According to Navajo legend, the red sandstone buttes of Monument Valley that stand 1,000 feet above the desert floor, trap long-defeated monsters that are part of the Navajo creation story. Monument Valley is a Navajo Tribal Park and almost everything here is Native owned and operated. We are here for three nights, spending the first night at Gouldings in Utah, and the second night at The View Hotel, just across the border in Arizona. On Wednesday, October 4, we took a 4 p.m. to dusk tour with Chris, our Navajo guide from The Three Sisters Navajo Guided Tours. The tour was spectacular and Chris gave us both a cultural and personal history of the region, making it extra special.
We are in an ancient sea bed of red sand rich in iron ore, outcroppings of juniper trees, grasses, sage, and yellow-blooming chamisa. Once, millions of years ago, the mesa was at the top of these monster spires, which give the landscape a other-worldly appearance. We could be on the surface of an unknown planet. If you want to read more about the geology, click here.
Anthropologists generally agree that the Navajo came to North America some 6,000 years ago from north Asia, moving from Canada south into the American southwest and Monument Valley about 500 years ago. To read about the Navajo creation story, click here.
Our tour, on a dirt and sandy trail, took us into the far reaches of the valley, where erosion, wind, shifts in the earth, create phantasmagorical sculptures on the 7,000+ foot high desert floor that is part of the Colorado Plateau. In the distance, we can see Bears’ Ears, the latest national monument to be created by the Obama administration. Chris tells us that under the 45th President, there was a move to sell off the lands to private mining interests that was then reversed by Joe Biden. Still, the region is in peril of mining development because of strong lobbying interests.
Monument Valley is an icon of the America west. In the 1930’s, Henry Goulding, who had established a trading post here in the 1920’s, needed a source of income during the Great Depression. He went to Hollywood and convinced director John Ford to film Stagecoach starring John Wayne in his breakthrough role. The film was released in 1939. Goulding constructed lodge rooms and dining facilities to host film crew and actors. The rest is tourism history!
On this trip we have heard a multitude of languages here: Italian, German, Dutch, Russian, Slavic languages, Korean, Japanese, Dine (a southern Athabaskan language) spoken by the Navajo or Dine people, Spanish, and English. Tourists are here from all over the world!
If you want to know more about the history of the Dine people, please read the epic book Blood and Thunder, by Hampton Sides, about the conquering of the American west and the key characters who waged war and appropriated the land, including Kit Carson.
We made a stop to visit a rug weaver who raises Churro sheep on the reservation, cards and spins the wool, and who was born in a hogan (pronounced Ho-Wahn) next to where she conducted her demonstration. She tells us that winters have changed — there may be one foot of snow when in recent years there was six feet or more during the winter. Now, it is just windy and bitterly cold from December through early March.
Our guide Kris Chee, age 41, has only returned to Monument Valley, the original home of his family, a year ago. He had a yearning to return to his roots after working outside, telling us that there is little employment here other than tourism. His dad, who was in the US Army, was stationed in Fayetteville, North Carolina, for many years, and that is where he grew up. He returned here to finish high school and left again. Now, he drives a big Toyota Tacoma 8-cylinder truck that hauls a trailer to hold passengers intent on seeing the valley, explaining the lore as we make various stops to see buttes, climb sandhills, and oggle at ancient petroglyphs carved in rocks by Anasazi predecessors.
On our way back to the Visitor’s Center, we made a stop at Navajo Code Talkers point. The spot honors the young men who created an unbreakable code for communication during WWII based on the Dine language. This is an important part of our collective history to recognize the contributions of Native American culture.
Kris is intent on understanding and practicing native rituals and beliefs as he embraces traditional Navajo life. These are based on how to live in harmony with nature and other people. Something we can all learn to do better!
Tomorrow, Friday morning, we leave for Mesa Verde. To be continued!