If you drive through the four corners region of the Navajo Reservation along either highway 64 or U.S. 491, you will see a magnificent 1,800 foot tall rock formation rising out of the desert. It seems totally out of place in the surrounding flatlands. To early Euro-American pioneers the rock looked like a sailing ship with three masts. They called it Shiprock. Sin e white people were the ones making the maps, the name stuck.
Long before Europeans entered the area and turned the Native American’s lives upside down, the Navajo (Diné) called the formation Tse Bi dahi (Rock With Wings). According to one of the legends, the Diné originally lived in a cold land in the far north and were being harassed by a much larger hostile tribe.
When the shamans prayed for deliverance, the ground beneath the tribe became a huge bird that transported them on its back. It flew for a day and a
night before landing at sunset where Shiprock now sits. According to some of the legends, the tribe lived on the rock after being transported and only left to tend crops and fetch water. Disaster struck when the trail was destroyed by lightning. Many of the tribe were trapped on the mountain and died. The Diné forbid climbing on the haunted mountain so the ghosts (Chindi) of the stranded tribal members won’t be disturbed.
Everything was going pretty well after that, until Cliff Monster, a giant dragon-like
creature, climbed onto the Bird’s back and built a nest, trapping the Bird. One of the hero twins, Monster Slayer killed Cliff Monster but not before the bird was mortally wounded. Monster Slayer cut off Cliff Monster’s head and threw it far to the east where it became today’s Cabezon Peak. Then to keep the bird alive Monster Slayer turned him into stone, where he remains to this day.
Tony Hillerman’s book The Fallen Man begins when a white rock climber falls to his
death off of Shiprock. Climbing has been prohibited everywhere on the Reservation since 1970, but private land owners and grazing rights holders often grant access for a fee.
My soon to be released novel, Trial Separation (working title) starts off at Shiprock. It is easy to see why this stunning rock formation is important in the Native American Culture, and why it is a central feature in regional literature.