74 miles NE of Petrified Forest National Park; 91 miles E of Second Mesa; 190 miles E of Flagstaff; 68 miles SE of Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation, is less than a mile from the New Mexico state line. It’s named for a huge natural opening in a sandstone cliff just outside town, a landmark preserved as the Window Rock Tribal Park, located 2 miles north of Ariz. 264 (go north on Indian Rte. 12 and then turn east onto Window Rock Blvd.).
As the Navajo Nation’s capital, Window Rock is the site of government offices, a museum and cultural center, and a zoo. A few miles to the west is the St. Michaels Historical Museum, in the community of St. Michaels. About a half-hour’s drive west of St. Michaels is the Hubbell Trading Post, in the community of Ganado.
Navajo History 101
The Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the U.S., is home to nearly 200,000 Navajos and covers an area of 26,000 square miles in northeastern Arizona and parts of New Mexico and Utah. Although the reservation today has modern towns with supermarkets, shopping centers, and hotels, many Navajos still follow a pastoral lifestyle. Their flocks of goats and sheep, and herds of cattle and horses, have free range of the reservation and often graze beside the highway.
Compared to the Hopi and Zuni peoples, the Navajo are relative newcomers to the Southwest. Their Athabaskan language is closely related to the languages spoken by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, and it is a close cousin of the languages spoken by the neighboring Apaches. It’s believed that the Navajo migrated southward from northern Canada beginning around 1000, arriving in the Southwest sometime after 1400, though possibly earlier. At this time, they were still hunters and gatherers, but contact with the pueblo tribes, which had long before adopted an agricultural lifestyle, began to change the Navajo into farmers.
When the Spanish arrived in the Southwest in the early 17th century and began to encroach upon Navajo land, the Navajo began raiding Spanish settlements for horses, sheep, and goats. In 1805, the Spanish sent a military expedition into the Navajo’s chief stronghold, Canyon de Chelly, and killed 115 people, who, by some accounts, may have been all women, children, and old men. This massacre, however, did not put an end to the conflicts between the Navajo and Spanish settlers. In 1846, when this region became part of the United States, American settlers encountered the same problems that the Spanish had, and eventually the Navajo were defeated and moved onto this reservation.
Today, the Navajo are chiefly herders but have had to turn to other livelihoods as well. Weaving and silver work have become lucrative businesses for some craftspeople, although the amount of money these trades garner for the tribe as a whole is not significant. Many Navajos now take jobs as migrant workers. Gas and oil leases and coal mining on the reservation provide additional income. Fortunately, the Navajo have recognized the tourism potential of their spectacular land. Monument Valley is operated as a tribal park, as is the Four Corners monument. Numerous Navajo-owned tour companies also operate on the reservation.
As you travel the reservation, you may notice small hexagonal or octagonal buildings with rounded roofs. These are hogans, the traditional homes of the Navajo, and are usually made of wood and earth with the doorway facing east to greet the new day. Although most Navajos now live in Western-style houses, a family usually has a hogan for religious ceremonies.