A Glimpse of the Navajo (or “Diné” as they call themselves)

One of the biggest highlights of attending the photo workshop put on by Photography Life in Colorado this past fall was meeting pro photographer John “Verm” Sherman and, a few weeks later, his pro photographer girlfriend Dawn Kish.

Navajo Indian Dreamcatcher in Arizona

An Navajo dreamcatcher twists and turns in the wind

Dawn is a contributing photographer for Arizona Highways and she shoots for National Geographic as well. Her photography is so unique that one of her photos was selected by National Geographic Traveler as being among the Top 30 photos of the Last 30 Years.

Wow!!! Better yet, she is a vivacious and fun-loving woman who spends her leisure time rock climbing and mountain biking.

We were lucky enough to camp alongside her and Verm recently. When I told her we had just done some exploring in the Navajo Nation, she told me she had just finished an assignment making a video of the Navajo Nation Fair.

Suddenly, she plopped her laptop on our table, set up our two chairs to face it so we could watch, and brought up this incredible video.

I was spellbound.

I don’t know much about the Navajo (whose name for themselves is not Navajo but Diné). They are a very private people, and like indigenous people on every continent, they have been continually challenged to try and integrate into the society that enveloped them while hanging onto their traditions.

Dawn’s client asked her to make a video that honored the Navajo, and the result is both evocative and moving. She has captured their spirit and essence beautifully, and I had tears in my eyes as I watched a young Navajo girl dressed in full ceremonial splendor singing the American National Anthem — in Navajo.

Enjoy this beautiful glimpse into the lives of a special people whose roots in Arizona go back hundreds of years. It is ten minutes long and the link is below. Putting it in full screen is best!

If you are prompted for a password, it is Dine.

A few years ago, we watched a fabulous PBS “Independent Lens” documentary of a young Navajo girl who participated in the Miss Navajo Pageant, a competition that tests teenage Navajo girls’ mastery of women’s Navajo traditions, including slaughtering a sheep and speaking the language.

After seeing this PBS documentary, we traveled through Window Rock, Arizona, and saw their unique memorial to the Navajo Code Talkers. I picked up a fantastic book that gives a little insight into the Navajo, their patriotism to America and the unique (and arguably tide-turning) role they played in the Pacific theater of WWII: Search for the Navajo Code Talkers.

Just prior to that, while traveling in Mexico, we also had a special encounter with the little known indigenous Lacandon people of Chiapas who were “discovered” in 1948, a scant 66 years ago.  Like the the Navajo in America, they are working to find ways to integrate with mainstream Mexican society. You may enjoy this post about our trip there:

More related posts:

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Mysteries in the Navajo Nation, Arizona

October, 2014 – The snow in Ouray, Colorado, had transformed the surrounding national forest into a winter wonderland. Each night we looked up to see a dome of sparkling diamonds in the sky. This was a perfect chance to do some astro-photography, and one night Mark got out all his camera gear and his jacket, hat, boots and mittens before going to bed.

Night sky in Colorado with the Milky Way

Stars glitter in the heavens over Colorado

Back of the truck with snow

Even our water bottles were dusted with snow!

Sometime in the wee hours, while I was groping around for another blanket to pull over my head, he snuck outside and got some beautiful photos of the Milky Way and shimmering sky.

Another snowstorm delivered another dusting of the white stuff on everything, and we decided we had shivered enough.

As that night’s snow melted during the morning, we packed everything up, hitched up the buggy and started to pull out.

Snow capped mountains and a lake in Colorado

Our views on the Million Dollar Highway were spectacular.

Well, we TRIED to pull out!

The nice soft dirt that had been under the fifth wheel’s tires when we first set up camp had transformed into thick gooey mud.

Despite putting the truck in four wheel drive, the tires spun like crazy, flinging mud far and wide and splattering the whole front of the trailer. But the trailer didn’t budge! Mark grabbed our shovel and piled dry gravelly dirt in front of each of the truck and trailer tires.

Golden aspen and snow in Colorado

Nature was showing the last of her vibrant fall colors.

After a few groans from the hitch, the rig slowly began to move. We were on our way.

We drove up and over 11,000′ Red Mountain Pass into Silverton and then over two more passes before we dropped down into Durango.

The truck was working hard as it pulled our house along, but it made it through the three big climbs and descents just fine. Mark had recently installed a K&N air intake and an Edge Tuner, and these gave the truck a huge power boost on the many 10% grades.

The scenery was gorgeous, and it was bittersweet to leave the glowing aspens and snow-capped peaks behind.

But the red rocks of Arizona’s Indian country welcomed us.

Driving into Monument Valley Arizona

Monument Valley.

We were on a mission to get to Phoenix, Arizona, so we didn’t dawdle anywhere. However, when the turn-off for Monument Valley slipped by, we did a U-turn and circled back to drive a short ways out on spectacular Route 163 towards the valley.

Monument Valley Arizona

Classic Arizona skyline.

Dream catcher for sale near Monument Valley Arizona

A dream catcher blows in the wind
at a souvenir stand.

We hadn’t done that drive in many years, but it was just as dramatic as we remembered it being.

This is an iconic place, and lots of Hollywood movies have been filmed among these famous rock formations (see a list here).

Monument Valley Mitten formations Arizona

Monument Valley is famous for its mitten formations.

We had recently watched John Wayne’s black and white 1939 classic film Stagecoach and his 1956 film The Searchers which pretends this incredible landscape is in Texas!

5th wheel RV at sunset

A full moon appeared at sunset.

Seeing these monoliths for real on the horizon was breathtaking.

The road into Monument Valley is dotted with simple little structures where Navajo Indians sell their jewelry, pottery and other crafts.

A dreamcatcher fluttering in the wind at one of these open air booths caught my eye as it twisted and turned against the backdrop of the distant red rocks.

I got chatting with the very friendly woman who was selling these trinkets.

Cow silhouette_

Cows appear on a ridge.

Navajo Indian hand painted Christmas Ornament

Hand-painted Christmas ornament

I remarked that she had quite a spectacular view out her “office” window and she smiled and joked that her twenty mile commute along these roads wasn’t too bad either.

I soon found myself picking out a beautifully painted ceramic Christmas ornament.

“Those are painted by my friend,” she said. “She makes each one by hand, and each one depicts a different aspect of traditional Navajo society.”

On our hike we suddenly see a red rock canyon

Rainbow canyon in the Navajo Nation

I looked at the ornament in my hand.

It occurred to me that even though we have driven through the Navajo Nation many times — it takes up a good 15% of Arizona in the northeast corner of the state — we didn’t know much about the people or culture that reside here.

Outside the craft shop two old Indian women stood talking together — in Navajo.

I tip-toed past very slowly, trying to catch the sound of their language that flowed so easily and freely between them.

Guttural, staccato and clipped, it sounded like no other language I’ve ever heard.

“We really need to spend more time here,” I said under my breath to Mark as we got back in the truck, wishing we could stay and get to know these people a bit and learn a little more.

Before I knew it, he’d taken a turn off the main road, and we were bumping down some side road.

He had us on a crazy detour that was taking us far from the busy Route 160 that zips through the center of this land between Cortez, Colorado, and Flagstaff, Arizona.

We drove along a variety of back roads, watching unusual rock formations rise and fall around us as the traffic grew lighter and lighter.


Hiking with views on the Navajo Reservation

Suddenly, the land fell away in front of us.

Navajo Nation red rock canyon hike

We were standing on the edge of a rainbow canyon that stretched vast and wide before us.

We ran out to take a closer look and found ourselves staring out at a massive bowl of towering hoodoos made of pink and red and white striped sandstone.

The spires were a thousand feet tall and the canyon stretched to the horizon.

What a beautiful and mysterious place.

Red rock canyon lights up in the morning sun

From what I’ve read, the Navajo are reserved and private people, and they aren’t quick to reveal the secrets of their lives. How fitting that an exotic natural treasure like this lies hidden in the vast wide open plains on their land, unmarked and unfettered by the trappings of civilization. We watched in awe as the sunrise slowly lit the canyon with a gentle glow.

Hiking through red rock hoodoos and canyons in Arizona

Desert southwest hike through red rock canyon of hoodoo formations

I wrote this post over Thanksgiving weekend, and an observant reader reminded me that Thanksgiving was, of course, a celebration shared by the Indians and the pilgrims centuries ago. The celebration took place in the fall of 1621 in Massachusetts, likely at the end of September, and was attended by 90 Wampanoag Indians and 53 pilgrims. The Navajo were a far distant tribe in Arizona, but they shared a similar spirit and heritage with the Indians of the Atlantic coast.

Related posts from Indian Country:

Related posts from exotic canyons with red rock spires:

All our posts from Arizona: Here!

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Wire Pass Trail – Slot Canyon Hiking!

Wire Pass Slot Canyon view from outside

The slot canyon is barely visible from the outside.

May, 2014 – The beautiful red rocks and views of Sedona, Arizona, are utterly enchanting, but the exotic Vermillion Cliffs two hundred miles north lured us away.

We have driven past the fantastically colored rock walls along routes 89 and 89A between Page, Arizona, and Kanab, Utah, many times in the past.

However, this time we stopped for a while to explore the area in a little more depth. Continue reading

Canyon de Chelly, AZ – A Canyon of Indian Cliff Dwellings

RV blog post - We took the scenic route through Arizona's Navajo Nation to Window Rock and saw the stunning vistas and cliff dwellings of Canyon de Chelly.

Window Rock City Park.

Window Rock, Arizona.

The Window.

The Navajo Tribal Band practices for Oklahoma's Red Earth festival at Window Rock.

The Navajo Tribal Band practices

for Oklahoma's Red Earth festival.

The Navajo Tribal Band practices for Oklahoma's Red Earth festival at Window Rock. Navajo Code Talker statue at Window Rock, Arizona.

Navajo Code Talker.

Show of patriotism at a cemetery outside Window Rock on Indian Route 12, Arizona. Views along Indian Route 12, Arizona.

Scenic Indian Route 12.

Exotic rock formations and colors along Indian Route 12, Arizona.

Two toned rock formations.

Brilliant rock formations along Indian Route 12, Arizona.

A homeowner with a flair for color.

All kinds of colors in the rocks along Indian Route 12, Arizona.

The land was painted pink too!

Cliff views at Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona..

Looking down Canyon del Muerto.

Looking down Canyon del Muerto at Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona..

Sheer cliffs and lush valleys.

"Where two fell off."

Massacre Cave at Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona..

Massacre Cave.

Cave dwelling at Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona..

The little cave to the left.

Cliff dwelling at Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona.

There's a structure inside!

Expansive views at Chelly National Park, Arizona.

The immensity is hard to capture.

Looking across the canyon at Mummy Cave, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Tim & Mary Lynn look across at Mummy Cave.

Mummy Cave, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Mummy Cave housed a small community

in the shadows.

Building inside Mummy Cave, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

The structure inside Mummy Cave.

Navajo Fortress between Canyon del Muerto and Black Rock Canyon, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

The confluence of Canyon del Muerto

and Black Rock Canyon.

Antelope House, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Antelope House is tucked into the

bottom of this massive cliff.

Close-up of Antelope House, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Close-up of Antelope House ruins.

Hiking down to White House Ruin, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Beginning our descent

into Canyon de Chelly.

We hike to White House Ruin, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Looking down on the lush valley floor.

We hike past crazy swirling rock patterns on our way to White House Ruin, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Crazy swirling rock patterns.

Rock swirls dwarf the trees on our hike to White House Ruin, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

The swirls dwarf the trees in the middle of the pattern.

Pause in our hike to White House ruin, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

We take a breather from hiking.

The lush valley floor of Canyon del Chelly.

The bottom of the canyon is flat and wide.

White House Ruin, two levels of dwellings, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

White House ruin has two levels:

a ground-level building & a cave dwelling above.

Dramatic pink and orange stripes decorate the front of White House Ruin, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

No architect today could design a

more dramatic front entrance!

Awe-inspiring drippy stripes on the cliffs surround White House Ruin, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

The drippy stripes down the walls

fascinated us.

Wildflowers, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Flower or origamy?

Wildflowers, Chelly National Park, Arizona. Pictographs, Chelly National Park, Arizona: a person and a roadrunner.

Rock Art:  Roadrunner.

Pictographs at Chelly National Park, Arizona: a scorpion.

Rock Art:  Scorpion.

A hogan stands agains a dramatic backdrop of cliff walls on the lush valley floor of Chelly National Park, Arizona.

A Navajo hogan backed by dramatic cliff walls.

We hike through a tunnel on the White House Ruin hike in Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona

Early June, 2012 -- Leaving the Petrified Forest, we decided to head north by

Indian Route 12 which, to our surprise, was noted on our tourist map as a

scenic route.  As one-time Arizona residents we had no idea there was a

scenic road through the Navajo Nation way over in the northeastern corner of

the state.  We also wanted to see Window Rock, which lies on that road.  This

town is the Navajo tribal headquarters, and it always turns up in the Phoenix

TV weather forecasts with very cool temps.

We arrived on a warm day, however, and

were immediately drawn to the city park in

front of the big window in the rock.

The tribal band was practicing in

the park, and we watched and

listened for a while.  Chatting with

the band leader during a break,

we found out the band was

headed to Oklahoma City in a

few days for the big Red Earth

arts festival there.  Apparently

this is one of the largest

gatherings of Indian artists and

performers in the country, and

the group was very excited.

The park also features a large

sculpture of a WWII "code talker" in action on his radio.  A nearby plaque

explains how the US Military was struggling to find a way to keep the

Japanese from deciphering their communications in the South Pacific

Theater, and that 29 Navajo marines were recruited to devise a new

code using their native language.  By war's end there were over 400

Navajo Marines serving as code talkers, and the Marine Corps

commanders credited them with saving countless American lives.

Maj. Howard Conner, Signal Officer on Iwo Jima, is quoted as saying,

"Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would not have taken Iwo Jima."

This impressive history is also the subject of a fictional 2002 movie,


Back on Route 12 we saw more patriotism in a cemetery festively filled

with American flags.

The scenery on our route became very dramatic as we drove north of

Window Rock.  Huge red rock cliffs lined the sides of the road.

Suddenly it seemed that God switched paints on his easel, and large

rock formations began to cover the landscape in shades of green as

well as red.

Someone with an artistic eye painted their house a vivid blue,

making a wonderful contrast to the green and red rocks in their

back yard

In one place the

sandstone even had a

pink hue.  It was a

beautiful drive.

Our destination was

Canyon de Chelly

National Park

(pronounced "d'Shay").

This park is at the confluence of three

snaking canyons that are like three fingers of

a hand spreading eastward from where they

all join in the town of Chinle ("pronounced


The stunning thing about Canyon de Chelly

is the immensity of the canyons.  Standing on

cliffs that are 1,000' above the canyon floor,

the walls are very sheer and the views curve

past narrow walls of stone.  At the bottom of

the canyon is a lush, fertile valley floor where

the Navajo developed corn fields and peach

orchards in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the movies, landscapes like this are always accompanied by the piercing call of a

falcon echoing off the canyon walls.  But here the silence was so noticeable that our ears

hurt.  Scanning the horizon many miles distant, and looking deep into the valley below

us, the only sound was our own breathing.  Even the wind stood still.

In 1805 the Spanish tried to conquer the Navajos.  At the point where I was standing a woman

tried to fend off a Spanish soldier, and in their struggle the two fell off the cliff to their deaths.  In

the distance we could see "Massacre Cave" where the Navajos had hidden out.  In the end, the

Spanish claimed to have killed 90 men and 25 women and children, but the Navajo remember it

differently, saying that all the younger men were out hunting that day and the deaths were strictly

women, children and old men.

Either way, the cave looked tiny in

the distance.  Inside were some

structures that the Navajo hid in.

To the left of the main cave was a

much smaller one and, using the

long camera lens, we could see

another small structure inside there

as well.  It is hard to imagine living

on the edge of a cliff like that for any period of time,

especially with the Spanish after you.

At each viewpoint you get a slightly different view of these

lush canyons, and it was hard to capture the enormity of

the place in a little photograph.  Pan out or zoom in?  How

do you show it all??

At the Mummy Cave overlook we came across a

couple sitting behind a tripod. They were waiting

patiently for the afternoon light to provide its best

illumination of the cave ruins far below.  Waiting

for good light sounded like a great idea, so we hung out and

started chatting with them.  It turned out that they had spent the

last three years traveling the western states in their camper van, living

a lot like we do by boondocking on public lands.

Our eyebrows shot up when they told us they had just come back

from a sailboat charter in the Grenadines in the Caribbean ten days

earlier and were contemplating taking their travels to the sea.  What's

more, we found out Tim's mountain bike on the back of their van was

the same exact model as Mark's on the back of our trailer.  To top it

off, Mary Lynn enjoyed web design too.  What a crazy coincidence!!

Like us, too, they were using a Nikon camera to try to capture this cliff

dwelling in just the right light!

The good light never came, but we managed a few shots

anyways and hoped we'd run into these guys again somewhere.

Meanwhile, the mystery of the cliff dwellings lured us on.  The ancients built their homes in caves on these sheer

canyon cliffs between 700 and 1300 AD.  So these homes were first going up right after the peak of Mayan

remodeling down in Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico.  They may not be as majestic in terms of size or human

construction and engineering skills, but they are incredible for making fantastic use of the landscape.  What a

place to build a house!

Over at Antelope House we looked out across the canyon

at a beautifully striped, back-sloping wall.  Nestled at its

base was a small town made up of crumbling walls,

windows and towers.  You need binoculars or a long

telephoto lens to make out the tiny structures so far

below.  Even then they look like little toy buildings for wee

dolls.  They can't possibly be real.

Archaeologists call these ancient people the Anasazi,

which is derived from the Navajo language and is

variously translated as "Ancient Ones" and "Enemy

Ancestors," due to the subtle word "Zazi" which means

"Non-Navajo" or "enemy."  Also known as the Ancient Puebloans,

from the Spanish word for "townspeople," these long ago people

farmed the valley floor and disappeared around 1300, probably due

to drought.  The Navajo didn't arrive in this area until 1600, and by

then the ruins were long abandoned.

The Navajo flourished here for a while, but in 1864 US Col. Kit

Carson entered the canyon with a group of soldiers and

eventually cornered the Navajo at one end.  Few survived, and

those that did were forced to walk 300 miles to Fort Sumner in

New Mexico and stand trial.  They were allowed to return five

years later.

The most famous of the

ruins is "White House

Ruin," and we decided to

hike down into the

canyon to see it up close.

We hiked along with our

new RVing/sailing friends

who had ended up

camping alongside us overnight.  As with every overlook in the entire

park, the views from the top were so gorgeous I found myself running

and jumping over the rocks trying to get the best angles and trying to

fit it all into the camera frame.  Sigh.  Not possible!

The contours of the rocks are

wavy and rippled, swirling in

enormous and wild patterns.

You can almost feel the power of

the water that etched out its

course along these canyon walls

over the millennia, carving its

path ever deeper into the stone.

After snaking down the edge of the rock face,

we finally arrived at the canyon floor, crossed a

small foot bridge, and arrived face-to-face with

White House Ruin.

Two levels of dwellings were built into the base of the cliff -- one

on the ground level and another one up about 40' off the ground in

a cave.  An orange rainbow of stripes rains down the cliff wall,

painted by a divinely inspired hand -- or the result of a spilled paint

can way up on the top of the canyon.

At our feet we discovered unusual

flowers.  A young Navajo boy showed us

a lovely painting he was working on

featuring the White House ruin and some

of the rock art that we could barely make

out along the rock wall.

In no time at all we climbed back to the top, passing through a wonderful

tunnel on the way.  We would have stayed to see a few more of the

sights this mysterious canyon has to offer, but a massive heatwave was

spreading across the west and we wanted to get to higher, cooler

ground.  We seemed to be on an ancient ruin kick, something we had

started with the Zapotecs and Mayans in southern Mexico several

months back.  So we made our way to Mesa Verde National Park in

Colorado, possibly the best collection of cliff dwellings in the US.