Several of my recent reads for New Mexico are set (at least part of the time) on the Navajo Nation of the Southwestern United States.

First of all, I should note that the Navajo Nation is located mostly in Arizona. The map below shows how the Navajo population is distributed throughout the Nation. (For reference, the yellow dot is the capital, Window Rock, which is just on the Arizona side of the state border.) Also note that the large grayed-out area is land belonging to the Hopi tribe, not technically part of the Navajo Nation.

-navajo-nation-population spread map

So, if the Navajo Nation is primarily in Arizona, why am I covering it in New Mexico? Well, mainly, I suppose, because the Navajo-related books I’m reading–both Code Talker books, and Spider Woman’s Daughter, are all more closely associated with New Mexico than Arizona. The Code Talker character in Joseph Bruchac’s book attends boarding school in Gallup, New Mexico. Chester Nez attends school in Fort Defiance, Arizona, which is on the border, and he also mentions Gallup. There really isn’t any indication which state their families lived in when he was young, but he mentions that sister, Dora, lived in the Checkerboard region of New Mexico–the farming and ranching area of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico which is a mix of reservation land and land owned by other entities and non-Navajos.

Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito in Anne Hillerman’s Spider Woman’s Daughter, work out of Shiprock, New Mexico, and spend time during the book in many other New Mexico locations, including Santa Fe and Chaco Canyon. To be fair, at least one of the earlier Leaphorn and Chee novels is set mainly in Tuba City, Arizona, and Anne Hillerman’s second installment, Rock With Wings, is set partly in Monument Valley, Arizona. So I guess my decision is pretty arbitrary, and I reserve the right to revisit the Navajo Nation when I get around to Arizona!

Our next map has an inset that shows the four states of the Four Corners, and the location of the Navajo Nation in relation to that. It also shows many (but not all) of the nearby areas that are part of the National Park system–Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly–the Grand Canyon (for some odd reason) is not marked, but the Colorado River flows southwest out of Lake Powell and into the canyon, so it’s pretty easy to locate where it should be marked. Window Rock is marked as the capital, and other cities mentioned in our books are also marked.

navajo nation map

In Spider Woman’s Daughter by Anne Hillerman, Chee and Manuelito work out of the Shiprock branch office of the Navajo Tribal Police, but often commute to the main Window Rock office. Bernie and Chee mention several highways by their number, including the infamous US 666 (marked as such on the map above) from Gallup to Shiprock (and passing Window Rock), which was renamed US 491 in 2003. Chee muses about the renumbering in the book, and you can read more about it here (or if you prefer a more mystical take on the story, you can check out this site). Looking at the map, my family must have driven the “Devil’s Highway” on our 1979 trip, because the photos go from the Grand Canyon, to Petrified Forest (crossing I-40 south of the Navajo Nation), then up to Mesa Verde. Several other towns on this map are mentioned in the Hillerman book–Cuba, Bernalillo, Farmington, Bloomfield, and others. Also shown on the map above is the Chaco Culture National Historic Park (locally referred to as Chaco Canyon), where some important scenes take place. I’ll be doing a separate post on Chaco soon.

Incidentally, there is a companion map to the Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito mysteries, which marks many locations mentioned in each of the books–including Anne Hillerman’s first three (it was published in 2017, so it’s quite recent). *Note: there is a 2002 edition as well, so if you’re interested, make sure you check the publication date–or look for Anne’s name–to get the more complete version.

Both Code Talker books (the young adult fictional novel by Joseph Bruchac and the memoir by real-life Code Talker Chester Nez) discuss being sent to boarding school–one in Gallup and one in Fort Defiance, and both also talk about the Navajo Long Walk in the 1860s, which started at Fort Defiance, north of Window Rock.

long walk map

This map shows the most common routes taken by the Navajo on their forced march from Fort Defiance to Fort Sumner. The map was a companion visual to an interesting article commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Long Walk in 2014. One side note from the article is that Manuelito–the surname of Anne Hillerman’s primary character–is the name of “one of the principle Navajo leaders and war chiefs at the time of the Long Walk” (quote from the article above). Although both Code Talker books indicate that this history was told in stories quite commonly, the article indicates there is some reluctance to commemorate it openly. This makes some sense to me, given what both Code Talker books and the Hillerman books say about a reluctance, culturally, to talk about the dead, as well as the common beliefs in superstition–you don’t hang out where people have died, you don’t say the dead ones’ names, you keep it vague so as not to attract attention.

Another important element in all of the books that I wanted to find out more about is the sacred mountains. The description given in several of the books is of the Navajo homeland as a giant hogan, with the four sacred mountains acting as the corner pillars. Chester Nez names the four mountains and their colors–Mount Blanca (the White Shell Mountain), Mt. Taylor (the Turquoise Mountain), the San Francisco Peaks (Abalone Shell Mtn.), and Mt. Hesperus (the Obsidian Mtn.). The map below shows the four peaks and one can visualize the diamond shape of the land sacred to the Navajo. Unfortunately, the map doesn’t outline the current Navajo Nation, but it’s interesting to note that the current reservation does not extend into Colorado at all, and the Utah lands are basically those south of the rivers below what’s marked as Mesa Verde Region.

As for specific settings, there are some wonderful descriptions in all of the books that capture not just the (amazing) landscape, but also the people.

navajo 9

Rangeland, Navajo Nation

I’m finding that the Chester Nez book has some detailed and evocative descriptions of the goat- and sheep-herding that he helped his family with when he was very young. He discusses a bit about the government livestock reduction program, which had unintended cultural consequences for the Navajo–another example of misguided US government policies that may have harmed more than helped. It sounds like even if the environmental basis for the program was valid, the methods used in carrying out the program were… shall we say… less than culturally sensitive? And did not involve much, if anything, in the way of educating the Navajo about the environmental impact of overgrazing. Given the Navajo cultural connection to nature, if this had been approached the right way, it seems like something that might have been embraced. Plus, the wholesale waste of meat that Nez describes–during the Depression–is almost unbelievable!

But back to the Navajo Nation as setting. Of course, there are the iconic landmarks of Shiprock and Window Rock, mentioned in passing in the two Code Talker books, and in more detail in the Hillerman book. I love the overhead view of Shiprock below that shows the knife-edge of peaks (or dikes, according to this New Mexico geology site) ending with Shiprock. The formation is called Shiprock in English, which refers to its shape, resembling (to some eyes at least) a clipper ship, or Tsé Bit’a’í, meaning “Rock With Wings” in Navajo, which refers to a traditional Navajo legend wherein the formation is the remains of a giant bird which transported the Navajo to the lands between the four sacred mountains. However, the formation also figures prominently in a number of other traditional Navajo stories.

Window Rock, known as tségháhoodzání in Navajo, meaning “rock with a hole in it,” is an important formation in the traditional Navajo Water Way ceremony, and the city of the same name is the capital of the Navajo Nation (and headquarters of the Navajo Tribal Police). The picture below shows the formation behind a statue of a Navajo Code Talker.

WindowRock code talker

I definitely feel like I know a bit more about the Navajo themselves and their land, as well as New Mexico (and Arizona) after these books. I’ll be doing a post soon on Chaco Culture National Historic Park, and I’ll also try to cover some of the museums in Santa Fe. I’m really glad I added Spider Woman’s Daughter by Anne Hillerman to my list, and that I’ve been listening to the Chester Nez Code Talker audiobook. Both have really added to my New Mexico experience!


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