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Navajo Nation

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Southwest : Navajo Nation
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Explore Navajo museum, Tuba City

The Navajo Nation [1] occupies a large portion of northeastern Arizona, as well as part of northwestern New Mexico and southern Utah. Its capital is at Window Rock, Arizona.

Cities

New Mexico

Arizona

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Understand

Covering 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers), the Navajo Nation is the single largest Native American reservation in the United States.

Get in

Driving in the Painted Desert

Drive. Navajo Nation is far from major airports, and commuter air service into Farmington and Gallup on the New Mexico side is marginal and leaves you a long way from most of the reservation. Rail service is similarly marginal and distant, although the Amtrak line between Albuquerque and Flagstaff passes through Gallup and along the southern side of the reservation.

Window Rock, administrative center of Navajo Nation, is relatively close to Interstate 40 near the New Mexico-Arizona state line. It and the other major settlements on the reservation (Ganado, Chinle, Kayenta) are reachable by good roads.

Get around

Because this area consists of vast stretches of open land a car is necessary to get around. Be sure to fill up your gas tank when you have the opportunity. Service stations are few and far between in this region.

See

Do

State line survey marker near Teec Nos Pos, Arizona
  • The largest fair of the Navajo Nation takes place during the fall in Shiprock, New Mexico [2]. If you are in the area, it can be an interesting stop with a market fair. Not all that is sold at the market fair is Indian art, in fact, you'll find a lot of rap CD's and t-shirts harboring the name of bands loved by those below the age of 20. Nonetheless, there is Indian art to be found in some respect. You'll also find standard rides that should keep the younger entertained. Of more appreciable cultural interest are the rodeos and Indian dances. While not warranting a 2-day detour to the area, it may be worthwhile to take a day, if you are reasonably close, and time your visit with the traditional dance contest and the pow-wow. Both events consist of traditional Navajo dancing and singing. You'll also be able to enjoy Navajo burgers while you're there.

Buy

Navajo Weavings

The characteristic folk art of the Navajo is the Navajo rug (or blanket). Each region of the reservation has its own characteristic style of weavings, with a few patterns that can be found reservation-wide. As with other folk art, quality and prices vary wildly; small items for the tourist trade can be had for as little as $20 or so, while a gigantic, museum-quality (but brand-new rather than antique) rug from the prestigious "Two Grey Hills" region sold for $60,000 at a Santa Fe Indian Market a few years ago. The key thing to remember is that the value of a particular weaving is the value you place on it. If you see a piece you like, haggle over price if you wish; if you don't get the price you want, look for another one.

Beware of non-authentic imports from Mexico and overseas carried by unscrupulous "dealers" that have tried to capitalize on the market for Navajo work. Many of the "tourist traps" of the region, particularly those just off the reservation, are plagued with these, but most sources on the reservation itself are entirely aboveboard. Some reliable sources of rugs:

  • Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site [3], in Arizona, is a unit of the United States National Park Service that preserves a historic trading post on the reservation, and is a good starting point for looking at rugs. There is often a weaver on the premises who will be actively working on a rug (and should not be disturbed while at it -- she's likely to speak only Navajo) along with interpretive exhibits. The post also has a reasonable selection of rugs for sale at competitive prices. (They're in a back room that may not be obvious amid the usual tourist paraphernalia; ask.)
  • There are several other trading posts on the reservation that still are "working" posts, in the sense that they function not just as distribution points for goods bound into the reservation, but also places where weavers and other artisans can trade their rugs for goods or put them up for sale on a commission basis. Selections tend to be small, but the quality is usually very good (the trading-post operators don't bother with junk) and prices are better than in the galleries of off-reservation art centers like Santa Fe. Many of the reputable posts are off the beaten path -- sometimes far off it. Three worth visiting are at Two Grey Hills and Crystal in New Mexico, and the extremely remote Shonto in Arizona.
  • For the less adventurous, most of the towns on the reservation have galleries with good reputations for authenticity, although you'll pay more for a given rug there than at the posts. Selections tend to be broader than at the posts. Reputable galleries are in Ganado, Kayenta, Monument Valley and Teec Nos Pos in Arizona, and Bluff in Utah, among others.
  • Possibly the most entertaining way of getting a rug, and one that can offer excellent value for dollar along with a fascinating cultural experience, is at a rug auction. If you're in the area on the second or third Friday of every month, Crownpoint, a tiny town between Farmington and Grants, hosts the Crownpoint Rug Auction [4]. The Crownpoint Rug Auction gives buyers the unique opportunity to purchase Navajo rugs directly from the weavers themselves, at prices well below retail. Before the actual auction, you can hold rugs in your hands and appreciate them up close. Some sell for $50 or less, and some sell for thousands of dollars. Value for dollar is particularly good during the spring. Weavers come from all over Navajo Nation to sell rugs at Crownpoint. Even if you don't buy anything, you are in for a treat. No two rugs are alike!

Pottery and Jewelry

Most reservation centers that sell weavings also sell pottery and jewelry made in Navajo Nation. Navajo silver work, including concho belts, tends to be of a very high quality. The pottery is quite different from that of the Pueblo Indians to the east, but good Navajo pottery is still an art form and well worth collecting. Two warnings are necessary, however. First, you don't have to get very far out of Navajo Nation to encounter bogus "trading posts" in which the goods are not Navajo at all, but rather cheap imports. This is particularly a problem with jewelry. Second, removal of "prehistoric" pottery from Navajo Nation is strongly discouraged and likely illegal; it is certainly illegal to obtain such work from excavations of archaeological sites, whether acknowledged or not. Settle for the modern stuff; it still qualifies as entirely authentic Navajo arts and crafts.

Eat

One of the characteristic food items of the Navajo Nation is "frybread." This is a flat bread about the diameter of a common tortilla, but quite different from a tortilla in that the process of preparing it (via frying rather than baking) causes it to become crisp and develop bubbles and pockets, so that it more closely resembles the sopaipilla of northern New Mexico. Frybread is eaten alone, with powdered sugar or honey as a dessert, or piled high with lettuce, tomato, cheese, ground beef or chili beans; the latter form is commonly called a "Navajo taco," although it has little to do with a conventional taco beyond the fact that it shares many of the same ingredients. Navajo tacos and other frybread dishes can be found at restaurants, and roadside stands, throughout the reservation, many of which also feature distinctive mutton dishes.

Drink

Alcohol in any form is prohibited within Navajo Nation. If you simply must have a beer, Flagstaff (Arizona), Farmington (New Mexico), and Gallup (New Mexico) are just outside the borders of the reservation. Don't expect to be welcomed with open arms at bars in the latter two, as bars there have serious problems connected with alcoholism on the reservation. The presence of Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff makes night life in town somewhat more convivial.

Sleep

Lodging

  • Kayenta has several motels and motor lodges, of which the Best Western Wetherill Inn is notable for the attached gift shop/gallery with a surprisingly good and reasonably-priced selection of Navajo rugs. On US 163, phone (928) 697-3231; rooms from $55.
  • Goulding's Trading Post and Lodge, in Monument Valley, Utah, is in a beautiful location, also offers Navajo rugs on-site, and has a good reputation. Try it and write a review here.

Get out

  • The Hopi Indian Reservation is embedded in the western part of Navajo Nation. The Hopi are ethnically distinct from the Navajo; continuing land disputes between the two tribes led to the creation of a curious "reservation within a reservation" now occupied by the Hopi. Hopi pottery is particularly fine, and the collector of folk art may want to make a side trip to Polacca or one of the other Hopi settlements. Photography, sketching, etc., may be restricted; inquire locally.



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