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Naturally Native

Northern Arizona tribal parks and monuments provide travelers a glimpse into American Indian culture and amazing vistas.
by Lisa Waterman Gray

Indigenous people have inhabited Arizona for thousands of years. Amid jaw-dropping rock formations, wild sage, and brilliant blue skies, American Indians still carve out lives across the Navajo Nation and Hopi tribal lands. The Navajo Nation includes more than 300,000 residents, while approximately 7,000 people live across three mesas on the Hopi reservation. Their lives remain tightly woven into the fabric of nature, and sites favored by travelers who cross this arid land also have special meaning for American Indians.

Monument Valley

In Title: A Navajo elder with her daughter. ©David Smith– photo

Above: The sun sets over Monument Valley at the Arizona and Utah border. The Navajo regard the land here as sacred. ©MAXFX– photo


Window Rock, Navajo Nation’s capital, is much more than a pretty place. Above a serene plaza crafted from indigenous rock, flags for the United States, Navajo Nation, Arizona, and New Mexico flap in a brisk wind.

The Navajo Nation Council Chamber, where legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government meet four times each year, is here. In addition, the Navajo people commemorate those who have served in the military with a Veterans Memorial. Of special interest is a bronze statue of a kneeling soldier that remembers the Navajo Code Talkers from World War II, who created an unbreakable code for transmitting secret communications.


People have lived in Canyon de Chelly in Chinle for thousands of years, and ancestral puebloans created pictographs here more than a 1,000 years ago. Today the 84,000-acre site lies within Navajo Tribal Trust Land, and roughly 40 families inhabit the canyon.

“[Canyon de Chelly] is the heartbeat of the Navajo people,” says Adam Teller, Navajo owner of Antelope House Tours. “It is where holy people came to live and where the first corn was planted.”

There also are driving, walking, and wheelchair-accessible routes and trails available to visitors, but guests can best access canyon depths with designated tour companies. Guides traverse rugged landscape while pointing out ancient dwellings along the South Rim Drive, such as the First Ruin, which had 40 to 50 rooms, or Junction Ruin, once a 150-room site where hundreds of people lived. Soaring twin rock fingers characterize Spider Rock. American photographer Ansel Adams captured the beauty of Antelope House Ruin on the North Rim Drive.


Warm red sandstone formations touch deep blue sky at Monument Valley at the Arizona and Utah border. Made famous as a setting for several Western movies, the Navajo consider Monument Valley sacred land, especially where springs flow and medicinal plants grow. Elders gather natural materials for ceremonial use here, and many rocks carry the names of local animals.

The Navajo Nation dedicated a visitors’ center against this backdrop in 1960. Visiting the small museum inside the center provides a glimpse of challenges associated with living here. The trading post showcases souvenirs, from sparkling sterling jewelry to sand paintings or kachina dolls. Native American flute and guitar music play in the restaurant where patrons can access one of the valley’s highest vistas.

Visit Jan. 11–13 and see the Annual Monument Valley Balloon Event. Tribal members ask visitors to respect the land and residents of this sacred valley. Hiking shoes or boots are recommended when hiking, and having a vehicle with good ground clearance is essential when driving. Dozens of guides also offer hiking, horseback, and vehicle tours.


Navajo medicine man James Peshlakai says tribe members believe the Grand Canyon gives life, and that nature guides them on the “Beauty Way,” which says everyone has a right to live happily and enjoy the creation of the Earth from birth to old age. Herbs found here are also considered very important.

“We hold the Grand Canyon as a very sacred [place],” Peshlakai says.

Along the canyon’s South Rim, evidence of ancient Hopi canyon residents exists at the partially excavated Tusayan Pueblo Ruin built around 1185. Walk a .1-mile, flat trail around the village. On a clear day, you might see the San Francisco Peaks in the distance.

Another site along the South Rim is the 1932 Desert View watchtower that was built by the Fred Harvey Company.

Whether visitors ride shuttle buses through the park, follow hiking trails, or brave Colorado River rapids, remembering the American Indian perspective adds richness to the Grand Canyon experience.


Located near Window Rock, the Navajo Nation Museum has four galleries that display Navajo artwork. Another gallery tells the story of Fort Sumner, where members of the Navajo Nation signed a peace treaty with the United States in 1868 after several years of forced internment at the fort.

Window Rock also is home to Navajo Arts & Crafts Enterprises. With more than 12,000 square feet, the site has Navajo handcrafts, apparel, and jewelry.

Built in 1876, Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado is the nation’s oldest continuously operating U.S. trading post, whose original owner was highly respected for dealing fairly with Native Americans. Navajo textiles remain the most important item sold here, followed by jewelry, pottery, and Hopi kachina dolls.

Burger King in Kayenta offers a poignant Navajo Code Talkers display, with memorabilia from the father of restaurant co-owner, Richard Mike. King P. Mike served in the 4th Marine Division of World War II, spoke Navajo throughout World War II, and mailed items to his wife during his service.


Enhance a visit of American Indian sites in northern Arizona by staying at a native-owned hotel or motel. The Quality Inn Navajo National Capital (AAA Two Diamonds) is in Window Rock. It offers clean, comfortable rooms, and its gift shop sells Navajo tea and books. A room discount is offered to AAA members.

The Hampton Inn Kayenta (AAA Three Diamonds) offers luxurious surroundings inspired by American Indian design. Enjoy restaurant specialties such as pork ribs or grilled shrimp served beside a fireplace. The gift shop sells everything from Western hats and hand-tooled purses to kachina dolls and American Indian rugs. A room discount is offered to AAA members.

The View Hotel at Monument Valley is Navajo-owned and offers spacious rooms that have balconies facing the sunrise each morning.

Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites just outside of Tuba City (AAA Three Diamonds) is at the gateway to the Hopi mesas. Its two-story lobby features an adobe and stone fireplace and wood plank ceiling. An adjacent travel center has four shops that showcase crafts, as well as a large café and convenience store.

Viewing Arizona’s natural places through a native lens provides a different perspective of these national treasures.

Lisa Waterman Gray is a contributor from Overland Park, Kan.

Jan/Feb 2013 Issue


For more information, contact the Arizona Office of Tourism at (866) 275-5816 or http://www.arizonaguide .com/things-to-do/native-cultures.

Canyon de Chelly information is available at index.htm.

Visitor information for the Grand Canyon is available through the Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce in Tusayan,

For hotel information, contact:

Quality Inn Navajo Nation Capital, (928) 871-4108

Hampton Inn Kayenta, (928) 697-3170

The View Hotel at Monument Valley, (435) 727-5555

• Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites (928) 283-4500, or click on and select ‘HOTEL.’

To visit Arizona, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Arizona through the Free Travel Information Card found online.

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