I imagined, on that first visit, understanding how the Native Americans feel about this land. I learned, on a recent return, how naive I can be.
This is the land of the Navajo, the Diné, "the people," chosen as their reservation when forced by the inexorable tide of Manifest Destiny. Anglos were content to let them keep this land. "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, PhD, author of Sacred Land, Sacred View: Navajo Perceptions of the Four Corners Region (Signature Books).
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 (Dook'o'oostiid), Ariz.; and Hesperus Peak, Colo. (Dibé Ntsaa). In his book, McPherson compares the area's landforms to the stained glass windows of cathedrals built in Middle Ages, which helped depict and 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 also 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.
Monument Valley, with its extraordinary red rock monoliths rising hundreds of feet from the desert floor, is one of the area's most compelling landscapes. Visitors may tour a 17-mile self-drive loop, but all other access must be with a Navajo guide. Hiking, jeep and horseback tours, from 90 minutes to overnight, are available. Some companies specialize in photography tours, guides are available for the magic moments of sunrise and sunset, and many accommodate special requests.
But my inquiries about tours focusing on Navajo legends garnered mostly blank stares. "What do you mean?" I was asked more than once.
"For the entertainment value," one explained.
"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."
In the introduction of Sacred Land, Sacred Views McPherson explains he wrote the highly readable book "most importantly for the Navajo people of the Four Corners region," because Elders fear "many of the beliefs accepted as part of Navajo culture will be lost if not recorded."
Compounding this fading awareness 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," says McPherson. And the 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." And, he points out, the oral tradition of Navajo legends means stories may change from telling to telling.
And so my companion and I learn that we cannot simply buy the knowledge (such a corrupt 21st century notion!). Instead, we mine for it, glean it, piece together what we can, and finally catch only the merest glimpse of the mythology of the powerful landscape.
From McPherson's book we learn that Monument Valley's traditional Navajo name translates to There Is a Treeless Area Amid the Rocks, and that the famous formations familiarly known as The Mittens are thought by some to be the hands of the gods, left behind 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.
Through Simpson's Trailhandler Tours we find guide Wes Howard, who has been informally studying the legends of his land and tribe. As we jolt across the desert in a jeep, Howard discusses modern Navajo issues ("A lot of older people die of preventable diseases because they go to medicine men first," he says). 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; tells us how rain can be male (a hard, driving storm) or female (a gentle and nourishing shower), and that the power of eagle feathers is greater if the feathers are taken from a live eagle. And with Howard, book and folk knowledge meet. From the book we learn that climbers desecrated Totem Pole Rock. Howard pinpoints a stunt during the filming of the 1975 Clint Eastwood film, The Eiger Sanction. "A lot of people blame the drought on that," he says.
The next day we take a horseback tour with Black's Hiking and Jeep Tours and fortuitously have John Holiday as a guide (our beyond-apathetic mounts are less entertaining). Holiday is 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 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.