Indigenous America explored in Arizona

Canyon spiritual home of the Pueblo, Hopi and Diné peoples

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In a deep canyon in the northeast corner of Arizona lies the center of the Navajo (Diné) universe – in the physical form of a stunning red stone monolith.

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According to legend, the 243 meter high tower called Spider Rock is the place where Spider Woman began weaving the web of the universe. It was she who taught the Diné women how to weave the beautiful rugs and blankets that have been part of their culture for centuries.

If you want to explore Native America, Arizona is a great place to start. The state is home to 22 federally recognized indigenous nations and more than a quarter of all land in Arizona is tribal. There are many unique and beautiful places where visitors can discover the past and present of indigenous culture.

On a recent trip to Arizona, my husband and I spent five days exploring tribal lands, seeing incredible sites and connecting with indigenous culture along the way. Here are some places not to be missed if you want to experience Arizona’s indigenous side.

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Canyon de Chelly National Monument

The Center of the Universe is a good place to start exploring indigenous culture. Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Canyon de Shay) was established as a National Monument in 1931. This beautiful red rock gorge is home to Spider Rock and other stunning rock formations, petroglyphs, pictographs and many ancient indigenous dwellings.

For many centuries, this canyon was home to three different indigenous groups – the Ancestral Puebloans, the Hopi, and the Diné, better known as the Navajo. Each group left their mark in the gorge.

We began our exploration by driving along the north and south rims of the canyon, stopping at lookout points along the way. From Mummy Cave Overlook on the north rim you can see one of the largest ruins inside the gorge. Archaeologists discovered evidence that these ancient dwellings, built in two caves, were in active use by the ancient Pueblo people from about 300 to 1300 AD.

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Larger than life seems to fit when you're talking about the scenery in Monument Valley, another tribal location.
Larger than life seems to fit when you’re talking about the scenery in Monument Valley, another tribal location. Photo by Debbie Olsen

Spider Rock is the high point of South Rim Drive and we arrived at the site just before sunset. We took our time to look at the center of the universe.

Later that night we attended a dark sky event at the park’s visitor center and spent some time looking at the galaxy. We got to know the constellations from a western perspective and from a Diné perspective. We heard legends about the stars and looked at them through telescopes.

We then made our way to Thunderbird Lodge, the only hotel in Canyon De Chelly. The hotel is owned and operated by the Navajo Nation, and we enjoyed some Navajo tacos at the on-site restaurant before ending the evening.

The next day we took a guided tour of the interior of the gorge with a guide named Harold Bia, who was raised by his grandmother in a house inside the gorge. To this day, Diné people live in the gorge and you can see their horses running through the gorge.

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Our guide showed us Hopi and Diné pictographs and petroglyphs as well as many ruins left by the ancient Pueblo people. He also gave us the Navajo names for the rock formations and ruins.

Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyon

Antelope Canyon near Page has become Instagram famous for the stunning photos people take in the slot canyon, but there are slot canyons nearby that are just as beautiful and a lot less crowded.

Visiting Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyon, known locally as “Secret Antelope Canyon,” offers a chance to experience a slot canyon without the crowds. The guided tour with Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyon Tours also includes information about the Diné culture and a visit to an uncrowded viewing area of ​​the geological formation called Horseshoe Bend.

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As we hiked to the rim of the gorge, our guide stopped to point out medicinal plants and talk about the gorge’s cultural significance.

“Places like this are very sacred to us,” said Tom Manson, a Diné elder and guide. “You can feel an energy in this gorge and we hold ceremonies here to thank the gorge for safe passage.”

There are several slot canyons in the Page area, including Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyon, which is beautiful and far less crowded.
There are several slot canyons in the Page area, including Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyon, which is beautiful and far less crowded. Photo by Greg Olsen

We took our time exploring the canyon and never felt crowded or rushed by other people. After exploring the canyon, we went to a private lookout on Navajo land to view Horseshoe Bend, a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Colorado River that is also Instagram famous.

The difference between our view and the public viewpoint was the number of people in the view area and the opportunity to learn about Diné culture along the way.

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Navajo or Diné – What’s in a name?

There is a movement among indigenous peoples in North America to call themselves by their original names rather than the names given to them by European settlers. By reverting to their ancient names, tribal peoples are taking back their identities and allowing no one to define who they are.

“The Spaniards called us Navajo and Columbus called us Indians,” Manson explained. “We are the Diné people.”

More Amazing Indigenous Sites in Arizona

You could spend weeks exploring Indigenous sites in Arizona. Here are some other sites worth seeing.

Debbie Olsen is an award-winning Métis author and bestselling author. Follow her at www.wanderwoman.ca.

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