Excerpt: A Traveler’s Guide to Monument Valley (1993)

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Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the book A Traveler’s Guide to Monument Valley, first published in 1993.

By Stewart Aitchison

Through numerous western movies and, more recently, a multitude of commercials and advertisements, millions of people from around the world readily recognize the monoliths of Monument Valley. Despite the region’s incredibly diverse topography, ranging from yawning chasms to saw-toothed, alpine mountains, it is Monument Valley’s red sandstone buttes, mesas, and pinnacles that most people consider the quintessential image of the American Southwest.

Monument Valley is also an ancient home to Native Americans. Is there anyone who cannot conjure up a mental picture, albeit stereotypical, of Navajo horsemen riding at a full gallop beneath the imposing Mittens or posing stoically on a rocky outcrop above the valley floor? Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, a nearly thirty thousand-acre parcel of land straddling the Utah-Arizona border in the heart of the Four Corners country, captures the imagination of those enamored with the mystique and legends of the Southwest. But is this the real Monument Valley? Let’s take a trip into the valley for a closer look.

“Woshdee” comes the welcome from the darkness of the interior of the hogan. I duck through the east-facing door into what seems at first a very dark room. But once inside, I see that the rustic juniper log interior is illuminated by a delicate golden sunbeam filtering down through the smoke hole.

Along the west wall is a space reserved for the camp matriarch. Susie Yazzie, of the Bitterwater Clan, sits with her legs folded beneath her (only men are supposed to sit cross-legged) on a sheep skin, vigorously carding wool. Her sheep are busy outside trying to find something to eat among the scrubby desert vegetation. Sand, twigs, and cockleburs drop out of the wool onto an apron cloth spread across Susie’s lap. The wool she is working with is the select fleece from the back, shoulders, and flanks of the animal. The rest of the wool will be sold at the trading post.

With no particular urgency, for only the white man is always in a hurry, I stroll over to Susie. We exchange a softly spoken, “ya at eeh” and an equally gentle handshake. Our eyes are diverted, for in traditional Navajo culture only rude people stare at each other.

Susie resumes her work. She takes the resulting fluffy roll of wool and deftly folds a bit of it into the strand of yarn wound on her spindle. Using her right hand, she rolls the spindle against her right thigh. With her left hand, she gently feeds out more and more wool. At intervals, she grasps the forming yarn with both hands and pulls on it. Not too hard, for that would break the yarn; yet not too gently, for that would leave the strand uneven and lumpy. From one small palm-size bundle of wispy fleece, Susie spins several yards of tight, even yarn.

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At her feet is an old, weathered ceremonial basket woven from strips of squawbush. The russet and black geometric designs have almost faded away, but their significance is still strong. The basket’s center represents the beginning of life; coiling outward comes black rain clouds and the red of a clearing storm; the outer white coils represent the increasing population of the Diné (The People, as they traditionally call themselves); and the pathway of white cutting through the design to the end of the outer coil is to let The People emerge from a previous world into this one.

In the basket are leaves, roots, twigs, and short strands of yarn to show visitors the different colors obtained from plants used for dyeing. The orange root of the western dock produces yellow-brown, snakeweed or broomweed flowers and stems make yellow-green, and mountain mahogany yields russet. Gifts from the earth are used for other purposes as well: a section of yucca root makes soap to wash the yarn; a lump of chalky gypsum, in the mineral form of selenite, can be pulverized and sprinkled onto the fleece to absorb oil and dirt carried by the wool.

Susie moves to her upright loom. Traditionally, the loom would have been constructed out of rough pinyon pine, but hers is made of store-bought lumber. Susie makes herself comfortable on a low stool fashioned out of a milk crate covered with a sheep skin. With the pattern only in her mind, her well-practiced fingers take short lengths of weft yarn and carefully weave them into the warp threads.

Some rug buyers associate the Teec Nos Pos-style of tapestry weavings with Monument Valley. But Susie is weaving one of her favorite motifs, a Yei-style rug, in a design derived from ceremonial sand paintings and representing Navajo holy people. Rug styles that were once closely associated with a particular trading post or region of the Navajo country have spread throughout the reservation as Navajos and their ideas have become more mobile.

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Anthropologists would have me believe weaving was introduced through Spanish and Pueblo Indian influence. But Navajo tradition relates:

Spider Woman instructed the Navajo women how to weave on a loom, which Spider Man told them how to make. The cross poles were made of sky and earth cords, the warp sticks of sun rays, and the heddles of rock crystal and sheet lightning. The batten was a sun halo, and white shell made the comb. There were four spindles: one a stick of zigzag lightning with a whorl of cannel coal; one a stick of flash lightning with a whorl of turquoise; a third had a stick of sheet lightning with a whorl of abalone; a rain streamer formed the stick of the fourth and its whorl was white shell.

More guests have arrived, and etiquette dictates that food should be prepared for a feast. A juniper fire is started in the stove outside at the edge of the summer shade-house, a covered but open-sided structure that serves as a work space and bedroom during hot weather and as an informal dining room.

A blackened coffee pot sits on the edge of the grill and mutton ribs roast. In a skillet, hot grease begins to smoke, while Susie and her daughter, Effie, are busy patting out round, flat pieces of soft flour dough. Each white tortilla-shaped piece of dough is cautiously lowered into the hot lard. Within seconds, the fry bread, dah diniilghaazh, puffs up and is ready to be turned over to brown the other side.

(Note: Fry bread has become a Navajo staple in the last century. Before they were rounded up by U.S. troops in 1863, the Navajos were not familiar with flour derived from wheat, only corn flour. While held captive at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico, the Navajo women learned from the local Hispanics how to make sopapillas or fry bread, using wheat flour. A typical recipe consists of making a soft dough from 3 cups white flour, 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and about 1 1/3 cups warm water. Take about a golf ball-sized piece of dough and pat out into a quarter-inch thick pancake. Drop into about a half-inch of hot shortening in a cast iron frying pan, preferably outside over a juniper fire. Cook to a golden brown. Turn once.)

Lingering over another cup of strong coffee and munching on a piece of fry bread lathered with honey, we watch the sun dip below the ramparts of Mitchell Mesa. The upper cliffs of the west facing buttes and mesas are ignited into crimson colors as the day fades into evening. Twilight seems endless; time stands still.

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I let my mind drift. I wonder what it must have been like to be the first Navajos to enter the valley. Probably only a few extended families stayed. Water was always in short supply, and wild game, such as bighorn sheep and deer, were scarce. Over time the people acquired sheep, goats, and horses, but limited forage precluded any large herds. Hogans were traditionally built with east-facing doorways; summer shades were placed nearby. A few sandy swales were farmed by relying on runoff from the infrequent rains to water the crops of corn, beans, and squash.

Like the monuments themselves, the life of The People changed very little. But with the end of the nineteenth century came trading posts, missionaries, boarding schools, and all sorts of new and strange ideas. The changes in the Navajos’ clothing, houses, and language were dramatic and are continuing today. Those of the older generation wear traditional dress, tie their long hair into a bun, may speak only Navajo, and live in hogans without running water or electricity. By contrast, their grandchildren wear the latest styles, cut their hair short, may speak only English, drive cars, and dream of graduate school. Change is inevitable, but the tribal elders hope the children will remember and preserve their heritage.

Monument Valley’s stark but awesome, sweeping beauty would be reason enough to visit the area. But the fact that the Navajo people, the Diné, live here blesses the region with a marvelous human dimension. The imposing silent monuments, mesas, and buttes are given a voice by the Diné. Come and experience this place The People call the “land of room enough and time enough.”

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One thought on “Excerpt: A Traveler’s Guide to Monument Valley (1993)

  1. Love the traditional description of the art of weaving, but the wool came with the Spaniards’ sheep.

    Veronica Egan P O Box 202 Teasdale UT 84773 970-799-4361

    *There is no education in the second kick of a mule.*

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