Native American Experience

With roots tracing back thousands of years, Native Americans have lived in Arizona for hundreds of generations. Today, more than 250,000 people reside in sovereign nations within Arizona’s state borders. Alongside ancient cliff dwellings and stunning natural monuments, the reality of the 21 tribes’ cultures is best experienced on the reservations.

Arizona’s tribes live on reservations that comprise more than a quarter of the state’s lands. Though some tribes are similar to one another in certain aspects, most are culturally and spiritually distinct. Many tribes live on lands that enable them to derive income from natural resources, such as coal, but most rely to some extent on tourism for revenue. Some tribes, such as the Navajo, open up much of their culture to visitors. Native American artisans are famed for handmade items popular with tourists, but casinos are increasingly vital to tribal economies. These often include dining, lodging, and entertainment as well.

Reservation Realities

For all their richness in culture, reservations are places where poverty is often prevalent. Tourists sometimes liken the experience to that of visiting a developing country. Some panhandlers cluster at shopping centers and viewpoints. Visitors should respond to panhandlers with a polite but firm "no." If you wish to help, make a donation to a legitimate organization.

Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation Rules

Each reservation has its own government that dictates and enforces visitation rules.

Alcohol and drugs: The possession and consumption of alcoholic beverages or illicit drugs is illegal on Hopi and Navajo land.

Camping: No open fires are allowed in reservation campgrounds; you must use grills or fireplaces. You may not gather firewood on the reservation—bring your own. Camping areas have quiet hours from 11 pm to 6 am. Pets must be kept on a leash or confined.

Hopi shrines: Hopi spirituality is intertwined with daily life, and objects that seem ordinary to you may have deeper significance. If you see a collection of objects at or near the Hopi Mesas, do not disturb them.

Permits and permissions: No off-trail hiking, rock climbing, or other off-road travel is allowed unless you’re accompanied by a local guide. A tribal permit is required for fishing. Violations of fish and game laws are punishable by heavy fines, imprisonment, or both.

Photography: Always ask permission before taking photos of locals. Even if no money is requested, consider offering a dollar or two to the person whose photo you’ve taken. The Navajo are very open about photographs; the Hopi don’t allow photographs at all, including video and tape recordings.

Religious ceremonies: Should you see a ceremony, look for posted signs indicating who is welcome or check with local shops or the village community. Unless you’re invited, stay out of kivas (ceremonial rooms) and stay on the periphery of dances or processions.

Respect for the land: Do not wander through residential areas or disturb property. Do not disturb or remove animals, plants, rocks, petrified wood, or artifacts.

Culture

Heritage flavors: Native American food staples are well adapted to living in Arizona’s arid lands. Corn is a universal ingredient—ground into flour to make tortillas, included in stew, or simply steamed and left on the cob. The fruits of the saguaro, prickly pear, and other cacti are commonly harvested by tribes as well as tepary beans grown from seeds handed down over generations. Fry bread—pillow-shape fried dough—is the basis of the popular Navajo taco, usually topped with beans, ground beef, and shredded cheese.

Song and dance: Ceremonies involving music and dance are central to Native American culture. Not every ceremony is accessible to visitors. Cultural centers and museums, such as the Heard in Phoenix, frequently hold powwows and other festivals that often celebrate more than one tribe.

Sacred spaces: The Hopi kivas are square- or circular-walled, mostly underground structures that are used exclusively for religious ceremonies, and often accessed by a ladder from above. Most kivas, including ruins, are off-limits to tourists. The hogan is the traditional dwelling of the Navajo, and the door always faces east to welcome the rising sun. Though used as homes, hogans play an important part in Navajo spirituality and represent the universe and all things in it.

Arts and crafts: Many of the craftspeople on the reservations sell their wares, with specialties that include pottery, turquoise and sterling-silver jewelry, handwoven baskets, and Navajo wool rugs. As the Spanish ventured northward from Mexico in the late 1500s and early 1600s, they taught the Native Americans their silver-crafting skills, while tribes specializing in pottery and weaving carry on a tradition that began hundreds of years ago. Native beadwork traces its origins to trade beads from early explorers.

Tribal Timeline

950 The first settlements are built at Keet Seel.

1120–1210 Ancestral Puebloans occupy Wupatki Pueblo.

1150 The Hopi build the village of Old Orabi.

1250 Ancestral Puebloans are living at Keet Seel.

1276–1300 Tribes abandon northern Arizona during the "big drought."

1540–1542 Francisco Vásquez de Coronado leads an expedition in search of gold.

1863 Congress creates the Arizona Territory.

1864 Navajos forced to march 300 miles to Fort Sumner during the "Long Walk."

1868 The Navajo and the United States sign a treaty.

1886 Geronimo surrenders after evading U.S. troops for over a year.

1907 Arizona outlaws gambling.

1912 Arizona becomes 48th state.

1993 Sixteen Arizona tribes sign gambling compacts with state.

Shopping Tips

For big-ticket items, buy directly from the craftspeople themselves or a reputable dealer. Most products sold on the Hopi and Navajo reservations are authentic, but fakes are not unheard of.

If you’re traveling in Navajo land, the Cameron Trading Post north of Flagstaff and the Hubbell Trading Post at Ganado are two spots where you can find exemplary items.

In Phoenix, the Heard Museum offers some of the finest Native American handicrafts at reasonable prices.

Trading posts are reliable, as are most roadside stands, which can offer some outstanding values, but be wary of solo vendors around parking lots.

If you’re planning on shopping on the Hopi Reservation or elsewhere outside the Navajo trading posts, it’s a good idea to carry cash, as not all vendors accept credit cards.

Proud craftspeople have individual logos or personal marks that are put into each piece. Authentic pieces will also indicate that the silver is sterling.

On the Ground

Visiting the Navajo: The Navajo are generally more relaxed than the Hopi with recording, but always ask for permission before taking someone’s picture. If you aren’t asked for a gratuity, consider giving one. Canyon de Chelly, Chaco Canyon, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and Navajo National Monument offer glimpses into the past and present of Native American life and culture, including ruins of ancient dwellings and visitor centers with informative dioramas.

Visiting the Hopi: Recordings, including photographs, are prohibited in the Hopi Reservation, except in limited cases by permit. Central to the reservation are Hopi Mesas that contain two of the oldest continually inhabited villages in North America. Though Hopi villages offer visitors limited access, visitors can buy handicrafts from Hopi artisans at many shops, or book a studio tour through the Moenkopi Legacy Inn in Tuba City.

The Navajo and the Hopi People

Both the Navajo and the Hopi base their cultures on the land, but they’re very different from one another. The Navajo refer to themselves as the Diné (pronounced din-eh), "the people," and live on 17 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado—the largest Native American reservation in the country. The Hopi trace their roots to the original settlers of the area, whom they call the Hisatsinom, or "people of long ago"—they are also known as Anasazi, meaning both "ancient ones" and "ancient enemies," as well as Ancestral Puebloans. Hopi culture is more structured than that of the Navajo, and their religion has remained stronger and purer. For both tribes, unemployment is high on the reservation and poverty an ongoing concern.

The Navajo use few words and have a subtle sense of humor that can pass you by if you’re not a good listener. They’re taught not to talk too much, be loud, or show off. Eye contact is considered impolite; if you’re conversing with Navajos, some may look down or away even though they’re paying attention to you. Likewise, touching is seen differently; a handshake may be the only physical contact that you see. When shaking hands, a light touch is preferred to a firm grip, which is considered overbearing. Some of these traits are changing with younger generations, especially as technology and travel lead to less insular communities.

Although most Navajos speak English, listen closely to the language of the Diné. Stemming from the Athabascan family of languages, it’s difficult for outsiders to learn because of subtle accentuation. The famous Marine Corps Navajo "code talkers" of World War II saved thousands of lives in the South Pacific by creating a code within their native Navajo language. A few code talkers still living today reside around Tuba City.

The Hopi Reservation is surrounded by the far larger Navajo Reservation and has begun to open up a bit more to visitors, who can now book guided tours of artists’ studios. Over the years the proximity of the two tribes has been the cause of contention, often involving the assistance of the United States Government in settling land claims, yet the spirituality of the Hopi—"the peaceful ones"—is decidedly antiwar. In fact, Hopi mythology holds that a white-skinned people will save the tribe from its difficult life. Long ago, however, in the face of brutal treatment by whites, most Hopi became convinced that salvation would originate elsewhere.

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