by Mel Fenson

Characterized by red sandstone buttes, towering spires, picturesque mesas, and striking arches, Monument Valley is Navajo country! Part of the Colorado Plateau, it spreads out over 2,000 square miles in northeastern Arizona and southeastern Utah. Monument Valley's gullies, canyons and dramatic formations have resulted from ages of erosion from the ancestral Rocky Mountains, which has been deposited over time and formed into sandstone. Today, the natural forces of nature continue to slowly shape the contour of the land in the valley.

Monument Valley symbolizes the wide-open spaces and rugged landscape of the American West. It has set the stage for many western films, such as John Ford's 1938 movie "Stagecoach," which starred John Wayne.

The Navajos have occupied this valley since the 1860's. More than 300,000 Navajo people live in the 16-million acre Navajo Nation. They constitute the largest American Indian tribe in the United States and are considered to possess one of the best-preserved Native American cultures in North America. They originally called themselves "Dinneh," meaning "the people." Their social structure is based on bonds of kinship, with their descent traced maternally. Their lives evolve around members of an extended family, who live near each other and cooperate in activities such as house building, farming, and herding.

The traditional Navajo dwelling is called a hogan. It is a six-to-eight-sided structure constructed of logs and covered with earth. Originally nomadic, the Navajo subsisted by gathering wild plant foods and by hunting. After learning techniques of dry farming (farming without irrigation) from the Pueblo peoples, they began to raise maize, beans, squash, and melons. Livestock, particularly sheep, acquired in the early 17th century from the Spanish, became an important part of their livelyhood.

The Navajo are well known for their traditional rugs, woven from sheep's wool. Many weavers raise their own sheep, and shear, wash, card, and spin the wool. They dye it using methods, which have been passed down through generations. The vivid colors come from native plants such as wild walnut, lichen, and rabbitbrush. Weavers work sitting in front of log looms. They weave traditional designs recalled from memory. Contemporary patterns, and even some computer-designed ones, are also being used today.

Navajo Weavers, 1953 Serigraph
by Harrison Begay

Navajo Rug
Ganado, woven by Emma Begay
33" wide by 47" long
Photo courtesy:
Tucson, Arizona

The Navajo are also well known for their exquisite silversmithing, which they adopted in the 19th century from Mexican silversmith techniques. Typical Navajo jewelry is crafted from silver and turquoise and often decorated with squash blossoms or other native symbols.

The Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park maintains a visitor center, a campground, and a restaurant. Navajo-guided tours provide visits to Hogans and travel into areas of the valley, otherwise unaccessible. The Visitor Center has an extensive gift shop and provides exhibits, such as one on the Navajo Code Talkers, and other exhibits, which depict Navajo history. Monument Valley is administered by the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department, an agency of the Navajo Nation.