Where long memory tolerates modernity

Native culture, history, and heritage run deep in the Navajo lands

Canyon de Chelly is a 130-square-mile labyrinth of canyons, caves,. and gorges. (Getty Images) Canyon de Chelly is a 130-square-mile labyrinth of canyons, caves,. and gorges.
By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / March 14, 2010

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TUBA CITY — Few places move the spirit the way the Navajo lands do. I keep returning to this landscape of red sandstone, deep canyons, and grassy mesas, and each time I visit, I’m awed by its beauty and humbled by its simplicity.

The 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation spilling into Utah and New Mexico is spectacular country. Within or edging its Arizona borders are seven national monuments, two national parks, a national historic site, a national recreation area, three tribal parks, countless natural sights, and the Hopi Reservation, an independent area within the Navajo land.

“Spiritually, the Navajo Reservation is bordered by four mountains,’’ says Leonard Nez, a Navajo guide. With just a few words, he conveys the Navajo way, how spirituality trumps capitalism and community rises above individualism. “We never fought over these holy lands, they’re not ours. We’re just the caretakers.’’

It’s one thing to tour these sprawling lands, but to appreciate them requires an understanding of the area’s culture, heritage, and history, and recognition of the relationship between life and land. The Navajo Interactive Museum in Tuba City provides this.

“Our culture is like Buddhism,’’ says the museum’s Donovan Hanley. “Everything has a life, a purpose.’’ Museum exhibits explain everything from the creation story to contemporary life, a culture as colorful as the Painted Desert’s sands. Like other young Navajos, Hanley struggles to balance modern aspirations with reverence for traditional ways, to embrace the future while honoring the past.

In Page, on the shores of Lake Powell, Mylo Begay works for his uncle Chief Tsosie’s Antelope Slot Canyon Tours. Begay’s passion and gift for photography enrich his tours of this twisted groove, carved by wind, sand, and water. Light dances magically off the canyon’s curves and striations. Begay helps me create images, adjusting technical settings and advising on angles.

Then, when the other groups have passed through, he trades modern ways for traditional ones. He demonstrates the canyon’s sound effects by playing a traditional flute, first in an open area, then by curling up in a shallow cavern. The first music is beautiful, but the second is haunting and gives me shivers.

On the edge of the Navajo lands in communities like Page trading posts are plentiful. Here Navajo belief in community-owned property abuts capitalism. At the Blair Trading Post, Elijah Blair holds forth in the upstairs museum, which displays family treasures rich in blankets, jewelry, and pots collected over the decades.

“Since the Navajo don’t own property, they had no collateral, and when they needed money, there was no other way for them to get it than to pawn or trade something,’’ Blair explains. “We bought everything they produced and found a market for it: livestock, wool, piñon nuts, potatoes, corn.’’ In more recent years, the emphasis has shifted from trade to pawn.

It’s in informal exchanges with store clerks, gallery workers, waitresses, even folks at neighboring tables that I pick up useful tidbits, from the traditional Navajo greeting, roughly “ya’ah’tee,’’ to learning that the Navajo call themselves the Diné, “the people.’’

It’s also how I learn about Shonto, which means “sunshine springs.’’ It’s an appropriate name for an oasis of cottonwoods that draws life from a creek. This is home to the Shonto Trading Post, a combination general store, grill, and gallery selling traded goods: woven blankets, silver and beaded jewelry, baskets, and pottery.

“All the crafts are locally made,’’ trader Al Grieve says. “This is one of the few areas where people still card and spin their own wools, and one of the few that also produces pottery and baskets.’’ The selection isn’t huge, but I find a woven mat and a piece of folk art that makes me smile.

Grieve explains that the Shonto held onto traditional ways longer than many other Navajos because they hid out in the canyon, avoiding the Long Walk, the death march in 1863, when the Navajo were forced to leave their lands and walk to Fort Defiance.

I hear similar stories from my guide in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, a 130-square-mile labyrinth comprising two canyons, gorges, and offshoots. Anyone can drive along the rim, but accessing its red rock depths and the fertile valley floor below requires a native guide and a truck that can navigate the deep ruts and sand waves.

It’s a rough ride but the rewards far outweigh the discomfort. People have lived here since 350 AD, and more than 2,700 archeological sites remain, including cliff dwellings and petroglyphs. I marvel at the tales of how the ancient peoples carved out such intricate villages high on narrow canyon shelves; how they built shelters that took advantage of the sun and canyon walls for summer cooling and winter warmth; how they farmed the canyon floor, and scaled the cliffs carrying water and food.

Despite its size, Canyon de Chelly is an intimate experience. Not so Monument Valley, roughly three hours northwest. Perhaps no place on the Navajo Reservation is more recognized than this tribal park, thanks in great part to John Wayne westerns. Throughout the valley, sandstone formations rise from out of the high desert floor, but the most striking ones are in the tribal park. Navajo guide Harold Simpson, whose family is one of about 14 living within its boundaries, helps me appreciate the landscape as well as the life here.

“This used to be my sandbox,’’ he says, as we stop near the Praying Hands formation. “My parents were very traditional, they hardly knew English; my stepfather is a medicine man.’’ Simpson’s grandparents taught him traditional ways. “For elderly Navajo, Monument Valley is so sacred they call it the Talking Rocks,’’ he says. The land is littered with pottery shards, but to bring one home, he says, is to bring home a spirit or ghost. “You don’t want no bad mojo.’’

His tour turns off the public roads and includes stops for singing, flute playing, drumming, and dancing by his brother Richard that is a real treat. Our group gets better acquainted as Richard teaches us a few steps while Harold sings and drums.

We stop at the Sun’s Eye, a magnificent cavern formation with a hole in its roof. Simpson again drums, this time belting out a song he wrote about the Navajo Code Talkers, who communicated Allied secrets during World War II. His voice reverberates off the walls of the cavernous formation. There’s an exhibit dedicated to these heroes at the Burger King in nearby Kayenta.

The sun is setting as we arrive back at the Monument Valley Visitors Center. When pushed, Simpson talks a bit about The View Hotel, which opened adjacent to the center a few years ago and delivers on its name. Economic development is a sensitive topic, he says. It illustrates the clash between the elders, who see the land as sacred; the younger generation, who want more opportunities and have grown up with TVs, computers, and cellphones; and those, like Simpson, who try to balance between two worlds.

“For me, for my business, I believe economic development is very important. My guides have families to feed,’’ Simpson says. But he acknowledges that commercialism and capitalism rub against the bedrock of his traditional ways. “We wrestle with that,’’ he says.

From my hotel room, I look out over the valley floor, watching formations fade into darkness. A procession of vehicle headlights straggles back toward warmth, comfort, and lights. One lone set of lights bumps along in the other direction. I know it’s Simpson returning to his hogan, a traditional dwelling made of logs and mud on the valley floor.

Hilary Nangle can be reached at

If You Go

Tuba City

The Quality Inn Navajo Nation


March rates from $92, including breakfast.

The Cameron Trading Post

About 10 miles from Tuba City


A combination motel, trading post, gallery, and restaurant. Off-season rates $79-$179. Navajo weavers often can be seen working in the trading post.

Antelope Slot Canyon Tours


$32 adults, $20 children for 1 1/2-hour tour.

Blair’s Trading Post



Shonto Trading Post


Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly National Monument


Thunderbird Lodge


Has a cafeteria-style restaurant and trading post on site. Offers the only authorized canyon tours. A guided half-day tour is $49 adults, $38 children. March rates from

Monument Valley

Navajo Tribal Park


Admission $5.

Simpson’s Trailhandler Tours


Rates from $57 per person for 1 1/2 hours.

The View Hotel


The only accommodation in the tribal park, with trading post, theater, and full-service restaurant. March rates from $149.

Gouldings Lodge


Motel, restaurant, trading post, and museum with a strong John Wayne collection. March rates from $130.