Yá‘ át’ ééh – Welcome to the Navajo Nation!
The Navajo Nation, Diné in the native Navajo language, is the largest Native American tribe in the United States. With over 27,000 square miles of homeland sprawled across four states and nearly 300,000 people who claim at least ¼ Navajo blood, the Diné people represent one of the last vestiges of a southwestern culture that has persevered over hundreds of years, living in harmony with the land and serving their neighbors. Known for their artisan silver, magnificent rug weavings and intricate basket work, the Navajo are more than just an indigenous people. Today’s Navajo have learned how to be one with the universe, honoring their sacred traditions while thriving in a modern market economy.
The First People.
The Navajo have lived in the southwestern deserts of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico since the early 15th century. They migrated from the north, bringing with them many of the creation stories shared by other Native American peoples, including the belief in a supernatural creator. The Navajo believe there are two classes of people – the Earth people and the Holy people. The Holy people originated with the First Man and the First Woman and it is understood that these first people were responsible for teaching the early Diné the wonders of the earth, how to respect and care for the land, and how to live in harmony with the universe. Many of the Navajo’s social customs and laws came as direct commandments from the Holy people and to this day the Navajo can trace their respect for Mother Earth and their staunch environmentalism to the teachings of the Holy people.
It is believed the Holy people also gave the Navajo four sacred mountains, located in four distinct corners of the original native land. San Francisco Peaks in the west, Mt. Blanca in the east, Mt. Hesperus in the north and Mt. Taylor to the south represent the four wonders of the Navajo Nation. Each direction of the land is reflected in a different color as well, with Yellow Abalone denoting the west, White Shell reflecting the east, Turquoise signifying the south and Jet Black the north. Navajo art will often use these sacred colors, creating a circle of harmony between art and the Earth that inspired it.
Although the Navajo have lived in the west for less than a millennium, it was there that they met and joined with the Pueblos, a native people living in and revering the natural wonders of the southwest, specifically the Grand Canyon area, for thousands of years. Learning from the Pueblos how to survive the desert’s harsh elements, the Navajo fused their traditional culture with that of the Pueblos and came through the migration an even stronger people.
Traditions and Culture.
Drawing on a deep spiritual connection to Mother Earth, the Navajo people are rich in traditions and cultural contributions. Their exquisite jewelry is recognized world-wide for its expert craftsmanship, their sustainable agriculture techniques set the standard for desert living and their complex and symbolic language even contributed to the success of American forces in World War II.
In fact, the Navajo Code Talkers are credited with transmitting the only Allied messages that could not be decoded by German or Japanese forces. Immortalized on film in the motion picture Wind Talkers, the Navajo language serves as an elaborate thread weaving together generations of Navajo people that have become as diverse as the patterns in their ceremonial baskets. A veteran’s memorial highlighting the contributions of the Code Talkers can be found at Window Rock, Arizona, capital of the Navajo Nation.
The Navajo Today.
Today the Navajo continue to represent the best of both native and modern worlds. Navajo’s feeling ill are just as likely visit a state of the art of hospital as consult with a traditional medicine man healer, trained in the ancient arts of diagnosis and herbal healing. Traditional Navajo ceremonies continue to reflect a love for the environment and an appreciation for all that Mother Earth has provided. But with more than 50 ceremonies to honor everything from a successful harvest to a new business arrangement with the tribal government, the performance of such rituals is as much about educating the non-Navajo as holding fast to time-honored traditions. The Diné dichotomy, bringing ancient harmony to a post-modern world, continues to evolve, creating a mystical place where past meets present and visitors can learn from one of the oldest surviving civilizations in the American west.
What started as a struggling reservation following the Indian Wars of the mid-1800’s has become a thriving economy bolstered by the discovery of oil in the early 20th century and the continued development of National Parks and Monuments within the reservation boundaries. The Tribal Government is largely regarded as the most sophisticated and developed American Indian government with a legislative, executive and judicial branch. It is comprised of delegates representing 110 nation chapters. Visitors to the capital chambers can observe these delegates in action, many speaking only in Navajo as they discuss such modern issues as higher education, economic development and green building practices.
The “Modern” Reservation.
The original Navajo lands stretch from the corners of the four mountains and expand from the Ute Mountains across Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. However the reservation lands today are slightly smaller than the original homeland and contain several checkerboard communities, mixing native and non-native landownership. Of interesting note, however is the fact that the Hopi Nation and its territorial lands can be found completely inside the Navajo Nation reservation, a veritable Indian island nation within a nation.
The Navajo Reservation is home to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, breathtaking Monument Valley, Rainbow Bridge National Monument and the dramatic Shiprock landmark. Over 60% of Navajo’s earn their living through the production of native arts and crafts, and trading posts at Rough Rock, Tuba City and Cameron are perfect for picking up a traditional piece of silver and turquoise jewelry or striking woven rug.
Visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the Navajo of old should make a point to visit Four Corners Tribal Park, where reenactments of tribal ceremonies are held, traditional artisans and food vendors provide authentic wares and you can feel the vastness of the reservation by standing on the only point in the United States where four states intersect.
If it is natural wonder you seek, visit the Little Colorado River Gorge, the Bisti Badlands or Monument Valley. These awe-inspiring landscapes renew the bond between humanity and the Earth and visitors often report feelings of spiritual connection with God, the Creator, or simply a force “more powerful than themselves.”
For a traditional collection of Navajo artifacts stop by the Navajo Museum in Window Rock, with interpretative displays and an authentic Navajo hogan, or house in the center of the museum. Archeology enthusiasts will enjoy the Dinosaur Tracks, located 5 miles west of Tuba City near the Grand Canyon. Petrified examples of Jurassic era bones, eggs and tracks can be seen along the marked trail, with informational kiosks explaining
The preservation efforts of the Navajo can be seen at the Zoo and Botanical Park, located at Window Rock, with over 30 species of native animals and several species of birds that have called the Navajo Nation home for centuries. Although not an active breeding program, the Zoo and Botanical Park does provide sanctuary to endangered Navajo species and a habitat for animals that due to injury or illness are unprepared to return to the wild.
Visiting the Navajo.
There are no special permits required for visiting the Navajo Nation or traveling on reservation lands. However visitors wishing to hunt, hike, camp or boat on the reservations waterways require permission from the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department and/or the Navajo Fish and Wildlife Department, both located at tribal headquarters in Window Rock, Arizona.
When visiting the Navajo Nation, respect their lands and yá’ át’ ééh – Welcome!