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10 easy ways to experience Navajo America
Interacting with Native American communities and cultures is easier than many travelers realize
The Grand Canyon. Unique art galleries and boutiques. Stunning golf courses.
For travelers, the American Southwest is filled with innumerable attractions.
Though it permeates almost every aspect of the regional culture, however, the Native American communities of the Southwest can often seem distant and inaccessible to visitors.
In fact, interacting with native communities and cultures is easier than many travelers realize.
The Navajo Nation -- a 25,000-square-mile sovereign state in the high desert of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah -- is a good place to start.
The Navajo occupy the largest tribal reservation in the country; the area is home to more than 100,000 Navajo people.
Here are 10 ways to experience their distinct culture.
1. Ride through Monument Valley
A 91,000-acre tribal park on the Arizona-Utah border, the towering red rock pinnacles and bright orange mesas of Monument Valley -- believed in Navajo mythology to be the carcasses of defeated monsters, buried in the sand -- offer the most iconic images of the Southwest.
Road routes are easy and take in the big viewpoints, but a backcountry tour with a local guide shows you the valley through Native American eyes.
Goulding’s Trading Post & Lodge (+1 435 727 3231) in Monument Valley provides accommodation and excellent Navajo-run hiking and Jeep tours.
2. Watch wild mustangs get broken in
Mustangs are strong and free-spirited, and some 30,000 of them run wild through Navajo land.
At La Tinaja Restaurant and Trading Post (on Highway 53 in Ramah, New Mexico; +1 505 783 4349) -- a Navajo restaurant, community center and one-time drinking haunt of Billy the Kid -- it’s possible to watch Native horse breakers tame and train wild mustangs using traditional methods.
Phone ahead to find out about times.
3. See ancient petroglyphs in Canyon de Chelly
Canyon de Chelly is a dramatic 26-mile gorge near Chinle, Arizona.
It's sacred to the Navajo and filled with ancient petroglyphs of snakes, antelope and the stark white handprints of medicine men.
Deep in the canyon, ruined settlements of the Anasazi -- predecessors of the Navajo -- can be found, built high into cracks in the sheer cliffs like vertiginous sandcastles of mud and stone.
The views from the top are spectacular but to appreciate the history of the canyon you need to explore inside -- accessible only with a local guide.
Sacred Canyon Lodge (+1 928 674 5841) is a Navajo-owned and operated hotel at the entrance to Canyon de Chelly. Hiking, Jeep and horseback tours can be arranged on request.
4. Sleep in a Navajo hogan
Made of interlocking logs held together with compacted mud and earth, hogans, the traditional home of the Navajo, are still used by many families.
They also play an important part in Native spiritual and ceremonial life.
Inside, the design is a reflection of the living world: pillars to represent the four cardinal directions, a circular spiral roof for the sky and a door facing east to welcome the rising sun.
Spending the night in one is a treat: they're not fancy, but they're comfortable and -- miles from any large urban area -- provide a great night of sleep.
Discover Navajo, a Navajo Nation culture and tourism organization based in Window Rock, Arizona, has information on overnight hogan stays on the reservation.
5. Visit with a medicine man
By looking through a crystal at a pile of hot coals spread out on the compacted earth floor of a hogan, Navajo medicine men are believed to be able to divine aspects of a patient's life and help them using prayer, chanting and blessing with sacred feathers and arrowheads.
Still employed in contemporary Navajo society to heal both physical and mental ailments, traditional ceremonies are powerful expressions of the culture.
Many medicine men won’t treat non-Navajos, but a few will. Ask around and you may get lucky.
6. Sleep under the stars
For the ultimate Southwest fantasy, nothing beats riding out on horseback to camp in the backcountry, where you can roast corn on an open fire and listen to traditional Native American stories.
But the real show begins when the stars come out -- stargazers lay on blankets and sleeping bags by the embers of a fire while the shining arms of the Milky Way swirl overhead.
Larry Holiday (+1 928 679 5161; firstname.lastname@example.org) is an excellent Navajo guide who provides horseback and camping tours in and around Monument Valley.
7. Learn about Navajo rugs
Navajo rug weaving is one of the most intricate and beautiful of all the Native arts in the Southwest.
Techniques are a closely guarded secret, passed from mother to daughter.
The effort involved in making rugs is intense: a single three-to-five-foot rug can take more then 2,000 hours, or eight months, to produce.
Designs follow traditional geometrical patterns that are striking and unique.
Navajo rugs can be bought at trading posts throughout the reservation.
Cameron Trading Post (located in Cameron, Arizona, 54 miles north of Flagstaff, on Highway 89; +1 877 608 3491) has a good selection from $300-95,000.
8. Eat fry bread
The “three sisters” of Navajo farming -- corn, beans, squash -- may be the backbone of Native cooking, but its heart is, without a doubt, fry bread.
Made by drenching homemade dough on a frying-pan, the recipe may be simple, but achieving perfection is a difficult-to-perfect art.
Fry bread is often covered in salt and ladled with chili beans to make a Navajo taco or, for the purist, dipped in fresh mutton stew and sweet blue corn mush.
Fry bread can be bought throughout the reservation, at formal restaurants and simple roadside stands.
La Tinaja Restaurant and Trading Post (on Highway 53 in Ramah, New Mexico; +1 505 783 4349) makes excellent Navajo tacos.
9. Watch the sunset at an ancient cliff village
Built into an immense alcove in Betatakin Canyon, 60 miles east of Tuba City, Arizona, a beautifully preserved 13th-century Puebloan cliff village is the centerpiece of Navajo National Monument.
At dusk, the walls glow bright peach and light up a surrounding forest of pinion pines, yucca plants and giant Douglas firs.
Short trails to scenic viewpoints include interpretive signage that offers insight into how ancient Puebloan people used everything the desert provided to thrive despite arid conditions.
The Navajo Park Service (+1 928 672 2700) leads ranger-guided hikes and other activities.
10. Watch Native artists at work
A new self-drive trail on the Hopi reservation, near Tuba City, Arizona, is designed to connect tourists directly with workshops and galleries of 26 renowned Hopi artists.
(Though they share the region, Hopi are a separate tribe from the Navajo, and consider themselves North America's oldest human inhabitants.)
A unique opportunity to find out how basket weavers, potters, wood carvers and silversmiths work, visitors can explore traditional villages and buy authentic Native American products.
General information on Navajo Nation and related sites can be found at the Discover Navajo website.