Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Four Sacred Peaks of the Dinetah

by Amber Leigh Williams

The Navaho Reservation, better known as Navaho Nation, located in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah is the largest Indian Reservation in the United States. To the Navaho themselves, this homeland is called the Dinetah and once encompassed much of the American West, from northeastern Arizona to southwestern Colorado, southeastern Utah, and northwestern Mexico. Four sacred mountain peaks mark the Dinetah and the territory the Navaho people once dominated. These peaks became entrenched in Navaho geography with one peak representing one of the four cardinal directions – north, south, east, and west. The mountains also became entrenched in Navaho mythology and, to this day, are considered sacred. The Navaho believed that these four sacred mountains were modeled after mountains of the Fourth World and built by First Man from the soil of that world.

The mountain of the north, Mount Hesperus, is located in the La Plata Mountains of Colorado. A dark, prominent peak, it is the highest summit in the La Plata Mountains at 13,232 feet. Because it is said to be home to the gemstone, jet, and is associated with the color black, it has also been called Obsidian Mountain. To the Navaho, it is DibĂ© Nitsaa, or “Big Mountain Sheep.”

The Sacred Mountain of the East, Mount Blanca, can be found in San Luis Valley, Colorado, near Alamosa. It is the highest peak of the Sierra Blanca Massif of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the eighth highest peak in the United States and the fourth highest in the Rocky Mountains. Like Mount Hesperus, it is a prominent peak that reaches up to 14,345 feet. Mount Blanca is made up of pre-Cambrian granite, which is 1.8 billion years old. The Navaho call it Tsisnaasjini', or “Dawn or White Shell Mountain” because it is associated with the color white. The first recorded summit of Mount Blanca took place in 1874, but when the climbers reached the top they discovered a structure believed to be built by the Ute.

To the south of the Dinetah, you’ll find Mount Taylor, located in northwest New Mexico, the highest point of the San Mateo Mountains as well as the Cibola National Forest. Mount Taylor crests far above the New Mexican desert and is cloaked mostly in forest. It once provided timber for local pueblos and, though currently named for President Zachary Taylor, was known by the Spanish as Cebolleta. However, to the Navaho, it is Tsoodzil, “Blue Bead” or “Turquoise Mountain” because of its blue hue and cone-like shape. According to mythology, Black God, Turquoise Boy, and Turquoise Girl live on Mount Taylor. A popular, religious site for Native American people, it is also worshipped by the Acoma, the Laguna, and the Zuni. Evidence shows that Mount Taylor was once anywhere from 16,000 to 25,000 feet high, but due to volcanic eruptions from 3.3 to 1.5 million years ago similar to Mount Saint Helens, it has dwindled down to a mere 11,305 feet and has been mined for its copious amounts of uranium-vanadium. The mining of Mount Taylor slowed considerably in 2008 when the Navaho, Acoma, Laguna, Zuni and Hopi people cried out in protest. Since, it has been added to the list of America’s Most Endangered Places and is protected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Finally, the western boundary of the Dinetah is the San Francisco Peaks in the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, Arizona. The highest summit of the San Francisco Peaks is Humphreys Peak at 12,633 feet, the tallest site in the state of Arizona. It is popular for skiers due to the location of the Arizona Snowbowl on Humphreys’ western slope, a subject of controversy amongst Native Americans and environmentalists. Like Mount Taylor, it was once an active volcano site – an eroded stratovolcano – and a religious site for various Native American tribes including the Navaho, the Havasupai, the Hopi, and the Zuni. It is said to contain abalone and is known to the Navaho as Doko'oosliid, or “Abalone Shell Mountain.”

Though some have been tampered by controversy, these four sacred peaks were once the four points of the Navaho’s traditional homeland. They mapped what the Navaho believed was the land the Creator placed their people on. To this day, they are part of the belief system of the Navaho people (and a number of other Native American tribes), and create the harmony between nature and a higher power so central to the Navaho Nation. Their beauty and majesty have been preserved as well as eroded by time, but the people still believe in their mystical energy to this day.

14 comments:

  1. A very interesting post. Thanks for sharing! I always find the sacred rituals and places of native American's interesting.

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  2. Thanks for this post, Amber. I love reading books set in this area, and love traveling there too. My husband and I read all of Tony Hillerman's books set in Navajo country. Very interesting post.

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  3. Great post, Amber! And I loved the photographs, too. ~ Ashley

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  4. Nas, Native American history is one of my favorite subjects to research. Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. Caroline, I haven't read any Tony Hillerman and had no idea he wrote about the Navaho. This calls for a trip to the bookstore!

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  6. Ashley, thank you! Growing up on the plains and lowlands of Alabama has really drawn me to mountainous territory. So I love looking at the pictures too!

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  7. Beautiful photographs of stunning mountains, and fascinating information - thanks for sharing!

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  8. Fascinating. I always love learning this kind of information.

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  9. Amber--very interesting. I'd heard the word Dinetah but had no idea what it mean.I enjoyed the descriptions of the four mountains, representing not only directions, but each was called by something unique to the mountain. Obsidian is black glass made by a volcano. When we lived in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico, I found a huge chunk of obsidian. Somehow, somewhere, that has disappeared--long ago. Makes me sick when I wonder what happened to my obsidian.
    I loved the photos, too. Don't mountains hold some sort of spell over us? Oh, I just love them.
    Thanks for such a good post.

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  10. Savanna, I'm glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks for stopping by!

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  11. Celia, when I was younger I had a rock collection and one of my favorites was a small chunk of obsidian. I'm sorry you lost yours...

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  12. What an interesting blog. Native americans are so much more in tune with the rhythms of the Earth and nature. It saddens me that the Navajo cannot roam their sacred land the way they used to.
    I loved the beautiful pictures, too.
    I wish you all the best, Amber.

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  13. Sarah, it saddens me too. I'm glad stories such as this one of the four sacred peaks have survived despite the fact that their Dinetah hasn't.

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