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Tuba City, Arizona

Traditional but not lost in time

Found in: | Inside | Outside | Hiking | Travel | Our Towns | Where to Go |


When the world turned its eye toward Salt Lake City, Utah, during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, people of the Navajo Nation were there to help those watching to understand its tribe, culture and people. They did it with their Explore Navajo Interactive Museum, which the Navajo Nation moved from its temporary place in Salt Lake City to its permanent home in Tuba City last summer. The museum is now one of the major draws to Tuba City and one of the most comprehensive looks at the tribe. The museum is easily accessible at the main intersection on U.S. Highway 160 as you travel either east or west through Tuba City. Housed in a large tent-like structure next to the Quality Inn Hotel, it is an inviting experience that takes visitors through a full tour of Navajo beliefs, imagery, spiritual practices and history. Inside the museum, the displays are based on four cardinal points - those that are representative of the Navajos' belief in four sacred mountains that surround the Navajo reservation. To the east is Mount Blanca, near Alamosa, Colo.; to the south is Mount Taylor, near Grants, N.M.; on the west is the San Francisco Peaks, near Flagstaff, Ariz.; and to the north is Mount Hesperus, west of Durango, Colo. The number four - sacred to native people - is repeated throughout the interactive museum. The Navajo observe the four directions as an organizational force for life and the four seasons for governing all personal and group activities. In Navajo lore, the present world is the Fourth World, or Glittering World. Visitors to the museum can spend as short as 30 minutes and as long as four hours to see and hear all of its displays. They range from an introductory video about the Navajo creation story to small screen displays with interviews of Navajo people and what they know. Inside also is a traditional-style hogan, with various artifacts inside that have meaning in all kinds of ceremonies. Key historical events included in the interactive museum are the Athabaskan heritage and migration theories of Navajo people, stories about their origin; Spanish and Mexican Colonoial periods; the military conquest by the United States and the explanation of the Long Walk, a time when the U.S. government expelled thousands of Navajos from their land and forced them to walk to Fort Sumner in New Mexico, where they were held prisoners for four years; American colonization; and the Navajo Nation today as a sovereign nation. The interactive displays include rug weaving, working with wool and making baskets. Adjacent to the museum is the Navajo Code Talkers Museum. This one-room building shows authentic military items from World War II, when more than 500 Navajos became an invaluable source to the U.S. Marine Corps to help keep the enemy from understanding their discussions. The Code Talkers were a valuable secret weapon as they were used in almost every South Pacific campaign. Next to both of these museums is the historic Tuba City Trading Post, a stone building dating to 1870. The trading post sells authentic arts and crafts of artists who live and work on the Navajo reservation, including jewelry, pottery, kachina dolls and rugs.

Located on the southwestern side of the Navajo Reservation, Tuba City is near some easy-to-access attractions

Dinosaur tracks About five miles west of Tuba City, watch for a sign that points toward dinosaur tracks. Turn off and follow the signs to a small but spectacular spot that holds some of the most well-preserved footprints of the massive vertebrates from millions of years ago. The prehistoric remnants of the reptiles are deeply embedded in the sandstone landscape. When you get to the tracks, you may run into Navajo guides who will provide you guidance to their location and additional information. As you mill about the Jurassic tracks, you'll be able to buy colorful arts and crafts from Navajo vendors. Grand Canyon The most obvious - and the biggest - is the Grand Canyon. Only about 50 miles from Tuba City, it almost seems silly to explain what this World Heritage Site is. But it's grandeur bears repeating. As you leave Tuba City and travel southwest, you'll eventually hit the turnoff at Cameron, Ariz. Cameron, just a short drive from Tuba City, is worth a stop to have an authentic Navajo taco and browse the huge trading post. Elephant Feet If the Jurassic tracks impress you, so likely will the big rock formations on U.S. Highway 160 near the entrance to Tuba City. The sandstone towers are known as Elephant Feet rocks, because they look just like that. Stop your car and take in their huge size and imagine that an elephant was ambling its way across the reservation and stood still. It's torso and head disappeared and its legs stayed behind (or use your better imagination). These aren't an official tourist stop, so you can get out of your car and walk up to the rocks and inspect these ancient formations. Coal Mine Canyon Southeast of the Tuba City about 15 miles is a canyon that blends red mudstone, bleached rock and streaks of coal. It's an eerie site that attests to how nature plays with various elements to create these hoodoo formations. The thin coal seams were formed more than 100 million years ago. They took shape after some of the coal beds caught fire and burned while under the ground. The red rocks, often called clinker, formed when the sandstone and shale near the coal were oxidized as they were cooked by the burning coal. For more information about the canyon, call (928) 871-6647. Just a note about making your way around the Navajo and Hopi reservations: Make sure you understand the cultural protocols of these tribes. In several place, you are not allowed to just freely explore the area. The nations often require that you have guides take you to certain places, and you may need special permits to do some things. Taking photographs also requires respect and knowledge of cultural customs. If you are taking photos for commercial purposes, you will need a special permit. If they are for your own enjoyment, at the very least ask always before taking photographs. Not everything is fair game, especially residents. The Navajo and Hopi people request respect, and don't be surprised if they wish for small gratuity in granting a photograph.

Driving west toward Tuba City, Ariz., the vast expanse of the desert landscape stands starkly in front of you. The combination of buttes and mesas envelope a world that stands in contrast from outside the landscape's borders.

Your mind begins to wonder: Was that mesa abutting a mountain range the inspiration for Lillian Wilhem Smith's famous painting of a trading post near Tuba City in the 1920s?

The massive dusty and development-free Painted Desert - is this where Trueman Rock worked to ferret out the vile and notorious cattle rustler Ash Preston in famous author Zane Grey's 1931 novel (and subsequent Hollywood film) Sunset Pass?

Or that trailer on the outskirts of town. Maybe that is where Tony Hillerman's Tribal Police Sgt. Jim Chee lived during his stint as administrator in charge of the subagency unit in the famous mystery author's 1993 novel The Dark Wind (also a Hollywood film).

Or even that small house: Could it be the humble abode of Hillerman's perennial tribal policeman Joe Leaphorn?

This scenery and this city are and have been for decades a draw for writers, painters and photographers who find inspiration from them. Tuba City is a somewhat isolated place in Arizona, but even as it sits on the southwestern edge of the huge Navajo Nation - which covers more than 27,000 square miles across Arizona, Utah and New Mexico - it is a city that figures prominently not only in arts culture, but also in the history of Navajo and Hopi country.

Smith, Grey and Hillerman, along with many others of their type, put Tuba City in American's minds, helping maybe not to quite make it mainstream but at least a place of mystery, drama and fascination. Their individual contributions played small but somewhat important roles in defining a town that might otherwise to the outside world be a dry and dusty reservation.

But Tuba City owes less to Smith, Grey and Hillerman and more to itself - its residents, tourists and American Indian leaders. Because out of this small town of about 8,000 residents there have been stories of triumph, sadness, resolve and pride that stand independent of anything Tony Hillerman could write in a best-selling mystery thriller.

Humble beginnings

Tuba City is only one town that is part of the sprawling Navajo Nation. The nation's population today surpasses 250,000, making it the largest American Indian tribe in the United States. The Navajo Nation for so long was regarded as a bleak part of the Southwest until the early part of the 20th century, when oil was discovered on the land and the idea that it could provide some wealth prompted the need for the nation to form a systematic government.

Continuing as a sovereign nation, the Navajo Nation government is a system of chapters represented by council delegates. Its capital is Window Rock, Ariz., situated almost on top of the eastern border of Arizona next to New Mexico. Not too different from the United States government, the Navajo Nation in 1991 became a three-branch government made up of executive, legislative and judicial.

As the Navajo Nation has refined its government and image to non-tribal members, its various towns across the reservation have angled to become viable tourist attractions for a public that finds the indigenous culture intriguing and spiritually centered. The nation's flag alone is indicative of its complex nature: Cardinal points are the four mountains sacred to the tribe, a rainbow symbolizing its sovereignty, a sun with two green stalks of corn beneath, all surrounding animals that represent the Navajo livestock economy, wild fauna, and a traditional home (hogan) next to a modern home. In between the hogan and home is an oil derrick, denoting the tribe's resource potential.

The Mormons founded Tuba City in 1872. The town was named after a Tuve, a Hopi leader. Tuba City drew Hopi, Navajo and Paiute Indians to the area because of its natural springs. (Tó Naneesdizí, the Navajo name for Tuba City, translates as "tangled waters.") Eventually, the natural resources of oil and uranium helped increase its value. In 1956, Tuba City became a uranium-mining town, a regional hub for the Rare Metals Corporation and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Those historical facts seem normal. But Tuba City really isn't a normal town. Its peculiarities are oddly appealing and, when highlighted, stand as an example of a land and people committed to fighting for its rightful place in American history.

Starting to thaw

The Navajo Nation deals with a unique land history. Sitting inside the reservation's land is the unrelated Hopi Indian Tribe. The Navajo Reservation surrounds the Hopi Reservation, totaling about 2,500 square miles. Its proximity to Tuba City means that the Navajo and Hopi live among each other in this town.

Yet there is a long-standing history between the Navajo and Hopi - conflicts over land, natural resources and spiritual beliefs. Independently, the two tribes have their own battles. The Hopi are continually finding a way to bolster their tourism industry as it their land is surrounded by Navajo land. Adjacent to Tuba City is Moenkopi, a nontraditional Hopi village that is slowly building its coalition power with the Navajos and its presence in the tourism industry.

Last month, the Hopis opened the Tuuvi Travel Center, a $6.3 million complex next to Tuba City that includes a gas station, car wash, convenience store and fast-food joints. (The center gets its name from the original name of the area before it was called Tuba City.) Next month, the Hopi Tribe will break ground on a project called "Gateway to Hopi Land," a 72-acre, $100 million project that will include a motel, conference center, bank and possibly apartments. Dan Honahni, who is overseeing the project as chief executive of Moenkopi Developers Corp. Inc, says the project is meant to provide some momentum for the Hopi people to become entrepreneurs and to bring in tourist money to help pay for the "health, education and welfare of the residents."

The Navajo Nation likewise is working to build up its tourist numbers and entrepreneurial opportunities for its people. Last year, the tribe opened the Explore Navajo Interactive Museum (see sidebar). The unique climate in Tuba City is that it has been an absorbent community for many years that attracted growth and residents. For years, the rest of the Navajo Nation was not as fortunate, because a long-standing and thorny order called the Bennett Freeze prevented any development on the western part of the reservation.

The Bennett Freeze was borne of the dispute between Hopis and Navajos. In 1966, then-U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett imposed a ban on new construction or improvements that prohibited extension of water and electrical lines on the acreage unless approved by the Hopis. The development restriction kept scores of Navajos in abject poverty and without hope for growth and economic assets. Tuba City, though, was set aside as an administrative area and not subject to the Bennett Freeze.

Finally, in December 2006, a federal judge signed an order lifting the freeze. Even today, as you drive through the western side of the reservation, there is sparse development - for all kinds of reasons, the least of which is hope on the Navajo's part.

Hollywood revival

Ending the Bennett Freeze is only part of the complex history of Tuba City and its environs. The differences between the two tribes are sharp. They have found a way to live together and often it is on common ground even as they are continually at odds. To visitors, it isn't noticeable. The two groups have co-existed for decades, working side by side (excepting in government) and even intermarrying.

But just as Hollywood and the arts played a part in Tuba City's presence to the rest of the country during novelist Zane Grey's heyday of western books and films, it had a role in the common ground the Navajos and Hopis found about five years ago, when tragedy struck its community.

At that time, the mixed residents of Tuba City came together to mourn the loss of one of its own. Spc. Lori Piestewa, a member of a small mechanics unit of the U.S. Army, died during her service in the Iraq war. The Hopi-Hispanic mother who lived in Tuba City was killed when her unit was ambushed by Iraqi forces. The news of her death knit together two peoples who suffered in common. Piestewa's death put Tuba City in the news then. About two years later, Hollywood came to Tuba City to film a show - but this time it wasn't Hillerman or Grey who spurred it.

Instead, it was the popular television show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." This served two purposes for Tuba City and Piestewa's family and friends. It built her family a new home in Flagstaff, Ariz., while simultaneously building a Navajo Nation Veterans Office in Tuba City. Nearly 300 workers with the show did a rapid build of the 2,000-square-foot office that includes a war memorial with names of American Indian veterans and a traditional hogan for veterans' healing ceremonies.

Now, when driving westward into Tuba City, the Veterans Office may evoke in future visitors a different type of curiosity. Those curiosities remain unknown now, but they will realize that life in Tuba City may be traditional, but it has not been lost in time.

Amy Maestas is a contributing editor of Inside/Outside Southwest magazine.

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