Facebook Twitter



When Nature set out to create the marvelous Painted Desert on the rugged mesas of northeast Arizona, she worked from an unusual palette of colors. Under the burning desert sun, the rocky bluffs and jagged buttes of this barren land reveal patches of pink, purple, saffron, black - and a hundred shades of brown.

Today, that parched expanse of nearly empty country is known to most Americans only from John Wayne westerns like "Stagecoach" and from those television commercials where new cars are seen perched atop impossibly steep spires of rock. In fact, though, the Arizona-New Mexico desert just south of Four Corners - the only place in the country where four states meet - is home to an unlikely geopolitical anomaly: a separate nation within our nation.This is, to be precise, the Navajo Nation. Covering some 25,000 square miles, a territory roughly the size of West Virginia, it is the homeland of North America's largest Indian tribe. The 200,000-member Navajo tribe, a legal entity recognized by Congress in an 1868 treaty as a "Sovereign Nation," has its own capital, national park, parliament, supreme court, tax code, flag, language and even its own Arthur Conan Doyle in the person of Tony Hillerman, the Albuquerque writer whose mystery thrillers based in Navajo country have made him the nation's most popular author of western novels.

The Navajo have their own fierce brand of politics, with passions so heated that tribal elections tend to make last year's Bush-Dukakis contest look like a tea party for the ladies' auxiliary. Just now the tribe is gearing up for the 1990 elections, when the Navajo Richard Nixon, former tribal chairman Peter MacDonald, is expected to run again for the nation's top executive position, a job he was forced to leave earlier this year amid charges of fraud and corruption.

In economic terms, the reservation is desperately poor; per-capita income is about $2,400 annually, well under the poverty line. But the Navajo people have untold riches of tradition and religious faith, and their far-flung land is a gold mine of unusual sights and untold beauty. To turn this scenic wealth into more tangible forms of income, the tribe has begun an energetic effort to draw tourists.

If these efforts happen to draw you, you'll be lucky. For this sprawling hunk of the great Colorado Plateau makes for one of America's more rewarding travel destinations.

MacDonald has said the Navajo Reservation is a "Third World nation," and indeed a visit does have the feel of travel to some exotic foreign destination. In the tiny trading posts - what an Easterner might call a "general store" - that pop up every 50 miles or so along the empty reservation roads, Navajo people carry on their own conversations in a richly polysyllabic language, and then turn to the visitor with an ever-so-slightly accented English. (While at a trading post, incidentally, you'll want to buy a piece of the ubiquitous Navajo "fast food," the now-famous fry bread.)

There are two basic attractions here: the Navajo people, and the Navajo land.

The Navajo tribe is a nation of survivors - a wily, resourceful community of friends and kinsmen who resemble the Japanese in their skill at adapting to new circumstances and in their ability to find their ways back from devastation. Their physical appearance is captured in a Navajo poem: "My skin as brown as the face of Mother Earth, my hair as black as the sky of night."

In the 120 years since a starving, ragtag remnant of the tribe was herded by Indian fighter Kit Carson along the infamous "Long Walk" to a federal prison camp in New Mexico, the Navajo have demonstrated such talents of endurance and adaptation that they have become America's largest and richest tribe. A strongly spiritual people with a rich religious heritage and mystical bond to their land and animals, the Navajo have always proven adept at melding traditional culture with new ideas borrowed from elsewhere.

The mix of old and new is evident everywhere. On the local radio stations, disc jockeys intersperse the Beach Boys with recordings of tribal chants and pot-drum solos, then break for Navajo-language commercials touting bargains on chain saws or pickup trucks.

Rounding a hilly turn on a remote stretch of reservation highway, a visitor might see an old rancher tending sheep on horseback while his sons pursue the strays on all-terrain four-wheelers. The Navajo are proud of their starkly beautiful land and they are happy to point out interesting geographic features or spiritual places. They are justly proud, too, of their artistic tradition.

One of the nicest parts of a trip to Navajo country is the chance to buy marvelous rugs, pottery, paintings and jewelry at prices vastly below the going rate at Native American art stores along the East Coast. Because the parched, rocky soil makes life so hard, Navajo Country is one of the most sparsely populated regions in the United States. The reservation covers an area larger than Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined but has only one town, Shiprock, N.M., with a population greater than 3,000.

The locals brag about "big cities" that would not even make a county map in most places. Beginning 25 miles from the Gray Mountain Trading Post, north of Flagstaff on Route 89, highway signs boast of the major settlement that lies ahead. "Gray Mountain!" they proclaim, "TWO stores. TWO gas stations." Unadvertised, because all Navajo know that it will be there, is a standard feature of every trading post in a land where water is dear and cleanliness crucial: the local laundromat.

The Navajo, known in their own language as Dineh, or "The People," have developed an intense devotion to this difficult land even though they are relative newcomers to the Great Basin of the American Southwest. The indigenous people of the Southwestern plateau, the mysterious tribe of cliff dwellers known as the Anasazi ("the old ones"), disappeared from the area for unknown reasons about 1200 A.D. Another seven centuries were to pass before the Navajo and their cousins the Apaches arrived from the north.

The Navajo or Dineh are descended from Asians who crossed the Bering Strait and followed the buffalo south along the Continental Divide. They settled about 500 years ago on this patch of desert and called it Dinetah, "the People's Home." They developed an elaborate body of myth about the four sacred mountains that mark the compass points of their world. Their chief diety was a female, the Changing Woman, who oversees the passage of the seasons. To this day, they have a matrilineal society in which the mother is the dominant figure of the family.

Most Navajo are still farmers and ranchers, living on farms that frequently house four or more generations of a family. The customary configuration for these settlements is a wooden home or house trailer - complete with satellite dish in many cases - alongside a traditional hogan, the igloo-shaped structure with a central fireplace, no windows and a door that always must face east.

In the hogans, the religion is passed orally by the yataa'lii, or medicine men, who recite the traditions in long chants, or "sings," which can last as long as nine days. A common sight even today is a score of pickup trucks parked at haphazard angles around an old hogan, evidence that a "sing" is in progress.

Some of those attending the "sing" in the hope of achieving the peaceful state of union with nature known as hozro can be seen Sunday morning at Christian churches erected by missionary groups here and there across the desert. Both traditions can thrive because of Navajo openness to outside influences.

The nature of their hardscrabble country is reflected in names the Navajo have placed on their scattered settlements: Sandy Spring, Castle Butte, Rough Rock, Window Rock, Shiprock, Spider Rock, Hard Rocks and, in the middle of nowhere, Lonely Frog Rock. The map also reflects the difficult history of Navajo relations with whites in such geographic names as Fort Defiance, Massacre Cave and Canyon del Muerto.

As these place names suggest, Navajo country is a collection of stunning natural wonders.

The red stone tribal capitol and the ceremonial eight-sided hogan where the tribal council meets both sit directly beneath a spectacular porthole in the side of a mountain at the reservation's aptly named capital city, Window Rock. Window Rock is also the home of the Navajo Nation Inn, the tribe's motel and a decent place to make your base of operations for a trip to southwestern Indian country.

An 80-or-so-mile drive west and north from Window Rock is a wonderful but barely known national monument called Canyon de Chelly, a deep winding canyon where Anasazi cliff dwellers spent a century or so. It is full of ornate steeples and sculpture carved by wind and rain in the stone; among the most memorable of them is Spider Rock, a towering needle of rock that rises straight up some 800 feet (half again as tall as the Washington Monument) from the canyon floor. According to Dineh legend, this tall rock was the home of Spider Woman, who carried away bad Navajo children to the very top of the rocky spire.

North and east of Canyon de Chelly another 85 miles or so is the Four Corners Monument, a big brass "X" in the ground marking the spot where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet. Yes, you can put your foot on the point and stand in four states at once, or you can walk around the marker and stroll through all four in less than half a minute.

When we made the long trek across unmarked desert to Four Corners, my spouse kept expressing - well, skepticism would be the nice way to put it: "It's a heck of a long way to travel just to get to a spot on the map." In the event, though, the long drive was worth it. Our children got a kick out of that spot on the map, and the grown-ups in our party got a kick out of the long line of jewelry, handicraft and food stalls that Navajo and Ute Indians have set up around the marker. We have purchased Navajo, Ute and Apache jewelry all over the Southwest, but we've never found a bigger selection or lower prices than we discovered at Four Corners.

From there, another long drive through the sparsely settled Navajo communities of Mexican Water, Dennehotso and Kayenta will bring you to Monument Valley, a beautiful Navajo Tribal Park reminiscent of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks to the north in Utah. The rock formations here are all but unbelievable - indeed, the whole area looks something like a Salvador Dali painting - except that we have seen so much of Monument Valley in magazine and TV commercials.

Further to the west is the Navajo National Monument, site of three major Anasazi cliff dwellings. Here you can stroll across the restless sand and ponder the question that has stumped archeologists: Why did this relatively advanced civilization just up and disappear after building its extensive network of cliff communities? You will have plenty of time to think on that question if you choose to visit Rainbow Bridge, a enormous rock arch (the entire U.S. Capitol could fit beneath it) across the border in Utah that is so remote you have to walk about 14 miles to reach the spot.

Wherever a tour of Navajo Country takes you, though, you will be surrounded by the presence of the unpressured Navajo way of life and by the tough Spartan beauty of the endless desert, a stretch of rocks and hills that vary from khaki to tan to tawny to mauve to maroon and so on. No matter what else may come of a trip to the land of the Navajo, it seems safe to predict that you will see more shades of brown than you had ever dreamed of. For more information: Navajo Nation, Box 308, Window Rock, Ariz. 86515, (602) 871-4941.