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Nation Within Nation
There is a nation within our nation--actually, there are several nations within our nation. These are the many Native American reservations. Recently I visited one of these, the Navajo Nation. The Navajo are the largest of the Native American tribes, with well over 200,000 members. The reservation takes in part of three states: New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. It encompasses over 24,000 square miles--roughly the size of West Virginia. Within the borders of the Navajo Nation, lies the Hopi Reservation. Both tribes are open to having visitors.
The landscape is open, rugged, arid, and austere--sand, wind, and rock. This dry, hard land provides sustenance for these spiritually rugged tribes. In this land of mystery, ancient stories swirl--stories of how the Hopi have been atop their three high mesas since 573 AD, stories of how Spider Woman taught the Navajo women to weave. The stories are often tied to physical features of the land, such as Spider Rock. Deep within Canyon de Chelly stands a sandstone spire reaching 800' from the valley floor--the home of Spider Woman according to the legends. Hearing brief mention of Spider Woman, I began to ask questions.
"Boy, she represents the extremes. She can be really good or really bad. She gave us the ability to create with our hands. She requires a lot of respect in talking about her. We can only speak of them [Spider Woman and other of the Navajo "Holy People"] in winter when they are asleep. We cannot speak of her now," Navajo Will Tsosie responded, a bit of concern registering on his face. That was the end of that conversation. The legends are passed down in the winter, "after the thunder sleeps," as part of the ongoing oral history of the Navajo People. I was there in spring.
The first thing that strikes many visitors is the obvious material poverty of the native people. Greater numbers of Native Americans live at or below the poverty level than any other race or ethnic group. Poverty to the Navajo, however, is not a lack of material possessions, but to be without family, or to not be part of a group. Belonging (to family and Clans) is wealth to the Navajo.
The once semi-nomadic Navajo also go back a few centuries with the area--arriving between 900-1500 AD, depending upon which source one checks. They swept in from the northern regions that today are part of Canada. Here they adapted by adopting the agricultural way of life of neighboring Pueblo tribes. Later, they adapted again, taking up the shepherding of livestock obtained from the Spanish. Silversmithing is a skill adopted after the Long Walk of 1864, when the Navajo were captured by Kit Carson's soldiers and forced to walk 400 miles to Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a 26 mile-long canyon covering 83,340 acres. The depth of the canyon varies from 30' at its mouth to 1,000' of sheer stone walls shooting straight up only a few miles away. There is a scenic road following the canyon rim that offers excellent views of the area. The Navajo first entered the canyon around 1700 AD, but there is much evidence of earlier occupation by the Anasazi--"the ancient alien ones." The best way to see the canyon is by horseback--riding deep into the canyon depths. Entering the canyon without a permit and the accompaniment of either a park ranger or authorized Navajo guide is prohibited. Native guide Justin Tso offers year-round guided horseback trips ranging from two hours to several days. There are about 50 Navajo families that live within the canyon tending their flocks and working the dry ground.
Hubbell's Trading Post is the place to purchase Navajo rugs and Hopi Kachina dolls. The trading post dates its history from 1871. When the Navajo Reservation was enlarged in 1880, the trading post was within the new territory. Hubbell petitioned Congress for an exception, based upon his prior claim as a settler. Many Navajos still buy from the trading post, that is today a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service.
The Hopi Reservation takes in the three high mesas where their 12 autonomous villages are located, along with some surrounding land. The mesas are referred to as First, Second, and Third Mesa. There are only about 10,000 of the Hopi left. A private people, and due to past exploitation, they do not allow photography, sketching, or recording while on their land. In order to enter a Hopi village, one must be accompanied by a Hopi guide.
According to tradition, the mesas were chosen because the high vantage point allowed the Hopi to spot approaching enemies miles away. Old Oraibi, on Third Mesa, has been inhabited continuously since 1150 AD--one of the oldest, continuously occupied areas in the Americas. Their stone and adobe structures, in villages such as Walpi on First Mesa, blend right into the landscape appearing to be part of the mesa--which may explain why they have remained in the same location for so long. White settlers simply didn't know they were there. Walpi has been inhabited since the 13th century. Today the village still has no running water or electricity. A few residents in the small village offer items such as pottery, or hand-carved Kachina dolls for sale.
Practicing dry farming, the Hopi are a deeply religious people that attempt to live in complete harmony with the land. They see themselves as stewards of the land. Each Hopi village has a plaza where ceremonial dances are held, as they have been for centuries, and guests may observe.
The Hopi Cultural Center, on Second Mesa, is located at the center of the universe according to Hopi tradition. The center is a museum, motel, and restaurant all in one. Here I tried the traditional lamb and hominy dish of Nok-Qui-Vi. Though it came highly recommended, I can't remember when I've had a more bland dish. Then again, this was a cultural tour and I wasn't looking for haute cuisine.
A Hopi I met at the center shared with me some of the prophecies that are part of the oral tradition of his people.
"A new world is coming. Pollution will go away. Corruption will be done away with and the people will be free. People will live in harmony with the environment. Our current world, age, is out of balance--like a stirred up ant hill. People are going to and fro. Things are moving too fast."
The town Kayenta, with its population of just over 5,000, is referred to as the gateway to Monument Valley. The Navajo name for the region is Tse' Bii' Ndzisgaii; say that three times quickly. Maybe you've never been to the region of the US, but I assure you've seen the scenery--if you've watched nearly any television at all. The towering spires, buttes, canyons, and mesas have been the backdrop for many Westerns. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park features some of the world's most scenic beauty--one reason the area is often used as a backdrop for commercials. The renting of this scenic land for commercial filming is a major income source for the Navajo. The valley floor has an elevation of over 5,500 feet above sea level. The red color of the sandstone is so intense, it casts a pink hue on the underside of passing cumulus clouds. Here one finds stunning scenic beauty among the many rock formations. Sun's Eye is a rock sculpted by wind and rain into the shape of an eye, really taking on the appearance of an eye during the summer equinox when the sun actually becomes the pupil of the eye.
Page, Arizona is a fairly new town, growing from a 1957 workers' camp for those working on the Glen Canyon Dam. The town serves as an excellent starting point for a tour of Navajo and Hopi lands, as well as being an entry point for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area--an area of blue water and multi-hued rock. The recreation area offers the easiest access to Rainbow Bridge National Monument (the other option being an overland hike of nearly 30 miles). Rainbow Bridge is the world's largest natural bridge and is a sacred Native American site.
While in the area, don't miss a visit to Antelope Slot Canyon. The canyon is narrow and lovely as it twists and turns, bouncing reflected light off its smooth walls. While standing inside this thing of beauty, I don't care to contemplate the forces that forged it. Looking up, nearly 30' above my head I see a tree trunk and debris lodged in the stone...and I know. Fast, frothing, onrushing water is the artist's instrument that formed this masterpiece. Some of nature's most beautiful work, slot canyons start as a crack in the sandstone letting in a little water. It isn't long until the water starts to have its way with the stone, carving it into a new ode of nature.
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[c] Thomas R. Fletcher