Riding with the Navajo: finding harmony in the heart of native America

Ahead of the release of blockbuster film The Lone Ranger, Aaron Millar visited the Navajo Nation to discover the culture, identity and astonishing resilience of America’s first people

I am riding with the Navajo. A swirling desert wind twists the red earth into dust devils that rattle our horses and scrape against the towering sandstone pinnacles and flat orange mesas of Monument Valley. In Native mythology this iconic, wind-sculpted landscape in the southwest of the United States is sacred: each dramatic buttress believed to be the fallen carcass of a defeated monster, slain by the holy people to protect the Navajo.

We kick our heels past stone thunderbirds and the jagged rock spine of a dragon’s tail. Deep into the backcountry we pass yucca plants harvested for basket weaving and find Native families still living off the land – without running water or electricity – the way they have here for centuries. In the distance the last feathers of the setting sun shimmer on the parched horizon like the billows of a fire. This is Navajo country, in the heart of America, but it feels as if I’ve slipped between the cracks into another world entirely.

In many ways I have. The Navajo Nation is a 25,000 sq m sovereign state in the high desert of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. It’s the largest tribal reservation in the country (bigger than Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island combined) and has its own language, government and unique cultural identity.

I’ve come here because Hollywood is about to shine a spotlight on America’s first people. The Lone Ranger, released on 9 August, is tipped to be this summer’s biggest blockbuster movie, and with Johnny Depp playing Native American warrior Tonto it’ll be the Indians, not the cowboys, who steal the show. But what’s the real Native America like? By taking a road trip through the Navajo Nation, and spending time with Native families who make their home here, I hoped to find out.

I entered the reservation north of Flagstaff, Arizona, heading east across bleached desolate grasslands starved of water. It seems impossible it can survive. But Native people have thrived here for thousands of years and their mark still remains. At Navajo National Monument, near Tuba City, Arizona, I hiked to an ancient cliff village that the Anasazi – predecessors of the Navajo – built high into the sheer walls like precarious sandcastles of mud and stone. At Canyon de Chelly, a sacred gorge near Chinle, Arizona, I took a jeep ride to the sandy canyon floor and found primitive petroglyphs of antelopes, snakes and the healing white handprints of medicine men chiseled into the smooth rusty stone.

“I travelled hundreds of miles across the reservation and found that Native identity woven – sometimes faintly, but always proudly – between the fabric of the surrounding modern world”

Living in harmony with the Earth is central to all Navajo beliefs: everything is alive, interrelated and sacred. As the sun set over those long-deserted settlements, turning the red rock walls peach and lighting up a forest of dried-out pinion pines and rabbit bush scrub, it was easy to imagine a world lived according to those basic beliefs.

But perhaps those ideals are not just confined to distant history. After years of government exploitation, an ideological movement aimed at building a nation based on traditional Native – not progressive American – values is gathering momentum.

At Shiprock, New Mexico, I visited Duane Yazzie, president of the local chapter of the Navajo government, who was elected on a promise to fight for that reality. As we sat around the fire telling stories with his grandchildren, he told me that poverty and the “evil necessity” of economic development has seen the Nation pursue rapid and damaging forms of progress, with little return for the people, and at huge cost for the land and cultural identity of the reservation. But the tide, he believes, may be turning. “Our way has always been to keep in balance with the world,” he tells me. “We want progress but not at the expense of our culture, land and traditions.”

A few miles down the road, at La Tinaja, a restaurant and community centre near Grants, New Mexico, that ethos is being manifested from the grassroots up. I walked through a garden where ancient dry farming techniques were being taught, and visited a sweat lodge where ‘warrior’ ceremonies for the young men are performed. Nearby, boys were making bow and arrows, corn was roasting on an open fire and five Navajo horse breakers were taming a wild Mustang stallion using traditional techniques handed down through the generations. “America is about the melting pot,” says owner Ira Vandever. “We have to decolonise and relearn who we are.”

Over the next few days I travelled hundreds of miles across the reservation and found that Native identity woven – sometimes faintly, but always proudly – between the fabric of the surrounding modern world. I met basket makers and wood carvers. I slept on the compacted red earth of a wood and mud Hogan, the traditional Navajo home designed to represent the living world: four pillars for the cardinal directions, a spiral ceiling for the sky and a door facing east to welcome the rising sun. And then at a traditional cook-out I watched as two sisters butchered a sheep and used every part of the animal to provide a feast of mutton stew, fatty ribs and dried blood sausage. Simply being part of that family for a night was a highlight of my trip.

But the best was saved for last. While riding with the Navajo we stopped at a small cedarwood Hogan outside the village of Oljato, deep in the backcountry of Monument Valley, Utah. Inside, a Medicine Man was waiting for me; his sharp weathered face brightened by elaborate turquoise jewels around his neck. “In our beliefs there are many different Gods,” he told me. “The wind, the rain, the beam of sunlight. The Navajo live close to these holy spirits so when we make a ceremony like this they come to witness.”

He spread a pile of hot coals on the floor and stared at it through a thick crystal he turned carefully in his hands. “It’s like an X-ray machine,” my guide explained. “He sees your life reflected in the fire.” Afterwards he placed an arrowhead in my left hand and fanned my body with Golden Eagle feathers, palming sweet cedar smoke across my face to bless and purify me. Then a low chanting began, rising and falling like song. Outside a dust storm picked up tumbleweed and crashed it against the walls of the Hogan like thunder boards. I heard my name called and a sudden, unexpected flood of emotion washed over me. “This power comes from the Earth,” the Medicine Man said, smiling. “It’s strong.”

In the reservation there is poverty and all the problems that come with it. Many families spoke to me of their anger at the lack of US government support, many others talked about the threat of a dominant American ideology. But despite these difficulties I found an inspiring strength and rare resilience too; a determination to scream against the tide of progress and advocate a world based on harmony and balance with the Earth and spirit.

Hollywood will never be able to capture that. But if The Lone Ranger inspires a new generation to discover, and care about, the real Native America, then I say ride on Kemo Sabe.

For more of Aaron’s travel writing, photography and adventure inspiration visit www.TheBlueDotPerspective.com

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Sacred Canyon Lodge (+1 928 674 5841; www.sacredcanyonlodge.com) is a Navajo owned and run hotel right at the entrance to Canyon de Chelly. Rooms in summer start from $115 plus tax.

Goulding’s Trading Post & Lodge (+1 435 727 3231; www.gouldings.com) in Monument Valley provides accommodation and excellent Navajo-run hiking and jeep tours. Rooms in summer start from $195 plus tax.

Larry Holiday (+1 928 679 5161; [email protected]) offers great horseback tours in Monument Valley and the surrounding backcountry. Prices dependent on route and duration. Overnight camping must be booked in advance.

New Mexico
La Tinaja Restaurant & Trading Post (+1 505 783 4349; www.facebook.com/LaTinajaRestaurant) is an excellent place to eat, camp and find out about Navajo culture. Navajo horse breaking can be watched here too; phone ahead to find out about times. Highway 53, Ramah, New Mexico, 87321.