Doorway to Navajo Culture

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on March 17, 2002

“I really have a great back yard to promote,” says Kathy Curley, referring to the striking sandstone formation for which Window Rock, Ariz., (pop. 3,059) is named.

Known in the Navajo language as Tseghahodzani, “the rock with a hole in it” is considered one of the seven wonders of Navajo land. Shaped by centuries of wind and water, the arch is 200 feet tall with a hole 47 feet in diameter.

Today, the influence of the city looms as large as its namesake. It serves as the capital of the Navajo Nation, a land parcel of more than 25,000 square miles—roughly the size of West Virginia.

“The Native American nations really have an interesting status,” says Curley, public information officer for the Navajo Nation Tourism Department. “We’re the capital of a country within a country, a sovereign nation within the United States.” Residents of Window Rock are subject to federal law but are not under Arizona state jurisdiction. The Navajo Nation is guided by its own three-branch government and maintains its own police force and school system.

Eighty-eight council delegates representing 110 chapters or communities throughout the reservation convene quarterly at the Navajo Nation Council Chambers, only a few hundred yards from the base of the Window Rock formation. When the council is not in session, visitors are allowed to admire the stunning murals depicting the heritage of the Diné that decorate the walls of the circular structure. Diné in Navajo means “The People.”

Adjoining the government offices are the Window Rock Tribal Park and the Navajo Nation Veterans Memorial Park, which honors those who served in the U.S. military. It puts special emphasis on the Navajo Codetalkers of World War II, who transmitted messages in their native language—a code the Japanese couldn’t break. (Navajo is an extremely complex oral language.)

Also nearby is the Navajo Museum where visitors can immerse themselves in the culture through exhibits, presentations, and library resources. Just around the corner is the Navajo Nation Zoo, specializing in indigenous animals such as coyotes, elk, eagles, bears, and other animals important in Navajo folklore.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Window Rock today is the preservation of the people’s cultural heritage while embracing economic development. “Trying to entice people from the outside to come in is pretty tough when you don’t have an infrastructure already set up,” observes Edward Richards, executive director of Economic Development for the Navajo Nation.

Trading posts, once the primary source of income for silversmiths, weavers, and other artisans, “are slowly starting to disappear,” notes Richards. “The type of economy that they used to support was a people who didn’t travel very much because they didn’t have vehicles.” Today, traditional crafts are often brokered beyond the reservation, although “you’ll still find vendors selling along the road. Flea markets are kind of a grassroots economy all around here,” says Richards.

To provide a compromise between roadside stands and selling to distributors, Richards’ office helped create a marketplace in Window Rock. “We have something like 20 or 30 booths, where vendors can sell some of the high-end arts & crafts as well as authentic Navajo food.”

“We’re looking at ways to give tourists more of the actual Navajo experience, to come here and really share the culture,” offers Curley. To serve visitors, Window Rock is launching a pilot program called Discover Navajo, which trains young people as hospitality ambassadors.

With a warm reception, Window Rock is opening wide the door for curious travelers to gain a greater appreciation of Navajo culture.