-open landscapes along the way. Highlights on the Navajo lands include the majestic buttes and spires of Monument Valley and the prehistoric cliff dwellings within the two national monuments of Navajo and Canyon de Chelly. Museums at the Navajo capital of Window Rock and farther north at Tsaile provide a look into the tribe's culture. On the Hopi lands, be sure to visit the atmospheric traditional village of Walpi atop First Mesa and the museum at the Hopi Cultural Center on Second Mesa. If you can time your visit for a weekend, you might be fortunate to experience a dance, but these events are not always open to the public. Public transport is too limited for touring the region, so you'll need your own wheels.
Expect warm to hot summers and moderate to cold winters. Spring and autumn are the ideal times to visit, especially for hiking, though winds in March and April can kick up dust and sand. Afternoon thunderstorms frequently build up from early July to early September. Showers usually pass quickly, but flash floods pose a danger in canyons.
SHOPPING FOR NATIVE AMERICAN ARTS AND CRAFTS
The strength of the Navajo and Hopi cultures appears in their excellent arts and crafts. Trading posts and Native American crafts shops on and off the reservations offer large selections. You'll also have the opportunity to buy directly from the maker. Navajo sell from roadside stands, most numerous on the highways to Grand Canyon National Park. Hopi usually sell directly from their village homes. To learn about Native American art, drop in at the Heard Museum in Phoenix or the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. Books—available in trading posts, bookstores, and libraries—describe crafts and what to look for when buying; see the Arizona Booklist.
The best work commands high prices but it can be a fine memento of a visit to Native American lands. Tribespeople know what their crafts are worth, so bargaining is not normally done. Competition, especially among Navajo at their roadside stands, can make for some very low prices, however. Discounts often mark the end of the tourist season in September and October.
The Navajo have long earned fame for silver jewelry and woven rugs; you'll also see their stonework, pottery, basketry, and sand paintings. Craftsmen learned to work silver from Mexicans in the 19th century, then gradually developed distinctive Navajo styles such as the squash-blossom necklace with its horseshoe-shaped pendant. Silversmiths also turn out bracelets, rings, concha belts, buckles, and bolo ties. The Navajo are especially fond of turquoise, which appears in much of their work. Navajo once wove fine blankets using sheep obtained from the Spanish and weaving skills learned from pueblo Indians, but factory-made blankets in the late 19th century nearly ended the market for hand-woven ones. At the suggestion of trader John Lorenzo Hubbell, weavers switched to a heavier cloth for use as rugs, which became extremely popular. Rugs have evolved into more than a dozen regional styles and may be made from hand-spun and -dyed yarn or less expensive commercial yarn. Navajo once used sandpaintings only in ceremonies but now also produce the distinctive designs and colors for the tourist trade.
The Hopi carve exotic kachina dolls from cottonwood roots and create jewelry, pottery, basketry, and some weavings. The kachina dolls originally followed simple designs and served to educate children about Hopi religion. With the rise of interest from outsiders, the Hopi began to carve more elaborate and realistic figures from the diverse Hopi pantheon. The dolls include clowns (painted with black and white stripes and often holding watermelon slices), animal-like forms, solemn masked figures, and fearsome ogres. Much thought and symbolism go into a Hopi carving, so even though its price is high, the doll will be good value. (Some Navajo have cashed in on the kachina-doll trade, but the Hopi may tell you that the Navajo don't really know about the kachina religion; Navajo dolls tend to have more fur, fiercer features, and lower prices.) Hopi silversmiths most often fashion inlay work using traditional symbols. The inlay is made from two sheets of silver, one with a cut-out design, sandwiched together. This style, now a Hopi trademark, is seen in earrings, bracelets, rings, bolo ties, and belt buckles. The Hopi also turn out beautiful pottery and baskets, as they have for many centuries.
Artists of both tribes create attractive paintings, prints, and sculpture with Native American motifs.
White people have always had difficulty understanding Arizona's tribes, perhaps because these Native American cultures emphasize very different spiritual values. The Navajo and Hopi exist in accord with nature, not against it, adapting to the climate, plants, and animals of the land. Yet when visiting Native American villages, outsiders often see only the material side of the culture—the houses, livestock, dress, pottery, and other crafts. You have to look deeper to gain even a small insight into Native American ways, but learning about tribal cultures can reward you with new insights.
It's easy to visit Navajo and Hopi lands; the tribes ask guests to follow only a few simple rules. Hordes of eager photographers besieged Hopi villages from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, when the Hopi cried "No more!" And that's the way it is now—photography, recording, and sketching by visitors are strictly forbidden in all Hopi villages. Even the sight of a camera will upset some tribal members. The Navajo are more easygoing about photos, but you should always ask first and expect to pay a posing fee.
Reservation land, though held in trust by the government, is private property; obtain permission before leaving the roadways or designated recreational areas. Don't remove anything—a few feathers tied to a bush may make a tempting souvenir, but they're of great religious importance to the person who put them there. Normal good manners, respect, and observance of posted regulations will make your visit pleasurable for both you and your hosts. Alcohol and drugs have become a threat to tribal members, so it's important for visitors not to bring either onto the reservations. When driving, keep an eye out for livestock and wildlife wandering across the road, as much of the land is open range.
You might enjoy tuning in local radio stations to hear favorite tunes and languages of the tribes. Hopi Radio KUYI at 88.1 FM has a large following for its traditional and contemporary Native American and world music.
Religion forms a vital part of both Navajo and Hopi cultures. Most Navajo ceremonies deal with healing. If someone is sick, the family calls in a healer who uses sand paintings, chants, and dancing to effect a cure. These events, often held late at night, aren't publicized. If you're driving at night and see large bonfires outside a house, it's likely there's a healing ceremony going on, but don't go over unless invited.
The Hopi have an elaborate, almost year-round schedule of dances in their village plazas and kivas (partly underground ceremonial rooms). Some, such as those in the kivas, are closed to outsiders, but others may be open to the public. Nearly all Hopi dances serve as prayers for rain, fertile crops, and harmony. Men perform the kachina dances, and while they're dancing they are kachinas. The elaborate and brilliant masks, the ankle bells, the drums and chanting—all invite the attention of the kachinas (supernatural spirits) who bring rain and blessings. At the end of the line of dancers, you might see boys who are learning the ritual; dance steps must be performed precisely. When watching, remember that this is a religious service. Dress respectfully, keep clear of the performers, be quiet, and don't ask questions. Villagers will not tolerate any breaking of the rules, such as taking photos or making sketches. Sometimes all visitors will be asked to leave if one misbehaves! Each village organizes its own dances, but does not advertise them. Word gets around, however, and people at the Hopi Cultural Center or the Cultural Preservation Office may know of the dances. Hopi ceremonies generally take place on the weekends. See the Hopi Calendar for an outline of the kachina and social dances.
Accommodations and Food
Motels in the widely scattered towns can quickly fill up in the summer tourist season, so reservations are a very good idea. Expect to pay more because there's so little competition. Accommodations in towns just outside the reservations—in Flagstaff, Winslow, Holbrook, Page, or Gallup—are generally a much better value. Campgrounds are likely to have space and you'll save a lot of money, but only a few have hookups.
Navajo and Hopi enjoy American, Mexican, and Chinese dishes as well as the ever-present fast foods. Try the Navajo or Hopi taco, a flat fry bread smothered with lettuce, ground beef, beans, tomatoes, chilies, and cheese. The Hopi Cultural Center restaurant on Second Mesa has many local specialties, but chances are the Hopi family at the next table will be munching on hamburgers and fries! No alcohol is sold or permitted on the Navajo and Hopi reservations; you won't find much nightlife, either.
Navajo Recreation and Permits
Navajo lands feature spectacular canyon and mountain scenery that can be explored by experienced hikers and 4WD enthusiasts. Remember that trails and backroads may be unsigned and can be treacherous after rains. Hiking and 4WD guidebooks are your best sources of information. Tribal offices may have some backcountry information, and they can advise on any closed areas. Be sure to obtain permits for hiking or camping. Pets can come along only if on a leash at all times, because livestock roam much of the land. If parking in a remote area, it's best to ask permission to park at a residence and pay a small fee. The main office of the Navajo Parks & Recreation Department (P.O. Box 2520, Window Rock, AZ 86515, 928/871-6647, www.navajonationparks.org, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.) is just north of the Navajo Museum, Library, and Visitor Center. In the western Navajo Nation, which contains most of the popular backcountry areas, contact the Cameron Visitor Center (P.O. Box 459, Cameron, AZ 86020, 928/679-2303) at the US 89-AZ 64 junction in Cameron; it's usually open 7 a.m.–6 p.m. daily in summer, then 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri. the rest of the year. Other places for permits include Upper Antelope Canyon and LeChee (928/698-2808) near Page, and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (435/727-5872). Backcountry permits cost $5 per person per day and $5 per person per night for camping. Obtain permits in person or allow two weeks for processing by mail.
Fishing, hunting, and boating on the Navajo Nation require tribal permits from Navajo Fish and Wildlife (P.O. Box 1480, Window Rock, AZ 86515, 928/871-6451 or 871-6452, www.navajofishandwildlife.org, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.) on the right shortly before you reach Window Rock Monument. Staff can tell you of fishing conditions and which stores sell permits. Of the 14 lakes on the reservation that are stocked with fish, the most popular are the trout lakes Wheatfields and Tsaile in eastern Arizona and Asaayi and Whiskey nearby in New Mexico. State game and fish agencies have no jurisdiction; you need only tribal permits.
Hopi Recreation and Permits
The Hopi generally don't allow outsiders to hike, fish, or hunt. You may be able to visit backcountry areas with a guide. Ask at the Tsakurshovi shop (1.5 miles east of the Hopi Cultural Center, 928/734-2478) or at the Hopi Cultural Center (928/734-2401), both atop Second Mesa.
Not always easy to get! Motels, shops, and trading posts can be helpful; tribal police know regulations and road conditions. Try the museums run by the Navajo at Window Rock and Tsaile and by the Hopi on Second Mesa. Local newspapers report on politics, sports, and social events, but not religious ceremonies.
Navajo: Window Rock, the Navajo Nation capital, has the tribe's main tourist and recreation offices. Check the information desk at the Navajo Museum, Library, and Visitor Center in town, or contact the Navajo Nation Tourism Department (P.O. Box 663, Window Rock, AZ 86515, 928/871-6436, www.explorenavajo.com).
Hopi: The Hopi Cultural Center (P.O. Box 67, Second Mesa, AZ 86043, 928/734-2401, www.hopiculturalcenter.com) and Cultural Preservation Office (one mile south of AZ 264 in the Tribal Headquarters building, P.O. Box 123, Kykotsmovi, AZ 86039, 928/734-3613) can answer visitor's questions and may know of upcoming dances open to the public.
What Time Is It?
This must be the question most frequently asked by reservation visitors! While the Navajo Nation and most of the United States go on daylight saving time from early April to late October, the rest of Arizona stays on Mountain Standard Time. Keep in mind the time difference on Navajo land during daylight saving time or you'll always be one hour late; an easy way to remember is that the reservation follows the same time as its New Mexico and Utah sections. The Hopi, who rarely agree with the Navajo on anything, choose to stay on Mountain Standard Time.
Your own transportation is by far the most convenient, but tours of Navajo country do leave from major centers.
On to Western Navajo Country