Experiencing Indigenous culture in the Navajo Nation, USA

Encompassing some of the most iconic expanses of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, the home of the Navajo people is a must-see for those who truly want to understand modern America...

6 mins

In the land of the Navajo, the earth is alive and imbued with magic. Here, among the high desert plains and stark red canyons of the American Southwest, every rock and stone is steeped in myth and legend. Golden buttes punch through the ground like giants' fists, the handprints of shamans mark the cliffs. Listen and you’ll hear the medicine man’s fire, the drums of ancestors echoing on the wind.

But this is not some far-flung place. It is hidden in plain sight, woven between the cracks like flowers growing through paving. It may say America on the map, but it feels like a different world.

In many ways, it is. The Navajo Nation is a 70,000 sq km sovereign state spread across the parched-yellow grasslands and burgundy mesas of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. It is the largest reservation in the country (bigger than Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined) and has its own language, government and cultural identity. More than 170,000 Navajo people – or Diné, as they call themselves – make their homes here, one foot in the modern world, one in a way of life that has changed little for centuries.

That’s important, because to truly understand America today, you have to see it through the eyes of the people that came first. You have to listen to the stories and maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll feel the magic too. Yá’át’ééh. Welcome to the land of the Navajo.

Navajo Nation highlights

Monument Valley Tribal Park

The Mittens, Monument Valley, Arizona, USA (Shutterstock)

The Mittens, Monument Valley, Arizona, USA (Shutterstock)

The towering red-rock pinnacles and flat-top mesas of Monument Valley are one of the most iconic landscapes in America, and the setting for numerous Westerns. But, in truth, it’s the Indians, not the cowboys, who call this place home.

For the Navajo, these enormous sandstone outcrops are sacred, believed to be the carcasses of defeated monsters, slain by the Holy People, petrified and buried in the sand. Each one tells a story, each one is part of their history and identity.

The most iconic formation is the Mittens, two 300m-tall sandstone buttes that rise from the desert like huge gloved hands. Come at dawn or dusk and they glow orange like embers; in the midday heat, the landscape burns like the surface of Mars. But that’s what everyone sees. The real Monument Valley is in the backcountry, where a scattering of Navajo families still live the old way, off-grid and off the land, tending sheep the way their ancestors did for centuries.

Travel here with a Navajo guide – on horseback, on foot or by 4WD – and you will see these wind-sculpted peaks transformed into thunderbirds and dragon tails. You will learn how yucca is harvested for basket weaving and juniper for bracelets. You will see the dust storm of wild mustangs galloping in the distance. And if you’re lucky, you will feel that sacredness too.

Stay: The Navajo-owned View Hotel lives up to its name: every guest room faces the Mittens.

Do: Numerous Navajo operators offer guided tours. For a treat, book a private backcountry tour via Goulding’s Lodge with Navajo guide Larry Holiday, which includes the chance sleep under the stars.

Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly, USA (Shutterstock)

Canyon de Chelly, USA (Shutterstock)

This dramatic 42km-long Y-shaped gorge is considered by many to be the heart of the Navajo Nation. But it’s also where its heart was broken. In 1864, Colonel Kit Carson invaded this sacred canyon, killing and capturing men, women and children. It was the last battle between the US military and the Navajo, and those that survived joined 8,000 others from their tribe on the infamous ‘Long Walk’ – a 480km forced march across New Mexico to the prison camp of Fort Sumner.

While those scars still remain, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced ‘de shay’) is still a beautiful place. Scenic drives traverse the canyon rim, with panoramic viewpoints throughout; there are gorgeous hiking and riding trails.

For the best experience, hire a Navajo guide for a 4WD tour inside the canyon. Here, scattered among the cliffs and cotton trees are 4,000 years of human history, including the cliff-dwelling homes of the Anasazi, ancestors to the modern-day Navajo, who lived in caves carved into the rock walls. Petroglyphs of dancers, antelopes and the handprints of medicine men mark the walls. At the end of the canyon is Fortress Rock, where the Navajo warriors made their last stand. Perhaps nowhere else on the reservation is the pride, rich history and deep sadness of the Navajo people felt more acutely.

Stay: Thunderbird Lodge is Navajo-owned and the only hotel in Canyon de Chelly.

Do: Canyon de Chelly tours offers guided Jeep and hiking tours inside the canyon led by a certified Navajo guide.

Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon, USA (Shutterstock)

Antelope Canyon, USA (Shutterstock)

Forget the Grand Canyon – that’s just a big ditch. If you want to see Mother Nature at her most colourful and creative, then this narrow slot canyon is perhaps the most beautiful in the world.

It’s also a photographer’s dream. Between April and September mid-morning light shines into the narrow slot at the top of the gorge, lighting up the rock in a kaleidoscope of shades. Sun beams break from above like spotlights. Being here is surreal and awe-inspiring, like nowhere else on earth.

But for the Navajo, it’s more than that. Historically, Antelope Canyon was a kind of cathedral, a natural monument to the infinite creativity and harmony of nature. People would come to quieten their minds, to feel uplifted and connected to something greater than themselves. It was seen as a place of great energy and spirituality.

It still is to this day. Accessible only via Navajo guides, the Upper and Lower parts of the canyon are relatively short and easy to explore. But for a wilder experience, away from the crowds, consider hiking the backcountry trail (23km one-way) deeper into the park to Rainbow Bridge. This 85m long and 88m high natural stone arch, one of the largest in the world, is sacred to the Navajo and a true hidden wonder of the American Southwest.

Stay: Antelope Hogan Bed & Breakfast offers overnights in a traditional Navajo hogan close to the park, near the town of Page.

Do: Navajo Tours Direct offers Navajo-guided tours through all parts of Antelope Canyon and beyond. Backcountry permits are required for accessing Rainbow Bridge by land; it is also possible to take a boat trip from Lake Powell to Rainbow Bridge. 

Navajo Nation culture

A Navajo woman spinning wool in Monument Valley, Arizona, USA (Shutterstock)

A Navajo woman spinning wool in Monument Valley, Arizona, USA (Shutterstock)

Navajo arts The Navajo people have been recognised worldwide as artists of exceptional skill. Navajo textiles, which are exclusively made by women, are especially sought after. A single piece can take a year to weave, mixing coloured threads by hand using techniques passed down through generations. Other art forms include jewellery, basketry, pottery and sand painting with each work designed to reflect the Navajo values of balance and harmony with nature. Buy from a certified Navajo source such as the Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise, run and owned by the Navajo Nation.

Navajo food Traditionally the Navajo harvested the ‘Three Sisters’ (corn, beans, squash), hunted game and raised sheep and goats. Today, while that’s still common, it’s all about fry bread. First made during the Long Walk of 1864 using the only ingredients they were given – flour, sugar, salt, lard – it can now be found at every restaurant and food truck in the reservation. Eat it alone, with sweet toppings or smother it in meat, veg and beans to create the gluttonous deliciousness that is the Navajo Taco. CH’Ihootso Indian Market Place (at the junction of Highway 264/Navajo Route 12) has vendors serving everything from corn stew to Navajo tacos.

Trading posts Trading posts were traditionally a communal place where people would gather to hear news and connect with the community. At their peak, in the 19th century, over 350 were spread out across the reservation and today many of those historic buildings still remain. One of the best is the Hubbell Trading Post, the longest continually operating trading post in the Navajo Nation, serving customers since 1876. The building hasn’t changed much, but the goods inside have with some of the best modern-day Navajo arts and crafts available to buy. The Hubbell Trading Post is a National Historic Site and open daily. 

Museums The Navajo Nation has a number of excellent museums which provide great depth and background. The Explore Navajo Interactive Museum in Tuba City takes visitors on a recreation of the journey that Navajos take through life, learning about their beliefs, ceremonies, culture and history. The Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock features modern and archaeological displays of jewellery, basket weaving, pottery and more. To see it all brought to life, head to the Navajo Village Heritage Center,+ near Page, for an authentic recreation of a homestead that features live storytelling, dance and craft lessons. For more information on all museums within the reservation, visit discovernavajo.com.

Navajo Nation background

A Navajo hogan, USA (Shutterstock)

A Navajo hogan, USA (Shutterstock)

Hogans These traditional houses of the Navajo can be seen throughout the reservation and are still used by many families today as a home and a place for ceremonies. Made from interlocking cedar logs and compacted mud and earth, the inside is a reflection of the Navajo worldview: four pillars to represent the cardinal directions, a fire burning in the centre, sheepskins on the floor and a door facing east to welcome the rising sun. Spending the night in one won’t be fancy, but it might just be the best night of your entire trip. Simpson’s Trailhandler Tours in Monument Valley offers overnight hogan stays in a campground close to the park. Dinner and entertainment are included.

Medicine men Medicine men are the traditional healers of the Navajo and are still used to this day to cure anything from cancer to the common cold. In Navajo beliefs, fire is a portal to the spirit world. Using a combination of sacred artefacts, chanting and prayer, the medicine man peers through a crystal into the flames at the centre of his hogan in order to divine the nature of a patient’s affliction. It is perhaps the most profound and beautiful expression of Navajo culture. No matter what you believe, one thing’s for certain: in the Navajo Nation, the power of the medicine man is real. It’s hard to find a medicine man that caters to tourists, but not impossible. Ask local Navajo guides if they know anyone for the best chance.

Code talkers During the Second World War a handful of brave Navajo soldiers were used as communication experts to send secret messages between Allied forces without detection. Because the Navajo language was never written down, the code that they created was essentially unbreakable and, despite the best efforts of the Japanese and German forces, remained so until the end of the war. Today, Navajo code talkers are credited as having played a vital role in securing the victory of the US Marines in the Pacific and elsewhere. Read Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII by Chester Nez for an excellent firsthand account of their contribution during the Second World War.

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