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Friday, 01 March 2019

The People of the Four Sacred Mountains: The Navajo

Written by Jim Chamberlain
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They call themselves the Diné (Din Nay), the people. They have inhabited the Four Corners region of the United State for hundreds of years. Their traditional homeland is contained by four mountains they consider sacred. Mt Hesperus and Mt. Blanca in Colorado, The San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, and Mount Taylor in New Mexico. They currently occupy one of the largest reservations in the United States, but it only encompasses a portion of their traditional homeland.

Iconic places like Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Window Rock, and Antelope Canyon attract visitors to view the beauty of Navajo land. It is the people and their culture which developed here that makes visiting here memorable. This land is like a giant church bounded by four sacred mountains, its landscape providing lessons to guide their lives. I look at a beautiful mesa and see a postcard while a Navajo might see a natural sculpture left by ancient gods reminding the Diné to live in peace.

“The People” are one of the most pragmatic and adjustable members of the Native American tribes that exist on the North American continent. They lived in maternal clans that had no central government until modern times. They were one of the only groups of Native Americans who were both herders, farmers, and hunter gatherers. While not having a warrior society or ethos they dominated their neighbors in the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States with hit and run raids that enriched them with sheep and horses.

Their famous peach orchards in Canyon de Chelly and their abundant corn fields showed their talent as farmers which they learned from their Hopi neighbors. The Spanish brought sheep and horses to the Dinetah (Din Nay Tah), land of the Diné, in the 17th century. They soon became master horsemen and expert herders. They would move their herds across the vast landscape with the seasons. These remarkable people inhabit a stark, vast, and beautiful landscape that they are bonded to both in body and spirit.


Horse And Rider


I had the privilege of visiting and photographing members of the various clans that inhabit the Canyon de Chelly area of Arizona on a Arizona Highways PhotoScape with renown Navajo photographer and author Leroy DeJolie. Leroy stated “This is the center of the earth, and certainly the center of my heart. This is where my cultural values began.” The Navajo are friendly and open about sharing their culture and history with those who visit the many scenic places that dot their land. I was struck by how proud yet flexible they are. They are a people to be admired.


Leroy DeJolie And Adam Teller

Amazing wall art and petroglyphs are found all over the land beneath the sacred mountains. Some were painted by the Ancestral Puebloan People, formerly called the Anasazi, and some are more recent Navajo additions.


“The Frog Man indicates great drought while the snake symbol leads to water sources. White hand prints indicate where people are buried and mummified shadow hand prints show someone was cremated. The Kokopelli figure is the rain dancer.” This was how some of the numerous petroglyphs were described by Adam Teller of the Coyote Clan whose family has lived in Canyon del Muerto for generations. He is an adept storyteller who combines legend, history, clan lore and geological knowledge into a verbal description of his people and their connection to the land they call home.

He is one of the best guides to have if you visit Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Adam pointed out the drawings of Spanish conquistadors on the canyon wall at another site. These depict the invaders from Santé Fe who came in 1805 to conquer the canyon. One has a cross on the front of his serape probably depicting a Catholic padre.


Spanish Riders Panel

The Navajo have been artists for hundreds of years. Navajo rug weaving is recognized throughout the world, not only because of its quality, but also because of its unique designs. Navajo women believe the art of weaving was taught by Spider Woman, who constructed a loom according to directions given by the Holy People. She is believed to reside on the top of the 700-foot twin pinnacles of Spider Rock.

Spider Rock

Silversmithing was introduced by the Spanish around the middle of the 19th Century. Navajo silversmiths in the past obtained metal by melting down American silver dollars or Mexican pesos. Their exquisite jewelry of silver and turquoise can be seen at many roadside stands and trading posts all over the Dine’tah.



Pottery is another art form these adaptable people excel at. They learned the skills from their pueblo neighbors but soon developed their own style. Navajo pottery is not confined to traditional methods and styles, and the craft is experiencing new and creative designs. I watched Jackie Hunter paint a small clay vase using traditional symbols and colors. Many are like those I saw on the rock walls of Navajo sandstone. She was dressed in her traditional clothing while seated in her “Hogan”, a traditional Navajo dwelling, that she uses as a studio.


Jackie Hunter The Potter


The young are future of any people. The Dine’ pass on their customs, skills, clan lore and a great pride in their heritage to their children. The skills are taught by parents and grandparents to their offspring. This keeps the skills and traditional methods alive even in the age of machines, computers and the Internet. Many young people love to wear the clothing of their forebearers. One young man said that he liked wearing his “traditionals”. The Navajo are bonded to the land and respect and cherish the rocky homeland of stark beauty that they inhabit between the four sacred mountains that they call the Dine’tah.


Cliff Top Lessons


If you go:

I recommend Adam Teller at Antelope House Tours at

Photographers should contact Arizona Highways PhotosScapes. This not for profit group gives good value and excellent guides, like Leroy DeJolie, who will make the experience outstanding. Check them out at They often offer workshops several times a year to Navajo land.

©Jim Chamberlain


The Rug Weaver

A Rug Weaver



Last modified on Tuesday, 09 April 2019