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The Wonders of the Navajo Nation
Today marked the end of the Route 66 portion of our journey. We had traveled as far east as we could go on the Mother Road, within our time constraints. We would be heading back west today, with a big northward loop into the land of the Navajo Nation.
When we had returned to Gallup in the dark last night, we had scanned the profusion of lit signs along Route 66, looking for a “neon mural” that had been designed by our guidebook author, Jerry McClanahan. The mural was supposed to be on top of the Chamber of Commerce building, and was described in the guidebook as “depicting a pink ’59 Caddy headed into a Route 66 neon sunset.” Perhaps it was the word “mural” that had thrown us off—we were looking for something BIG. We hadn’t found the Chamber of Commerce building in the dark, and we had wondered if perhaps the mural no longer existed.
This morning, we spied the “mural” while heading out of town:
Ben and I both laughed when we saw it because it was so much smaller than we had anticipated. (Our laughter was directed at our expectations, not the sign—which was actually quite nice. It’s funny how word descriptions can convey an image in our minds, and set up expectations, which might be very different than what we actually experience in person). In any event, I wished that I could have seen the neon sign all lit up in the dark.
We headed north toward the Navajo Nation. Here is a small group of homes by the roadside:
Welcome back to Arizona:
We entered Navajo Nation Land. The Navajo Nation has the largest reservation in the United States, covering a large part of northeastern Arizona, as well as small parts of Utah and New Mexico. The Navajo people call themselves Diné, which means “The People.”
Our first stop was to visit the Navajo Nation Museum, Library and Visitor’s Center, which had opened in 1997.
Near the parking lot were some striking rock formations:
Outside the main doors was a hogan, a traditional Navajo home:
The interior of the building was spacious and beautiful, with tall ceilings. Here are Ben and Genevieve:
There were three large exhibits being presented today. The first was a beautiful display of over 350 weavings. I didn’t know if we were allowed to take photos, so Ben went off to ask. He returned saying not only could we take photos, but the woman he had talked to said that she would give us a free guided tour through the museum. While we waited for her to join us, we took some photos of the weavings.
The weavings were grouped together by clans or families. Here is Genevieve next to a set of weavings done by the Family of Asdzáá Bit’ahnii (Under His Cover / Folded Arms Clan Lady)—the set had patterns woven with traditional muted colors, as well as one small landscape weaving with blues and oranges.
Genevieve and I selected our favorites. Hers was a weaving done within the Family of Asdzáá Tsé nahabitna (Sleepy Rock Clan Lady):
My favorite was a weaving done within the Family of Asdzáá Ta’neeszahnii (Tangle Clan Lady):
The tan line that extends from the pattern to the edge of the weaving is called a “spirit line”—it leaves an opening for the background, and reflects opening one’s mind to new ideas.
These round weavings, from the Family of Asdzáá Ashiihi (Salt Clan Lady), had many figures depicted:
There were also colorful figures on this weaving, from the Family of Asdzáá Dziltl’ahni (the Mountain Recess Clan Lady):
We all thought this weaving by the Family of Asdzáá Kin yaa aanii (Towering House Clan Lady) was magnificent:
Our guide met us while we were admiring the weavings. Her name was also Genevieve. She explained that the figures in the above weaving represented Father Sky on the right and Mother Earth on the left.
We then walked through an exhibit area with many displays about the cultural history of the Diné.
Our guide Genevieve explained that before 1864, the Navajo people had 12 leaders for the tribe. The U.S. government would sometimes negotiate treaties with only a few of these leaders. Not all of the leaders, however, were in agreement about giving up their rights or land. In 1864, the U.S. government rounded up all of the Navajo people and marched them 200 miles to Ft. Sumner; several hundred Navajo died along the way, and many more died at Ft. Sumner over the next four years. In 1968, the U.S. Government entered into a treaty with all 12 Navajo leaders, and the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland.
A copy of the 1968 treaty was displayed from the ceiling so that each page could be read:
Another exhibit told about the boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania that many Navajo children attended.
The school was founded by Euro-Americans who held the belief that Native American children should be assimilated into the dominant U.S. culture. The Navajo children were forced to cut their hair, stop speaking their language, change their religious beliefs, and adopt different cultural values.
Our guide Genevieve showed us a large painting of a woman with a bowl of corn; she explained that the Navajo people use corn in their daily prayers, to welcome in the sun, to offer blessings, and to ask for guidance.
These offerings are a daily ritual for our guide. She spoke a little about her life as a child. Her father built hogans and assisted in healing ceremonies, and she would often accompany him.
The painting called “Navajo Universe” by Melvin Bainbridge (Diné) really resonated with our daughter Genevieve.
Various constellations were depicted, with the coyote, sun and moon playing critical roles.
Another display showed traditional cradleboards, which are made by the father after the baby is born:
This velveteen dress was decorated with coins:
Our guide Genevieve explained that the Navajo people traded with Mexican and Spanish people to get velveteen cloth, which they sewed into dresses.
Here is a more modern graduation ceremony outfit, worn around the 8th grade by a girl to celebrate her passage into womanhood:
Our guide Genevieve explained that the graduation outfits used to be very plain so that people would not think the girl was a prostitute; today, however, the outfits are very colorful. Genevieve is a weaver, and she creates graduation outfits for girls in her community.
A third area in the museum contained an exhibit of work by Navajo photographers. There was a wide variety of images.
Here are two images by Carmen Hunter. “Preserving Culture by Example”:
“The Lone Stretch”:
We were very impressed with the museum, and we were very grateful that our guide Genevieve had shown such warmth and care in presenting the information to us.
The museum is located in Window Rock, named after the scenic land formation in town-- a 200-foot high sandstone hill with a large “window” hole.
Window Rock is also the administrative center and Capitol of the Navajo Nation, and many administrative buildings have been constructed next to the scenic rock.
Here is the Navajo Nations Council Chamber:
We headed east along a 2-lane road that was lined with pine trees.
Then we descended into the desert. The houses were spaced far apart. Here is one of the homes, a hogan shape with modern windows:
The small town of Ganado had a nice school, as well as a large modern sports complex, a pavilion, and an aquatic center that served the Navajo Nation.
We turned north, across the high desert.
Some of the homes had a hogan next to a more modern looking structure:
Other homes we passed:
Horses grazed in fields that were partially covered in snow:
In the town of Chinle, this church had a small group of cows out front:
A woman was bundled up against the cold:
Chinle marked the entrance to the Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “Shay”) National Monument.
Canyon de Chelly is actually a number of canyons that cover 84,000 acres within the Navajo Nation Land. It was declared a National Monument in 1931. The area has been inhabited for almost 5000 years by various people, and the Navajo (Diné) have been here for several hundred years. About 40 to 50 Navajo families still live within the canyon in the summer, but live up above the canyon rim during the winter months.
Most of the Canyon is closed to the general public without a Navajo guide. However, people are allowed to drive unaccompanied on two roads that wind along the canyon rims, and also to hike to a cliff dwelling called “the White House.” Our plan was to hike the White House Ruins Trail this afternoon, and then see more parts of the park tomorrow with a guide.
We stopped at the visitor’s center to pick up Junior Ranger booklets for the children.
Outside the center was a pole with three flags—from top to bottom, the Navajo flag, the State of Arizona flag, and the United States of America flag.
We learned that about 2000 years ago, a group of people lived in caves within the canyon, and that they farmed corn, squash, and beans on the canyon floors. They were expert weavers. Early Euro-American explorers found so many baskets inside the caves that they called these people “Basketmakers.”
Here is a copy of a pictograph that was found within the canyons:
We watched a short movie in which a Navajo man talked of how the world was changing rapidly, and how some Navajo manage to transition smoothly back and forth from the modern world to the traditional ways of the Navajo people. He also said that others do not handle the transition well and end up feeling like they don’t belong in either world.
During the movie, a older Navajo woman sitting in front of us turned around intermittently to talk to us. She was from the town of Farmington, and she said that the Canyon de Chelly area was generally covered in snow from January through March each year.
We drove along the southern rim until we reached the White House trailhead. Here is a view into the canyon:
The White House Ruins Trail was between 2 ½ to 3 miles (the mileage signs were not consistent). A sign at the top warned us that the trail was steep, with portions having a 300-foot drop to one side. Two workers at the top were shoveling snow; they told us to be careful of the ice and snow on the trail.
Here I am at the trailhead with Genevieve and Sebastian:
The trail would lead us down to the bottom and across this small valley:
Along the rim top:
The trail made a tight turn and then started descending through a small tunnel:
Genevieve and Sebastian led the way:
We were soon joined by this small dog:
She was quite friendly, and we gave her lots of attention and petting. She responded enthusiastically to our outpouring of love and accompanied us during our entire hike.
Portions of the trail were covered in snow and ice.
The trail had switchbacks cut into the side of a rock wall, with a steep drop-off on one side. Genevieve and Sebastian are excellent hikers, but I kept a close eye on them during the narrow sections (telling Sebastian to hold off from using his “happy feet” along this part).
The scenery was spectacular, with the red rocks, the snow, the shadows, and the blue sky.
We could see distinct layers in the sandstone rock; the diagonal and swirl patterns spoke of the powerful winds that had blown the sand into giant, moving dunes.
The trail entered another tunnel before reaching the bottom of the canyon.
As we emerged from the tunnel, we saw a large field that contained a hogan with a herd of sheep in a fenced area. Some signs indicated that this area was private property, and photos were prohibited.
We turned left, away from the hogan, and followed the trail across the canyon floor.
The rock walls around us:
We were enveloped in a peaceful silence.
We only saw one other group of hikers on the way to the ruins—an abrasive threesome with a woman who yelled that we needed to head back before dark, and a man who said that we must have fed the dog some food to get her to follow us (not true, but I suppose that he doesn’t know that love is often more powerful than food).
The Chinle Wash wound through the canyon:
We crossed a small bridge over the Wash; our dog-friend chose the lower route so that she could get a drink.
A beautiful rock formation stood above us:
The trail then led us past some fenced areas.
A few horses were grazing, wearing their winter coats.
As we cleared a group of trees, we saw rising before us a sheer cliff wall, stretching tall to the sky. A cave area near the bottom held the White House ruins.
Looking up above the ruins:
This housing area was inhabited about 1000 years ago by the Ancestral Puebloan people. Archeologists believe that there may have been 60 rooms that housed about 100 people. A sign provided an artist’s drawing of what the homes may have looked like.
The Navajo people call this set of dwellings as the “White House in Between.” The term “white house” refers to the upper dwelling that is coated in white plaster.
Although the ruins are now blocked off so that they are protected, we noticed a lot of graffiti carved into the white plaster walls. We were able to read various inscriptions, including what appeared to be the following: “J.W. Conway Santape Sept. 24, 1873”, “J.W. Ellison Sept. 20, 1884,” and “Harold Bonnstetter, Algona, IA 2/7/10.”
The walls contained some petroglyphs:
As always, Genevieve and Sebastian tried to leave the area cleaner than when they found it; they collected some garbage on the ground and put it in the nearby waste bin. Here is Sebastian:
Across the canyon was this massive rock formation:
The bare trees in the valley had a silvery glow:
Ben and Sebastian, on the return hike:
Genevieve (with Ben and Sebastian), on the narrow trail heading back up to the rim:
Back at the top:
We stopped by the overlook point that provided a view of the White House ruins. The dwellings were in shadow at this point—can you find them in the first photo below?
When we reached the RV, it was time to say “goodbye” to our sweet companion.
She looked healthy, but we noticed that she was a bit thin.
We gave her some ham, and a lot more loving, before we left:
Genevieve had really enjoyed the steep switchbacks along the canyon wall, and she had especially liked having the dog along with us. She said that this was her “favorite hike ever.”
Canyon de Chelly offers a free campground inside the park (first come, first served), near the entrance. On the way there, we stopped at the Tunnel Overlook. Sebastian didn’t want to venture out into the cold again, so Genevieve and I braved our way along a snowy and slippery stretch of land (“Where is the trail??”) to get to the farthest point allowed without an authorized guide:
We could see where the stairs led down around a bend, and we thought that perhaps the tunnel entrance was the dark spot to the right of Genevieve’s shoulder in the photo below:
We easily found a spot in the snow-covered campground. There were only a few other campers. The children settled in for the night, finishing up a crossword puzzle in their Junior Ranger booklets, and happily sipping cups of hot cocoa with marshmallows.
One of the Junior Ranger questions involved ticks, and we explained to Sebastian that ticks were flat but puffed up with blood when they attached themselves to a person or animal. This blood-sucking image stuck with Sebastian, and haunted him in middle of the night. He woke us up, convinced that there were ticks in his bed. Ben opened up Sebastian’s bed covers thoroughly so that Sebastian could see that his bedding was bug-free. To get Sebastian’s mind completely off of ticks, Ben suggested that Sebastian think about his favorite rides at Disneyland. Sweet dreams, my child! May your visions of puffy ticks be replaced with flying elephants and soaring spaceships.
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