The Navajo Nation, USA

The Navajo Nation is a 25,000sqm sovereign state in the high desert of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.  It’s the largest tribal reservation in America – bigger then 10 states – and home to more then 120,000 Navajo people.  I explored this ancient culture on a week-long road trip.  Here’s some of my favourite images …


Navajo National Monument: by utilising everything the desert provides, the Navajo – and their predecessors the Anasazi – have thrived in this parched, and desolate, landscape for centuries.



A basket weaver on the neighbouring Hopi reservation, near Tuba City Arizona.  Individual strands of Yucca plant will be picked and dyed by hand before the weaving begins.



Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de ‘de shay’): this dramatic canyon is sacred to the Navajo, and considered a place of great healing.  But it was here, also, that some of the worst atrocities leading up to the ‘Long Walk’ of 1864 were committed – when more then 10,000 men, women and children were evicted from their land and force marched 300 miles to the concentration camp of Fort Sumner.  Four years later when they were finally granted their freedom, more then half their number decimated, it was to here they first returned.



Inside the canyon, ruined settlements of the Anasazi are built into giant fissures in the sheer cliff walls.  Beside them, modern day Navajo families can be found still living the traditional way: herding sheep and planting small crops of corn, beans and squash.



Ancient petroglyphs stain the red rock walls: here is Cocopelli, the fertility god, and the healing white hand prints of medicine men.



Shiprock, New Mexico: one of the Navajos most sacred spots, but completely off the tourist trail. I stayed with a family nearby and sat up late, listening to them tell stories to their grandkids around the fire.  The surrounding area is poor, and run down in places, but the grandmother told the kids – “Poverty is not having no money, it’s having no love, no family.”



La Tinaja, New Mexico: Navajo horse breakers tame a wild stallion.  Mustang horses are like the Navajo themselves: strong and free spirited, and 30,000 of them run wild through the reservation. I couldn’t imagine that such ferociousness could ever be tamed, but by sundown they had him saddled and calm.  It was remarkable to see, but strangely sad too.



A young Navajo horse breaker practices his lasso.



Medicine Man ceremony, New Mexico: witnessing this small family blessing – a rare privilege for an outsider – was utterly moving.  As I listened to the grandmother pray and sing, a flood of emotion washed suddenly, and unexpectedly, over me.



A traditional Navajo rug weaver: these intricate designs can take up to 6 months to complete.



A cedar wood and earth Hogan: the traditional home of the Navajo.  I spent a couple nights here, sleeping on old mattresses on the compacted dirt floor as star light filtered through the stove hole in the roof and sheep dogs howled the night around me.



Traditional Navajo cook out: I watched as they butchered a sheep and used every part of the animal to prepare a feast of of fresh mutton stew, fatty ribs and grilled blood sausage. As they brought the knife across its throat, I expected it to thrash and bleat in pain, but it looked me square in the eyes and stayed calm and peaceful throughout. “It’s a blessing, almost spiritual,” their nephew Emilio said, “They seem to sense what’s about to happen and just let go.”



Monument Valley: the towering sandstone pinnacles and dusty red mesas are believed in Navajo mythology to be the the fallen carcasses of defeated monsters, buried in the sand.



A Navajo Rider prepares to set off into the back country of Monument Valley.



On my last night we camped under the stars of Monument Valley, miles away from the tourist crowds.  In the middle of the night, I woke to clearest Milky Way I have ever seen.



Travel Information:

Discover Navajo is an excellent resource for planning a trip to the Navajo Nation, I used the website extensively in my research.