The place I was heading to that day was the Navajo Nation, with a few stops along the way. I’d been through it a few times before, always making it a point to visit Monument Valley. The Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the States, exceeding the land area of ten of the states. The people who inhabit it call themselves the Dine, or the People. Their way of living is described as walking in beauty.
I took a scenic drive to get there, taking the 40 east, but then veering south on the 53, passing the Bandera Volcano and Ice Cave, the El Morro National Monument, and then briefly stopping to visit the Zuni Pueblo, once part of the Seven Cities of Cibola, sought by the Spanish explorer Vasquez de Coronado. There was a visitor center I went into with maps and black and white photos, and also a few gift shops I stopped outside of. Most places weren’t open yet, but the art outside was fantastic, butterfly dancers, corn maidens, kachina dolls, ads for turquoise and silver jewelry.
From the Zuni Pueblo I got on the 602 and was heading towards Gallup, when I passed a trading post with a series of life-sized Kachina doll cutouts out front. That made me nearly whoop with excitement. Kachina dolls are based on spirits that live on sacred mountains in the Southwest. When dancers wear the masks of the kachina they come to embody the same spirit. They are wildly colorful and intricately carved.
There are over 250 kachinas. A few examples are the Broadface, the Buffalo Warrior, the Hoop Dancer, the Morning Singer, the Mudman, and the Owl. They are the superhero action-figures of the Native belief system. Just seeing them beside the road gave my mood a giant boost. After stopping to take pictures, I looked down at the speedometer and saw I was flying down the road.
Gallup, New Mexico, is known as the Indian Capital of the World, and was formed as a base for the Union and Pacific Railroads. The Famous Highway 66 runs through it as well. I drove into it with zero expectations, but came aways suitably impressed by all the artwork, galleries, and trading posts I passed. Jewelry, blankets, and pottery were for sale.
A mural in town showed dancers beneath a rainbow and settlers with their wagons. Another showed Native families, the men in yellow shirt and red bandanas, with their horses, cows, sheep, and goats. In one window was a stuffed mountain lion and huge rack of antlers. In a second, were kachina dolls of every color and stripe.
It was just twenty-five miles from there to reach the Navajo Nation. The first thing I happened across was the Navajo Nation Zoo, which features animals indigenous to the region and gives their Indian names and designations. The bobcat was known as the hunter. Mule deer were called the respected ones. The Mexican gray wolf is the endangered one. The cougar is the silent one. Golden eagles were called our great protectors. The elk was the powerful one. The owl was the messenger.
Porcupines were the unique ones. The red fox was the distinguished one. The gray fox was the grizzled one. Wild turkeys were the colorful ones. The red-tailed hawk was the efficient one. The racoon was the masked, curious one. All of the names meant something and were spot-on, the same as the names they gave their people. What do our names mean? How many Johns and Steves do you need?
In an adjacent museum I read the story of the Navajo Hero Twins, Born of Water and Monster Slayer, sons of Changing Woman, who set out to rid the world of monsters that were endangering the lives of their people. Then I headed towards Window Rock and Fort Defiance.
The name behind Window Rock was clear once I arrived. Beneath a window in the rock stood many government agencies. Nearby Fort Defiance was established in 1851 on land that was important for grazing to the Navajo. This led to numerous attacks and raids. The response was an assault on the livestock and food sources of the Navajo, who were then marched 450 miles to Fort Sumner. At least twice Fort Defiance was abandoned and burned. The Navajo Treaty of 1868 returned a portion of the land to the people.
When I got there it seemed to be mostly houses and horse trailers. It didn’t strike me as a good place to just get out and go for a walk, so I wheeled the car around and headed toward the Hopi Nation. The road was black and the dust was red.