The Navajo Nation

Touring a scenic country inside our own

IN 1939 MY FATHER and three companions made the first ascent of Shiprock, a sheer, isolated crag of volcanic tuff near the northeastern edge of the Navajo Reservation. The crag rises high above the flatness of the San Juan Basin. To the first white men to see it, it had the look of a ship steaming across the plain. To the Navajos, a desert tribe, the ship was not available for metaphor. They called the crag Tse Bitai, “Winged Rock.” To them it seemed to be the petrified remains of a flying beast.

Fifty years ago many experts considered Shiprock unclimbable. It was then the foremost mountaineering challenge on the continent; the ascent would become a triumph of my father’s climbing career and one of the legends on which his children grew up. The technical details of the climb never interested me much. What struck me was my father’s description of the mountain’s shadow. At sunset, from their bivouachigh in the cliff face, he and his friends watched the shadow extend eastward across the New Mexico desert. It began small but quickly grew gigantic on the plain. It reached the horizon, and darkness fell. Across what had seemed empty desert, fires began to flicker, The fires would flare up and then subside to a faint glow. To my father they seemed to throb like fallen stars. The desert was inhabited after all. Winged Rock was encircled by the campfires of the Navajo nation.

The Navajo Reservation is the largest reservation in the United States. It covers 25,000 square miles, in three states:

Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. It is bigger than a number of other states, the largest of them West Virginia. The Navajo tribe, too, is the largest in the United States. Few Native American tribes are coming into the twenty-first century more intact culturally. Many older Navajos speak no English. Among younger Navajos, Navajo often remains the first language. Dinetah, the country of Diné. “the People,” has its own police force, its own welfare services, and, in the summer, its own time zone. Navajo land is more its own place than any other enclave in the United States. It is another country inside our own.

In the 1950s my father returned to Navajo country with his family. In Monument Valley, near the northern border of the reservation, we ate lunch once amid rocks so red they made us uneasy, almost ill. Then our red-receptors fatigued and the color washed out. We dry-camped that evening at the base of one of the valley’s monumental mesas, and the next morning my brother and I explored. On a dune east of camp we came across a sidewinder, the first of those horned rattlers I had seen in the wild. When the snake was gone, we studied its mark on the sand. We found a ruined hogan, or traditional Navajo dwelling, the roof half fallen in. Hogans are abandoned, I knew, when someone dies within the polygonal walls, and it is forbidden to enter again. I remember staying respectfully outside, yet I also seem to remember darting in and out again.

Walking home to camp, I was ready to believe, along with the Navajos, in corpse sickness, ghost sickness—in the contagion in death-hogan dust. I glanced up. There, on horseback at the top of a dune, in a velveteen blouse, wearing turquoise and silver, her graying hair pulled back in a bun, her expressionless face eroded like the hills, was an old Navajo woman. She seemed not to know a word of English, not even “hello.” She was kin, I supposed, to the Navajo who had died in the hogan. Had she seen us there? I wished we hadn’t hung around the place so long.

We visited Shiprock. We found a diamondback rattler there, coiled in a cleft in some rocks. We watched Shiprock’s evening shadow grow across the plain.

The next morning, practicing my climbing technique at the base of the crag, I got stuck halfway up a boulder. My father talked me down, as he often talked me down from boulders: “There’s a good foothold about six inches below your left foot. Can you . . . ? Good. Now you need a handhold. Can you reach that little knob?” Among the fearsome beings of Navajo myth — Eyes That Kill, the Rocks That Clap Together, the Cutting-Reed People—is one called Rock Monster That Kicks People Off. This particular monster, as any climber knows, is real. His cold spirit had come alive in the rock under my hands. Calm and analytical, my father won the dispute with him, as always.

AFTER TWENTY-FIVE years away I recently returned to Navajo country, driving toward the reservation on Highway 89 from Flagstaff. Arizona. To the northwest, invisible, was the Grand Canyon, which the Little Colorado River was cutting its way toward. Straight ahead was the long, pinkish rampart of Echo Cliffs. Just past the hogan-shaped monument that marks the reservation’s border were a young Navajo couple who had laid out jewelry at a roadside stand. The warped wood of the display table was shaded by a two-pole awning. A small red flag flew from the taller pole. Between the tall pole and the open trunk of their car, the couple had pitched a blue tarp, augmenting the awning’s tiny pool of shade. The tarp and the red flag rippled in the hot desert wind.

More stands appeared. In places thev formed little markets—seven or eight rug-and-jewelry stalls in a row. The parked pickup trucks of the owners nosed at the stalls like tethered ponies. From the tops of the awning poles flew the flags of various states and nations. The Stars and Stripes. The California bear. A white cross against a red ground—Switzerland. A yellow cross against a blue ground—Sweden? European visitors are common these days; foreign currencies are strong against the dollar. The alien flags fluttered in the wind, and beyond them the shadows of clouds retouched the hot hues of the Painted Desert.

The quality of the goods in the roadside stands (and trading posts) varies widely. A lot of non-Navajo jewelry is sold in Navajo country. At most outlets silver and turquoise are best avoided unless you have some expertise in those substances. The Navajo rugs arc genuine. They grow slowly on the looms of Navajo women, and are expensive, as they should be.

The stands disappeared when I left U.S. 89, the main drag between Flagstaff and Page. I turned east on 160, toward Kayenta. The road climbed through a landscape of pink Georgia O’Keeffe hills. The hills belong to the Chinle formation and contain bentonite, a clay formed from volcanic ash. Bentonite swells in the rain, and when it dries, it flakes away, eroding too fast for soil to form. Not a blade of grass grows on the clay, not a whorl of lichen. There is nothing but the elemental, gullied, melting pink hills that O’Keeffe liked to paint above all others. It was like being lost in one of her canvases.

Soon the road left the Chinle formation and came into the rocks of the Glen Canyon group—red Wingate sandstone, the orange-red Moenave formation, the dull-red Kayenta formation, pale-red Navajo sandstone. Navajo sandstone, conspicuously cross-bedded, is formed from desert dunes, and it makes for much of the spectacular scenery on the reservation. Navajo sandstone is rock that wants to become dunes again. Eroding, it wears back toward roundedness, its corners, arches, and incipient arches taking on dunelike curves. There was soil again, and vegetation: sagebrush, piñon, juniper. Cactus bloomed, and desert mallow.

At wide intervals the double track of a dirt road left the highway and meandered off toward a distant shack or hogan. The first few homesteads were exactly as 1 remembered from twenty-five years before: A hogan with a small window, an east-facing door, a domed roof, a stovepipe. A horse or two. A pickup truck. A corral of gray-white close-set poles. A ramada, or summer shelter, its lattice of poles screened with brush. The brush atop some of the shelters was fresh-cut, still green.

Then came a hogan with a satellite dish, I laughed. Driving deeper into the reservation, I came to stretches where four or five hogans in a row had receivers aimed at the sky. At first it seemed wildly incongruous, but soon I got used to it. Adaptability is a Navajo trait. The tribe got corn from the Hopis, sheep and horses from the Spaniards, and now pickups and satellite dishes from the belagana, the white men.

Huge cumulus clouds were building to the north. It began to rain lightly as I neared Red Lake. The air smelled of wet sage and freshly laid dust. I went through the crossroads by Tonalea Store at about fifty miles an hour, and the speed froze a moment in the life of the crossroads. On the near side of the intersection a young Navajo couple and their small child were hitching a ride. The woman’s hair was loose on her shoulders. She was smiling in the rain. On the far side two Navajo men were waiting for a ride. One man, fortyish, wore a pink shirt. He lay on his back, his hands clasped behind his head to make a pillow, his face to the sky. He had the broad Navajo face and a sparse Navajo moustache. The rain cloud above had darkened the desert, and his pink shirt seemed to glow with a light of its own. He was listening to his companion, who hunkered beside him. He smiled at something his companion said, or just at the feel of the rain on his face. Rain is scarce in the desert, and Navajos have the sense not to get out of it.

AMONG THE WONDERS of the Navajo Reservation, Monument Valley is first. The valley’s red-orange sandstone buttes stand in monumental isolation from one another—West Mitten Butte, East Mitten Butte, Elephant Butte, Rain God Mesa, Thunderbird Mesa— arcs de triomphe without the arch, rising out of the sage and juniper of the valley floor. John Ford filmed Stagecoach here in 1938, and many other westerns followed. For the entire world—or for all the world that has movie theaters, or at least satellite dishes—the valley has become the archetypal badlands.

In superficial ways the place has changed since my boyhood. The valley is now a Navajo tribal park. A paved access road has replaced the dirt road my family drove on. Camping among the monuments is no longer permitted. But the landforms have changed not at all. I found the spot where we had eaten lunch, surrounded by rock so red it made us queasy. Across the wav rose the spires of the butte called Three Sisters. I remembered the configuration exactly—the spire of the middle sister so much smaller and sharper than those of the sisters to either side. Children study landforms with a fierce attentiveness, I suppose; that, or pale-red pinnacles against a blue desert sky have a special power to burn themselves into recollection. Deeper in the valley, near the base of Thunderbird Mesa, I found the spot where the old Navajo woman had looked down on us from horseback.

Against the wall of a farther mesa a high dune had heaped itself. I have always loved places where new dunes pile up against old, fossilized dunes of sandstone. The new dunes are alive, forever shifting. They repair your footprints on them overnight. In a strong wind they go into soft focus, their horizons blurring with windblown sand, while behind them the sculpted sandstone rises, in hard focus forever. I realized suddenly that this was it—the original dune. In contemplating this very dune and mesa my fondness for the combination had begun.

Second among the wonders of Navajo country is Canyon de Chelly National Monument. De Chelly is a Spanish corruption of the Navajo word tsegi, “rock canyon.” The several canyons of the national monument—Canyon de Chelly, Canyon del Muerto, Black Rock Canyon, Monument Canyon—have walls of sheer sandstone a thousand feet deep in their upper reaches. There is a geologic unconformity near the top, where the muddy-red cap of Shinarump conglomerate meets the pinkish rock of De Chelly sandstone, but the more striking unconformity is at the bottom, where the warm hues of the rock meet the cool hues of vegetation—the spring green of cottonwoods, the gray-green of Russian olives, the blue-green of datura, the greens of corn, beans, squash, alfalfa.

To the extent that its intermittent streams allow, Canyon de Chelly is cultivated. A number of Navajo families farm the canyon floors, as Navajos have done for centuries. If Navajoland ever had a strategic center, it was here. During their wars with other tribes and with Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans, the Navajos took refuge in Canyon de Chelly and its sister canyons. From “fortress rocks" upstream they defeated all pursuers until Kit Carson. It was in Canyon de Chelly, finally, that Carson defeated the tribe, leading troops into its uttermost recesses, burning Hogans and crops at every turn of the stream.

Under overhangs in the walls sit hundreds of Anasazi cliff dwellings. Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning “Ancient Ones” or “the People Who Have Gone” or “Enemies of Our Ancestors,” depending on which Navajo you ask. Most of the villages were built between A.D. 350 and 1300, when they were abandoned for reasons unknown. The cliff dwellings are made of the same sandstone as the cliffs. Except for a muted rectilinearity, they blend in. They are lovelier architecture, in mv opinion, than any American architecture of the sixteen centuries since.

Overlooks along the roads on the north and south rims of the national monument offer views of the life, past and present, of the canyon floor. They are fish bow I vistas, if such a thing is possible—prospects grand yet intimate. From the north rim I looked down on Ledge Ruin, Antelope House Ruin, and Mummy Cave Ruin, from the south rim on Junction Ruin, White House Ruin, and Sliding Rock Ruin, from both rims I caught glimpses of the ongoing life of the canyon: a hogan or two for each meander of the canyon; a flock of sheep; a peach orchard; irregular streamside fields, some fallow, some planted to corn or alfalfa.

A small fleet of Korean War—vintage trucks with huge tires takes half-day and full-day excursions into the canyons, leaving from Thunderbird Lodge, at the mouth. A better way to see Canyon de Chelly, if your legs are sound, is to walk it with a Navajo guide. Guides can be hired at the visitor center. With the exception of one self-guided trail, going unguided is forbidden, in order to protect both the fragile Anasazi ruins and the privacy of the Navajos who live in the canyon.

The third wonder of the reservation is Navajo National Monument, which comprises a number of other Anasazi ruins in the Tsegi Canyon system—the cliff dwelling called Betatakin (“Ledge House”) and a site known as Keet Seel (“Broken Pottery”) prominent among them.

THESE THREE PEACES revisited, I knocked about the reservation with no particular plan. I slept in the desert, out of preference and necessity. There was no room at any of the reservation’s inns. Navajos have little interest in innkeeping, they don’t go into the business, and so accommodations are scarce. The hotels serving the most popular parts of the reservation—such as the Holiday Inn and the Wetherill Motel, in Kayenta; Goulding’s Lodge, at the gateway to Monument Valley; and Thunderbird Lodge, outside Canyon de Chelly—are usually booked months in advance from April through October.

At Mexican Hat, in the San Juan Trading Post café, I ate haanii gai, a stew made from corn and the backbone of a lamb. It came with good Navajo frybread and a bottle of hot sauce. I gathered, from the hot sauce, that to some people haanii gai tastes a bit bland. For me, once a boy who wanted to be Navajo, there was accent enough in the imagination: This is how things taste in the hogan. Before I knew it, the stew was gone and with my last piece of frvbread I was mopping the bottom of the bowl.

I liked almost everything I saw in Navajo country: The dark endlessness of Black Mesa. The hazy blue Olympian curve of Navajo Mountain. The badlands of Coal Canyon. The ponderosa forests of the Defiance Plateau. The long black hair of Navajo girls in the backs of pickups. The ravens hunting in raucous pairs over the desert. Dust devils. Evening lightning.

Beautiful Valley, south of Canyon de Chelly. is badlands of bentonite hills and fallen pillars. (The pillars are the bones of Big Monster if you are of one persuasion, petrified logs if you are of another.) Bisti Badlands, at the eastern edge of the reservation, are a Daliesque landscape of odd-shaped stones on pedestals. Rough Rock Trading Post, beneath Black Mesa, is a real, working, twentieth-century trading post. Hubbell Trading Post, near Ganado, is a national historic site, a trading post maintained as it was in the nineteenth century. The store, barn, and warehouse are of local sandstone, with beams of ponderosa pine. The store floorboards are creaky and polished by generations of feet, the wood counters tall, the cash registers massive and old-fashioned. At the visitor center three Navajo weavers were busy on their looms. Evelyn Curley, working in the Chief Blanket style, had started five weeks before I visited—and she was about five percent finished. Mary Lee Begay, working in the Two Gray Hills style, and Helen Kirk, working in the Burntwater, were further along.

I drove up into the Chuska Mountains. In the Navajo scheme of things, the Chuskas are “Goods-of-Value Mountain,” a male. Chuska Peak makes his head, and his body is the remainder of the range. Goods-of-Value has some of the biggest views and best grazing on the reservation. 1 entered the range from the west. The dirt road climbed quickly, starting in grass and sage, passing in minutes through a zone of piñon and juniper and then into ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, gambel oak, and aspen. Douglas fir seemed an alien tree in Navajo country, and yet there it was. There were marshes, thickets, seasonal lakes. The air, cool and piney, almost had bite, and the wind sounded wonderful in the ponderosas. I could imagine what those sensations mean to the Navajos. The Chuskas are the Navajo Alps.

Descending the east side of the range into the San Juan Basin, I caught my first glimpse on this trip of Shiprock. It was a day of some haze—“pollen of evening,” the Navajos call it—but the crag stood out clearly, fifty miles away. Far beyond, in the La Plata Mountains of Colorado, its flanks snowy still, stood Dibé Ntsa, Big Sheep Mountain, the sacred mountain of the north.

I camped that night under Shiprock. By evening light I studied the high overhangs and spires of the crag. In places like those, Rock Monster That Kicks People Off is always present. Fifty years ago my father had been the fly on Rock Monster’s cheek. A portion of his route wras visible, and I traced it with my eyes as best I could. My father was a much younger man in 1939 than I am now’. My thoughts about him became confused, both filial and paternal. The shadow of Shiprock grew’ gigantic on the plain. Night fell, and across what had seemed empty desert the lights of the Navajo nation began to shine like fallen stars.

BACK HOME I found a photograph of Shiprock in a climbing manual and showed it to my two-year-old son. My son’s name, like my father’s, is David Brower. He is the first of us with any Indian blood. He is a natural climber, with fine balance and a love of ascent.

“This is Shiprock,”I told him. “See? Grandpa was the first man to climb this mountain. Shiprock.”

“Chi’ra,” Davey said.

It sounded almost Navajo—guttural, with a glottal stop. A good try, but of course it was too early to pass on our family legend of the crag. I’ll try again a few years down the line. □