Travel: Navajo Nation opens doors to the world

"On the road through the tree-studded high desert toward the small town of Chinle, Arizona, the car radio was picking up the local Navajo station, with a playlist heavy in Top 40 hits, peppered with Navajo-language station breaks and car commercials.

The sky was a cloudless blue, and I was on my way, with my childhood friend Esther, to Canyon de Chelly, a geologic maze of towering red cliffs and deep-cut gorges dotted with pictographs and the ruins of ancient cliffside villages. Lying in the heart of the 21st-century Navajo Nation, a semi-autonomous region straddling parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in North America, a window into both an ancient world and a modern one.

It was late afternoon when we reached the mouth of the canyon. As we stood at the visitors' entrance, dazzled by the 360-degree horizon beckoning from every direction, Merlin Yazzie, a cherub-faced park ranger with a ponytail, gave us a friendly wave.

"Is this your first visit to the area?" he said. "Welcome to Navajoland."

The stereotypes of glitzy casinos and a kitschy cowboys-and-Indians past have long dominated popular notions about visiting Native American lands. Even where the more genuine attractions are obvious, as at the majestic Monument Valley straddling Arizona and Utah, it has often been difficult for outsiders to find an accessible and comfortable way into the nuanced realities of Indian country: its venerable history and distinct cultures; its remote, rugged natural beauty.

It was an emerging change in this old pattern that had brought us to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "de Shay"). A new generation of Indian entrepreneurs and leaders are making their influence felt in tourism, bringing a sensitive, updated sensibility to hospitality, along with a renewed emphasis on authenticity. In some of the most gorgeous, intriguing and remote places of Native American territory, the focus is shifting toward a more modern and higher-end travel experience."

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Travel: Navajo Nation opens window to its world (The Guardian 9/27)