Its iconic Western vistas have been seen in a wide array of films from Forrest Gump to Easy Rider to Stagecoach, the John Ford classic. It's also the homeland of the Diné, or Navajo people, one of the two largest Native American tribes in the United States.
If you're thinking of paying a visit to this resplendent realm, or you simply want to expand your knowledge, then Navajo Nation: A Visitor's Guide is a handbook well worth perusing. Written by Tucsonans Patrick and Joan Lavin, it's a comprehensive introduction to the Navajo way of life, combining an extensive look at their history, religion and language with detailed routes for exploring Diné' bikéyah (Navajos' land).
Travel books generally provide a brief historical overview of the locale being examined, but this one devotes almost a third of its space to Navajo history and culture. Readers may come away feeling like they've taken an accelerated college course on the topic.
Navajos have lived in what is now the Southwest for at least five centuries, having migrated from what is now Alaska and northwestern Canada. Primarily hunter-gatherers when they arrived, they gradually evolved into a multifaceted culture, acquiring weaving and pottery-making skills from other Native American tribes, and silversmithing techniques and livestock from the Spanish.
By the time Americans took control of the area following the Mexican-American War, the Diné had also become expert raiders and plunderers, leading to escalating conflicts with the U.S. Army. In 1864, U.S. troops under Kit Carson herded about 8,000 Navajos on a brutal 300-mile march from northeastern Arizona to a prison camp in eastern New Mexico, with large numbers of Navajos dying en route. Four years later, after many more had died in captivity, a treaty established the Navajo reservation.
While reading this section, I was struck by how interwoven the Navajo story is with the American epic--and how seldom that story has surfaced in mainstream history. This deficit is especially underscored by the saga of the Navajo Code Talkers. In this significant but rarely discussed chapter in American history, Navajo servicemen stationed in the Pacific during World War II relayed critical military information using a code--impregnable to Japanese code-breakers--derived from the Diné language.
That the Japanese were unable to crack the code is a testament to the complexity of the Navajo tongue. The Lavins devote a lengthy section to Diné bizaad, noting its tonal nature (meanings are altered with changes in pitch) and its large inventory of unusual sounds. They also include a substantial list of Navajo words and conversational phrases to facilitate communication on the reservation, suggesting that by practicing their skills with native speakers, visitors will foster cordial relations.
"Speaking to the Navajo in his language," the Lavins write, "... is a gesture of goodwill, an implied compliment on the part of the visitor. ... Do not hesitate to inform your Navajo conversationalist of your interest in learning the Navajo language. Navajos greatly appreciate this, and while they may initially chuckle at your ambition, they will nevertheless be more than obliging."
The Navajo reservation is immense--it spills over into southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico--and there's definitely a lot to see. The Lavins propose a variety of itineraries, and delineate a circuitous route from Gallup, N.M., to the Grand Canyon and back via Monument Valley. This tour encompasses all the popular tourist destinations--Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, Canyon de Chelly--and also many little-known but intriguing spots such as El Morro, a sandstone promontory in western New Mexico engraved with copious inscriptions and petroglyphs; the 200 million-year-old "running dinosaurs" tracks near Tuba City; the Hopi community of Oraibi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States; Keet Seel, the largest cliff dwellings in Arizona; and House Rock Buffalo Ranch, home to a sizable herd of roaming--you guessed it--buffalo.
I would call this a superlative travel book if it weren't for one glaring omission: There's not a map to be found. A travel guide without maps is a bit odd, to say the least, and this one is often confusing in that many of the locations are so obscure that you won't find them on any but the most detailed maps. Still, this book, with its cavalcade of information, will be a helpful companion when visiting this truly unparalleled area.