There’s no mistaking Monument Valley Tribal Park.
As you approach you realise you’ve seen it many times before—in advertisements, holiday brochures, television and movies, especially American westerns.
Director John Ford used the location in about 10 of his films, including Stagecoach, which won two Academy Awards and made John Wayne a star. Ford once said Monument Valley was the ‘most complete, beautiful and peaceful place on earth’.
The valley is featured in more than 20 other movies. Forrest Gump ended his cross-country run there. Or maybe you recognise it from 2001: A space odyssey or Back to the future III or Thelma and Louise.
No matter how many times you’ve seen it, the real treat is being there in person. It’s breathtaking to see the striking red mesas, buttes and spires surrounded by 92,000 acres of flat and mostly empty sandy desert.
Our group hired a Navajo guide and 4WD so we could travel along the 17-mile loop that weaves through the park.
Navaho guides are allowed to take you off the main track, so our excursion included some wonderful bonuses. We knew dinner was included—Indian fry bread, steak, salads and more. But we didn’t know we’d get to see the Sun’s Eye and nearby ancient rock art.
Next stop was a sort of rock amphitheatre where we were treated a ‘concert’. Our guide brought his traditional flute and played several haunting tunes. The enormous stone backdrops created perfect acoustics.
I was struck by how much the towering buttes, sweeping desert and touch scrub reminded me of Australia’s Red Centre and its massive sandstone monolith, Uluru.
As an aside, not all the pics have captions. As usual, I was in a quandary choosing which pics to share.
A little more about the valley
Monument Valley Tribal Park is part of the Colorado Plateau. In the Navajo language it’s called Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii, which means ‘valley of the rocks’.
Of course, the place isn’t a valley in the conventional sense, but a wide flat, sometimes desolate landscape, with the crumbling formations that rise up to 1000 feet (300 metres), the last remnants of the sandstone layers that once covered the entire region.
Monument Valley is part of the much larger Navajo Nation Reservation, which covers about 17.5 million acres (71,000 square kilometres) in parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. It is the largest land area retained by a Native American tribe, and has a population of about 350,000.
The valley is not a national park, like nearby Canyonlands in Utah and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, but one of six Navajo-owned tribal parks. What’s more, the valley floor is still inhabited by Navajo—30 to 100 people, depending on the season, who live in houses without running water or electricity.
Valley residents rely on local natural springs for drinking, cleaning and for watering their livestock and vegetable gardens. Water also plays a important role in Navajo daily and ceremonial life. Clan and community names often refer to water.
Plants, such as wolfberry and Indian ricegrass, grow around the springs. They provide forage for animals, and help to stabilise the sand and dirt. While plants such as snakeweed are used in Navajo ceremonies. Coyotes are central figures in Navajo life and culture. As an aside, I reckon coyotes figure much more widely in American life and culture. Poor John recently finished a book that says every single person in the USA lives within one mile of a coyote.
The Navajo Code Talkers
The visitor centre at Monument Valley has a wonderful display about the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. There’s another display at a local fast food outlet.
Between 1942 and 1945, Navajo Marines spoke in a code forged from their native language. The tactic amazed American troops and completely baffled the Japanese, and helped to win World World II in the Pacific.
While Native American language had been used during World War I, the more recent effort began in 1942 with a pilot project that involved an original 29 Navajo Code Talkers. They initially developed more than 200 terms for the English alphabet, general vocabulary, ranks of officers, countries, military equipment and munitions. By the end of the war, the code included more than 800 terms and involved 400 talkers.
Navajo Code Talkers served in all six US Marine divisions. They provided the most sophisticated, accurate, fast and secure means of military communication during World War II. Their code was used to send combat coordinates, troop movements, orders and highly classified messages. They served on the front line, on ships and aircraft, with the US Marine Raiders, reconnaissance, and underwater demolition teams.
Their efforts were featured in the 2002 film Windtalkers. A documentary, The Code Talkers: a secret code of honour, was produced in 2003. In it, cast and crew from Windtalkers share their feelings about their service during the war and in the making of the film.