“May you and those you love walk in beauty.”
– A Navajo prayer
When my Seattle neighbors invited me to visit them at their winter getaway in Scottsdale, Arizona, I jumped at the opportunity.
Like folklore’s famed golden-haired Rhine River maiden, whose beauty bewitched mariners as they sailed by the Lorelei, her fabled rock, Arizona also has a long history of beguiling those who set foot on her epic terrain.
Arizona’s fascination, I think, starts with her landscape: stark and dazzling, expansive and glorious.
Little in Arizona is ordinary. Think of the Grand Canyon
and the butte formations of Monument Valley.
Think of Lake Powell
and the snow covered Rockies.
In addition to Arizona’s natural wonders, on this my most recent trip to this land of light, open spaces, and majestic panoramas, I was reminded all over again that the place is one of uncommon depth. Yes, it has its stone landmarks and secret canyons, but what really captured my imagination was Arizona’s centuries-old Native Culture—the culture of the First Americans.
The story of this region’s indigenous people traces back thousands of years. Today there are twenty-three Native Indian reservations in Arizona. The Navajo Reservation is the largest, 25,000 square miles that include not only northeastern Arizona, but also northwestern New Mexico and a bit of southern Utah. The 210,000-strong Navajo Nation is the largest in the country and the one with which I’m most familiar as a result of my visits to the Southwest. While what follows tends to showcase Navajo ways, of course, the many other Indian Nations that grace our land have also made important contributions to our collective heritage.
Navajo society is matriarchal, with women owning all the property.
Their tradition dictates that upon marriage men move in with their wives’ families. Their beliefs are based on what is called the Beauty Path. Below is a time-honored Navajo prayer that illustrates that concept:
In beauty I walk.
With beauty before me I walk.
With beauty behind me I walk.
With beauty around me I walk.
With beauty above me I walk.
With beauty below me I walk.
In beauty all is made whole.
In beauty all is restored.
In my youth I am aware of it, and
In old age I shall walk quietly the beautiful trail.
In beauty it is begun.
In beauty it is ended.
For centuries before Columbus voyaged to the New World, Arizona’s indigenous people were creating art of amazing subtlety and beauty.
To explore this in greater depth, I visited the Heard Museum, one of the most comprehensive collections of both ancient and contemporary Native art.
The museum teems with sculpture, pottery, blanket weaving and carvings, but my favorite artifacts were the many traditional silver and turquoise jewelry pieces. We were asked not to take pictures of any of the museum’s displays; hence, the images below are from other sources, but they should give you an impression of what the Early People of the Southwest created.
Silversmithing, I learned, was only introduced to the Southwestern Indian tribes about 150 years ago, and then by Spanish smiths in villages of northwestern New Mexico. The Navajos quickly became proficient in this craft.
Once the Navajos had mastered the metal arts, they began to combine metal (mainly silver) with turquoise, long a revered stone in their culture, representing happiness, health, and luck. So old and honored is turquoise in Navajo tradition that it first appears in their creation stories. Today it’s a leading gauge of a Navajo person’s wealth.
Below is a Navajo-inspired necklace that I made myself. I saw a similar piece in Scottsdale and made mental note of its design. After returning home I attended the International Gem and Jewelry Show that comes through Seattle several times a year. There I found the stones (turquoise and coral) I needed and voilà, the finished product:
Metal arts among the Navajos soon expanded from jewelry making to other creations such as silversmith boxes. These belong to my Arizona hosts:
One of the most moving, and little known details of the Navajos’ contribution to the “motherland” (as they have been known to call the United States) has been their courageous participation in our military engagements over the last one hundred years.
When I asked about their interest in U.S. conflicts, I was reminded that our Native Americans come from a warrior tradition. As Chester Ness, a Navajo WW II code talker, observed in his book Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo code talkers of WWII by Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila,
“. . . we saw ourselves as inseparable from the earth we lived upon. And as protectors of what is sacred, we were . . . eager to defend our land.”
The Navajo’s most important involvement came during World War II, when hundreds of Navajo Code Talkers served in the U.S. Marine Corp throughout the Pacific, sending and receiving messages in a disguised adaptation of their indigenous language. The code, which the Japanese never broke, is today considered to have been one of the main reasons for our success in the Pacific theater of war. Sadly, during WWII, while these First Americans were bravely risking their lives for the motherland, they were still denied the right to vote.
I have always been fascinated by the grandeur of Indian headdresses, but never understood what they symbolized.
In Arizona I came across this interpretation:
The idea of full dress in preparation for a battle comes not from a belief that it will add to the fighting ability. The preparation is for death, in case that should be the result of the conflict. Every Indian wants to look his best when he goes to meet the great Spirit, so the dressing up is done whether the imminent danger is an oncoming battle or a sickness or injury at times of peace.
-Wooden Leg (late 19th Century) Cheyenne