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USA Radio
March 30, 2015

Navajo Nation Explorations in Arizona

By Donovan Hanley

Navajoland is full of adventure, history and countless cultural experiences. Arizona provides the perfect setting for a foray into our nation's rich history.

Day 1: Our Southwest expedition began by traveling north from Phoenix, Arizona to Tuba City, Arizona. Considered to be the “hub of Northern Arizona,” Tuba City is the western gateway into Navajoland. Bordering the entire eastern side of the Grand Canyon National Park, Tuba City provides the local flavor we wanted to experience. About 8,500 people call Tuba City their home, but to our amazement, the community almost doubles in size during the work week. It truly is the center of the Navajo Nation.

While in Tuba City, we visited the Explore Navajo Museum. First exihibited at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Explore Navajo Museum is the “Welcome Center” to Navajo country, featuring Navajo rugs, pottery, tribal stories of creation and a traditional Navajo Hogan (home). This was a great start to our trip, as it offered insight into what the Navajo Nation is about. 

Nextdoor to the Explore Navajo Museum is the dedicated Navajo Code Talkers Museum which features military machinery and tools used in battle, victory stories, transcript of a Code Talker and historic photos. We had several history buffs in our traveling group, and this small jewel of a display answered some of our questions about the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. It was easy for us to imagine this period and the contributions of these brave, young Navajo men.

After a dinner of traditional Navajo cuisine and American food at the Hogan Restaurant, we enjoyed a beautiful Navajo sunset and a warm summer’s evening.

Day 2: We began the day with a light breakfast, then visited the historic Tuba City Trading Post, which has been a part of the Arizona landscape since 1870. The trading post displays authentic Native arts and crafts such as local jewelry, pottery, rugs, sand paintings, Kachina dolls and clothing. The crafts and artwork reflect the superb craftsmanship and cultural traditions of the artists. We purchased a few souvenirs for the road and then were off to our next destination. 

A scenic 72 mile (116 km) drive northeast on U.S. Highway 160 took us to Kayenta, Arizona. We stopped to stretch our legs, shop the local market and gather directions towards Monument Valley. The land is so vast, it felt like we’d been driving for hours, but with scenery like this we didn’t mind. After a bit, we got back on the road and headed north on U.S. Highway 163 for 24 miles (38 km) along Kayenta-Monument Valley Scenic Road to IR42 and to the entrance of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

Monument Valley is one of America’s most recognized natural monuments. The Navajo name for Monument Valley is Tse’ Bii’ Ndzisgaii – which translates to “light around the mittens.”  No other place has the colors of an ice-blue sky contrasting so prominently against the crimson earth.  Piercing from the valley floor are towering pillar-like spires reddened over the years by a bold Southwestern sun.  The ground is barren except for a peppering of cedar trees, sagebrush and yucca plants.  With such an awe-inspiring panorama, this is the Wild West epitomized. We feel the presence of the “Duke” here (John Wayne, the famous American movie star who appeared in many Western films).

After enjoying our surroundings for several hours, we left Monument Valley and headed southeast to Chinle. We wanted to have plenty of time to see Canyon de Chelly National Monument. From Kayenta, we drove a short distance northeast on US 160 to Indian Rt. 59, then turned south and traveled 60 miles (97 km) to Many Farms and U.S. Highway 191. Next, it was south again on Hwy. 191 for the 15 miles (24 km) to Chinle. 

We followed the signs to the Canyon de Chelly Visitor Center and found interesting information about the canyon, a gift shop and interpretive demonstrations. Our hiking shoes were screaming for dirt trails and views from the canyon. We packed a water bottle and hiked down to White House Ruins. Wow! We were impressed with all of the canyon’s history. The canyon overlooks and views were fantastic. The afternoon shadows provided awesome photo opportunities.        

We saw a lot today and knew it was time to make our final drive of the day to Window Rock. It took us about an hour and 15 minutes to get there from Chinle.  By the time we arrived at our room, we were ready for a shower and good food. We deserved it! The Diné Restaurant featured local native cuisine such as Navajo tacos, mutton stew and a Navajo buffet.

Day 3: After breakfast, we took a walking tour of the Navajo Nation Council Chambers National Historic Landmark and Window Rock Monument & Veterans Memorial Park, located at the base of the sacred sandstone monument for which the town is named. The Council Chambers is the meeting place for the Navajo Government to discuss critical issues determining the future of the Navajo people. The interior of the Council Chambers is decorated with beautiful murals depicting Navajo life, culture and history. We sat quietly as a few committee members were having a meeting. We found it very interesting that the meeting was conducted in the Navajo language and in English as well. 

The Navajo Nation Zoological & Botanical Park in Window Rock is the only tribally-owned zoo in the country and admission is free. We saw indigenous wild animals from the four-corners region, including the Gunnison Prairie Dog. He’s not on the official roster of animals at the zoo, but makes himself at home nonetheless! 

We enjoyed every bit of our experience in Navajoland, and we will return for more adventures in Native America.

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