Navajo Nation—the Locals' Way
Robbie Rubly-Burggraff moved to Navajo Nation 18 months ago, but she still hadn't explored its northwest—so she enlisted the help of a Navajo friend.
My friend Shirley and I are in a store in Tuba City, Ariz., stocking up for our road trip when I realize that I'm rushing around. Frantically searching for peanut butter, I look like I have somewhere important to be, while everyone else is moving at a casual pace. I smile to myself—adjusting to the local rhythms might not be so easy.
Navajo Nation is a self-governing homeland for the Navajo people that occupies 27,000 square miles across three states: Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The lives of the Navajo are difficult; many of the people live in poverty, and the unemployment rate is about 50 percent. I moved here when my husband took a job at a hospital in Fort Defiance, Ariz., near the New Mexico border. Shirley has lived here her whole life, but there are many things even she doesn't know about her land. So we're both pleasantly surprised by theExplore Navajo Interactive Museum, which teaches visitors all about Navajo culture.
We watch a movie on the Emergence Story, which explains how the Diné (the term the Navajo use to refer to themselves) believe the universe was created. At the Clan Wheel, Shirley enters the names of the clans she was "born into" (her mother's people) and "born for" (her father's people). She spins the wheel, and it gives her the names of all the Navajo clans she's related to. She has a lot of relatives! The Navajo believe it's important to know who your relatives are—in times of trouble, you'll know who to ask for help.
Before checking in to the Quality Inn Navajo Nation, we go shopping—but this time for souvenirs, not supplies. The Tuba City Trading Postis one of the few remaining trading posts set up by whites in the late 1860s, when the Navajo returned to their ancestral lands following their forced relocation to New Mexico years before, a tragedy known as the Long Walk. At the time, the posts were the only places where the Diné could trade with whites. Now run by the Navajo, the post sells crafts to tourists. I buy a bumper sticker that depicts Geronimo and a group of Apache warriors and reads: "Homeland Security—Fighting terrorism since 1492."
- Quality Inn Navajo Nation10 N. Main St., Tuba City, 928/283-4545, qualityinntubacity.com, from $93
- Explore Navajo Interactive Museum Moenave Rd. and Main St., Tuba City, 928/640-0684, explorenavajo.com, $9
- Tuba City Trading PostMoenave Rd. and Main St., Tuba City, 928/283-5441
Driving west through the empty red-rock desert, Shirley pops in a tape of her father singing songs in Navajo. I've barely started to learn a few of the words when we decide to stop at an artisan's roadside stand on Highway 89A near Marble Canyon. There are stands like this all over Navajo Nation, where locals sell handicrafts to support themselves. Shirley is looking for jewelry, and sure enough, the craftswoman, Vera Yazzie, is selling juniper-seed necklaces and bracelets. According to the Navajo, the seeds offer protection from all kinds of evil. We buy six of the necklaces ($5 to $15 each) and wear them for the rest of the trip to make sure that nothing bad happens to us.
The Navajo Bridge is just up the road. When the bridge was constructed in 1929, it was the world's largest suspension bridge and the only place within 750 miles where one could cross the Colorado River. A new bridge has since been built for cars, but the original bridge is still used by pedestrians and bungee jumpers (though I later learn that bungee jumping is prohibited there).
As we drive intoGlen Canyon National Recreation Area, we see huge boulders strewn about, as if giants had tossed them at each other in a battle. The road winds around cliffs down to Paria Beach, where the green-blue waters of the Colorado are rushing by. This is where Grand Canyon rafting trips begin, and it's the only spot where you can drive to the banks of the river. Shirley and I rest on a rock in the sun and wonder why people work so hard—hiking or riding a mule—to reach the river from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. On the beach, we meet a Navajo family who had just caught three trout in the river.
The fish remind us how hungry we are. As soon as we reachLees Ferry Lodge, where we plan to spend the night, we order a big lunch—grilled trout for me and a burger for Shirley. Located on the edge ofVermilion Cliffs National Monument, the lodge couldn't be in a more beautiful setting. Cliff faces and narrow canyons have been carved out of the rose-colored rock over millions of years, exposing layer upon layer of sandstone, limestone, and shale. I feel like I can see for miles. And the silence! When I stop for a second, I hear nothing but the flapping of a raven's wings.