The Four Corners region is home to many Indigenous tribes, including the Navajo, Hopi, Ute, and Jicarilla Apache. Visiting this distinctive part of the country provides numerous opportunities to explore sites lived in centuries ago by the Ancestral Puebloan people, including Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly. However, it is still home to many Indigenous people today.
Indigenous people were here long before the arrival of Europeans and their histories are filled with conflict over land, water, and mineral resources. Over time, various governments who took ownership of the land, such as the Spanish, Mexican, and American, fought to conquer the tribes. Of course, at some points, there was peaceful coexistence with trading and sometimes intermarriage. However, broken treaties and forced relocations are a part of the history between our government and Native Americans. Today, these tribes are sovereign nations within the United States with their own forms of government.
Indigenous Tribes of the Four Corners Region
Today’s Navajo Nation is a reservation comprising 16 million acres in Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, about the size of West Virginia. It is the largest reservation in the country, but because it is an arid landscape, the population is widely dispersed. They call themselves Diné, which translates to “The People.”
The Diné have been here for about 1,000 years, with anthropologists believing their ancestors crossed the Bering Sea to arrive in North America. Eventually, they settled in the Four Corners area and learned an agricultural lifestyle. After the arrival of the Spanish, soon sheep and horses became essential to the Diné. In places like Canyon de Chelly, they had peach orchards and tended bountiful crops.
Then, in 1846 the territory became part of the United States and soon the Americans were intent on moving Indigenous peoples to specified areas. Col. Kit Carson was assigned the duty of defeating the Navajo people and employed a scorched earth policy, destroying their crops, homes, and livestock including the peach orchards.
Finally, in 1864, they were rounded up and forced on what came to be called The Long Walk, with 8,000 of the Diné forced to march about 300 miles to Fort Sumner at Bosque Redondo. Many died along the way and many more died during the four years of imprisonment. After signing a treaty, the survivors were allowed to return to what is now the Navajo Nation, which was formed as the initial reservation in 1868.
The population today is more than 250,000. A tribal government was formed in 1923 and consists of a three-branch system. They have their own police department (made famous in the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee books written by Tony Hillerman) and operate Navajo Tribal Parks such as the Four Corners Monument and Monument Valley.
The Navajo were integral to our success in World War II when Navajo Code Talkers devised and employed a code that the Japanese never broke. They were honored at the Pentagon many years later, in 1992.
Visitors to the Navajo Nation today can not only experience the beauty of the landscape but can take home a bit of Navajoland in the form of authentic jewelry or rugs created by artisans. One popular place to bid on blankets and rugs is the monthly Crownpoint Rug Auction held by the Navajo Weavers’ Association since 1964. Navajo handcrafted jewelry often features silver and turquoise. When buying anything that is purported to be Native made, take the time to be sure. Here’s some guidance from the Federal Trade Commission for buyers.
The Hopi Tribe
The Hopi people, who have a reservation in Arizona that encompasses more than 1.5 million acres, have made their home in the Southwest for more than 2,000 years and it is believed they migrated from South America. The Hopi language isn’t related to other pueblo languages, but is closer to Aztec. The Hopi lands are surrounded by the Navajo Nation.
Over those centuries, they have developed dry farming techniques that allow them to have crops of corn, beans, and squash (the Three Sisters), plus melons and other foods despite the minimal rainfall the area receives.
The Hopi villages are at the base and tops of three mesas, called First, Second, and Third Mesa. Each has its own unique history and talents. For example, artisans on the First Mesa are renowned for their pottery while Second Mesa artisans for their coiled basketry. Third Mesa is known for kachina doll carving, silversmithing, weaving, and wicker basketry.
If you choose to visit Hopi villages, be aware of the policies. For example, while visitors are welcome to attend most public dances, photography, recording, or even sketching of the dances and villages are prohibited. One place to start your visit is the Hopi Cultural Center at Second Mesa. To find out about ceremonies, reach out to the individual villages to inquire about their schedule and what is open to guests.
The Hopi Tribal Council makes laws and sets policies, however each of the tribe’s 12 villages has its own government.
The once nomadic Ute tribe has lived in many parts of the country, including Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona. Today, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe are the Weenuche band. The Southern Ute Tribe is composed of the Mouache and Capote bands. The Northern Ute Bands, made up of the Uncompahgre, Grand River, Yampa, and Uinta bands, live on the Uinta Ouray Reservation near Vernal, Utah.
The Utes would match many people’s vision of a Native American tribe. They lived in harmony with nature, moving from place to place to hunt and gather to avoid overuse of the resources in one location. They made teepees from animal hides and were quick to incorporate horses into their lifestyle for both transportation and hunting.
With the addition of the horse, they were able to expand the reach of their hunting areas and add buffalo to their resources. They became adept at weaving baskets sealed with pitch to hold water and traded with both pueblo tribes for pottery and the Spanish for other goods.
You can find the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s 582,321-acre reservation in southwest Colorado, southeast Utah, and northern New Mexico, with part abutting Mesa Verde National Park and headquartered in Towaoc, Colorado, with another community at White Mesa, Utah. The population of that band is about 2,000 people. They operate a hotel/casino as well as a travel center and RV park.
The Southern Ute Tribe, centered in Ignacio, Colorado, holds several events that may be open to the public, such as the Bear Dance in spring, the Sundance in July, and the Southern Ute Tribal Fair in September which features ceremonial dances, drumming, art and craft vendors, contests, and, of course, frybread.
To learn more about the tribe, visit the Southern Ute Cultural Center in Ignacio, Colorado. The tribe also operates a casino resort, fairgrounds and RV park, a community center, and Lake Capote Recreation Area in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Check out the Osprey Cam that gives you a view into the nest of a pair of ospreys during their spring and summer nesting season.
The Apache were another nomadic tribe that was found across large areas of the Southwest and beyond. Today, there are Apache tribes and nations in Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico.
The tribe in the Four Corners is the Jicarilla Apache Nation in Northern New Mexico is almost 880,000 acres, stretching from north of Cuba, New Mexico, to the border with Colorado, adjoining the land of the Southern Ute. The only community on their land is Dulce, New Mexico. The tribe’s population is about 3,000 with most living in Dulce.
Coronado came across the Apache on his expedition in 1540 and encroachment on Apache lands began when Juan de Oñate arrived with his settlers in 1598. Sometimes there was peaceful trading and at other times, there were raids by one side or the other. When Mexico governed the lands, tensions increased and when the United States fought Mexico in 1846, the Apache worked with the Americans and provided passage for the army through their land.
The Apache became feared for their raids and ambush attacks. The government tried to force unrelated bands of Apache onto reservations together, increasing tensions. Noted Apache leaders Geronimo and Victorio fought until 1886 for their right to live off reservations, but even they surrendered in 1886. The Mescalero Apache were also forced on the Long Walk with the Navajo to Fort Sumner and Bosque Redondo.
Today, the lands of the Jicarilla Apache Nation are known for outdoor adventures, including hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, and boating. Hunting and fishing are managed by the Jicarilla Apache Game and Fish Department. There is a 14,500 acre elk enclosure at Horse Lake Mesa Game Park. The nation includes seven mountain lakes on land that ranges in altitude from 6,500 to 9,000 feet.
Events hosted by the Jicarilla Apache include Go-Jii-Ya Feast Day in September, Stone Lake Fiesta, and Little Beaver Roundup in July. No camera permits are required on their land and there is no admission fee.