Four Corners is the land of the Navajo: the Diné, or "the people." Navajo territory originally spread over much of the American Southwest, but the inexorable tide of the white man's Manifest Destiny forced them to accept Four Corners as their reservation. "As far as the Anglos were concerned, there was really not much going on out there, just lots of sand and rocks," says Robert S. McPherson, author of "Sacred Land, Sacred View," a book about the Four Corners region.
The Navajo feel differently.
The 25,000-square-mile reservation lies within four mountains considered sacred by the tribe: Blanca Peak, Colo. (Sisnaajinii to the Navajo); Mount Taylor, Ariz. (Tsoodzil); San Francisco Peak, Ariz. (Dook'o'oostiid); and Hesperus Peak, Colo. (Dibé Ntsaa).
McPherson compares the area's remarkable landforms to the stained glass in Europe's cathedrals of the Middle Ages, which helped act as mnemonic devices for the tenets of Christianity. "If you understand Navajo thinking, every place has a name, every place tells a story," says McPherson, who teaches sociology and Native American philosophy and literature at the College of Eastern Utah.
A friend and I--tourists, not scholars--recently visited Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park with the intention of hiring a guide to share those stories with us. It turned out that buying the knowledge we were looking for wasn't so easy.
My inquiries about a tour of Navajo legends garnered mostly blank stares. "What do you mean?" I was asked more than once when I asked about the Navajo names for the mountains and rock formations.
Monument Valley's most impressive landmarks are best known by the names given them by Harry Goulding, an Anglo trader and promoter who came to the area in 1923. Goulding opened a trading post, gained the friendship of the tribe, and persuaded Hollywood director John Ford to use the valley in the classic western films that put the great rock formations into the American consciousness. Names like The Mittens, Elephant Butte, Camel Butte, and others, for the shapes they resemble, all come out of Goulding's imagination.
The guides use these names, point out where John Wayne sat on his horse in "The Searchers" (for a small fee, a local will recreate the pose for photographs). And guides might point out rocks that look like Snoopy, Jay Leno, Jesus Christ.
"It's a white veneer over something that's very Navajo," says McPherson. "The Navajo have names for all those rocks, but my gut impression, if we're talking generally, is that many guides may not know the names."
Compounding this fading awareness, he says, is protectiveness. "They look at this knowledge as a cultural resource. They're looking at the preservation of the information as something that should be handled very carefully."
The Navajo's belief system itself causes stories to be closely held. "The story is a very tangible power. They're not treated lightly, they are not given away freely, they are treated with respect. Some stories, for example, may be told only in certain seasons." In addition, McPherson points out, the oral tradition of Navajo legends means stories may change from telling to telling.
And so, we two travelers from the information age learned to mine for the knowledge we were seeking, piecing together what we can. In the end, we only caught glimpses of the mythology of the powerful landscape.
Our chief source was McPherson's book, which points out that Monument Valley's traditional Navajo name means "There Is a Treeless Area Amid the Rocks." The formations familiarly known as The Mittens are thought by some to be the hands of the gods, left as a sign that some day they will return and rule from Monument Valley. We read that El Capitan (Agathla) beams information to the sun, and that the sacred Shiprock, which we pass on our drive to Monument Valley from Albuquerque, was desecrated, ironically, when a Sierra Club expedition climbed it in 1939.
Book learning and folk knowledge meet in the person of Wes Howard, a guide we found through Simpson's Trailhandler Tours. Howard has informally studied tribal legends, which to him are living issues. As we jolt across the desert in a jeep, he discusses how many older people die of preventable diseases because they go to medicine men first. He explains the power of the wind in Navajo belief; sings us a Navajo song about seeking balance in life as we rest within a red rock bowl. Rain, he tells us, can be male (a hard, driving storm) or female (a gentle and nourishing shower)l, and eagle feathers are more powerful if taken from a live eagle.
The next day, a horseback tour with Black's Hiking and Jeep Tours fortuitously introduces us to John Holiday. Holiday is a grandson and son of medicine men and may someday be taught the sacred rituals of the shaman himself. "When I settle down and get less wild," he says. "I'm not ready."
With persuasion, Holiday shares some of what he knows already, showing us medicinal plants, relating tales of evil Skinwalkers, who can change shape, telling us about the heavenly sign he saw the moment his grandfather died.
After a few days, my companion and I have a fuzzy sense of what Monument Valley and its surrounds mean, a strong sense of the depth of its significance, an embarrassed awareness of the inappropriateness of our plan to simply drop in and buy wisdom.
Perhaps that is just the way of my people.
"When you start talking about sacred sites, the problem is that Americans have a habit of loving things to death," says McPherson. "You have a lot of people going to the places that are sacred and special and trying to glom on to that religiosity. It's comparable to riding your motorcycle through a cathedral."
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is about 170 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Ariz.; about 300 from either Phoenix or Albuquerque. The park has 99 sites at the Mitten View Campsite.
All rooms at Goulding's Lodge (435-727-3231) have balcony views of the valley. Book early in peak seasons of summer and fall. Kayenta, Ariz., about 30 miles from the park entrance, has Hampton Inn (520-697-3170), Best Western Wetherill Inn (520-697-3231), and Holiday Inn (520-697-3221).
Nearby Mexican Hat, Utah, also has some accommodations.
Tours may be arranged through many hotels and at booths by the park visitors' center. Simpson's Trailhandler Tours may be reached at 453-727-3255, www.trailhandlertours.com. Black's may be reached at 800-749-4226.