Behind the Scenes in Monument Valley

The vast Navajo tribal park on the border of Utah and New Mexico stars in Hollywood movies but remains largely hidden to visitors

John Ford, who filmed westerns in the valley (the Mittens and Merrick Butte), called it the "most complete, beautiful and peaceful place on earth." (Douglas Merriam)
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Travelers from the East were almost nonexistent. In the Gilded Age, American tourists preferred the more “European” Rockies and the forests of California. This began to change in the early 1900s, as Anglo artists depicted Southwestern landscapes in their works, and interest in Native American culture took hold. Indian traders spread reports of Monument Valley’s scenic beauty. Even so, the valley’s remoteness—180 miles northeast of the railway line in Flagstaff, Arizona, a week-long pack trip—discouraged all but the most adventurous travelers. In 1913, the popular western author Zane Grey came to the valley after battling “a treacherous red-mired quicksand” and described a “strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.” After camping there overnight, Grey rode on horseback around the “sweet-scented sage-slopes under the shadow of the lofty Mittens,” an experience that inspired him to set a novel, Wildfire, in the valley. Later that same year, President Theodore Roosevelt visited Monument Valley en route to nearby Rainbow Bridge in Utah, where he hiked and camped, and in 1916, a group of tourists managed to drive a Model T Ford into the valley. The second director of the National Park Service, Horace Albright, who thought the area was a possible candidate for federal protection after a 1931 inspection, was among a handful of anthropologists, archaeologists and conservationists who visited it between the world wars. But in Washington interest was minimal. Monument Valley still lacked paved roads, and the unpaved ones were so treacherous they were called “Billygoat Highways.”

Throughout this period, the proprietary rights to Monument Valley kept changing hands. “The land bounced between Anglo and Native American control for decades because of the prospect of finding gold or oil there,” says Robert McPherson, the author of several books about Navajo history. “Only when white people thought it was useless for mining did they finally give it back to the Navajo.” At a meeting in Blanding, Utah, in 1933, a compromise agreement granted the Paiute Strip, part of which is in Monument Valley, to the Navajo Reservation. At last, all of the valley was Navajo land. But the deal that would clinch the valley’s peculiar fate occurred in Hollywood.

In 1938, a “tall, lanky cowboy in the style of Gary Cooper,” as one studio acquaintance described him, walked into United Artists Studios in Los Angeles and asked a receptionist if he could talk to someone, anyone, about a location for a western movie. Harry Goulding ran a small trading post at the northwest rim of Monument Valley. A Colorado native, Goulding had moved to the valley in 1925, when the land was public, and had become popular with the Navajo for his cooperative spirit and generosity, often extending credit during difficult times. The Depression, a drought and problems created by overgrazing had hit the Navajo and the trading post hard. So when Goulding heard on the radio that Hollywood was looking for a location to shoot a western, he and his wife, Leone, nicknamed Mike, saw a chance to improve their lot as well as the Indians’.

“Mike and I figured, ‘By golly, we’re going to head for Hollywood and see if we can’t do something about that picture,’” he later recalled. They gathered photographs, bedrolls and camping gear and drove to Los Angeles.

According to Goulding, the United Artist receptionist all but ignored him until he threatened to get out his bedding and spend the night in the office. When an executive arrived to throw Goulding out, he glimpsed one of the photographs—a Navajo on horseback in front of the Mittens—and stopped short. Before long, Goulding was showing the images to 43-year-old John Ford and a producer, Walter Wanger. Goulding left Los Angeles with a check for $5,000 and orders to accommodate a crew while it filmed in Monument Valley. Navajos were hired as extras (playing Apaches), and Ford even signed up—for $15 a week—a local medicine man named Hastiin Tso, or “Big Man,” to control the weather. (Ford evidently ordered “pretty, fluffy clouds.”) The movie, released in 1939, was Stagecoach and starred a former stuntman named John Wayne. It won two Academy Awards and made Wayne a star; it also made the western a respected film genre.

John Ford would go on to shoot six more westerns in Monument Valley: My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). In addition to introducing the valley’s spectacular scenery to an international audience, each movie pumped tens of thousands of dollars into the local economy. The shoots were usually festive, with hundreds of Navajo gathering in tents near Goulding’s trading post, singing, watching stuntmen perform tricks and playing cards late into the night. Ford, often called “One Eye” because of his patch, was accepted by the Navajo, and he returned the favor: after heavy snows cut off many families in the valley in 1949, he arranged for food and supplies to be parachuted to them.

It’s said that when John Wayne first saw the site, he declared: “So this is where God put the West.” Millions of Americans might agree. The valley soon became fixed in the popular imagination as the archetypal Western landscape, and tourists by the carloads began arriving. In 1953, the Gouldings expanded their two stone cabins into a full-fledged motel with a restaurant manned by Navajo. To cope with the influx (and discourage, among other things, pothunters in search of Anasazi relics), conservation groups proposed making the valley a national park. But the Navajo Nation’s governing body, the Tribal Council, objected; it wanted to protect the valley’s Indian residents and preserve scarce grazing land. In 1958, the council voted to set aside 29,817 acres of Monument Valley as the first-ever tribal park, to be run by Navajo on the national park model, and allocated $275,000 to upgrade roads and build a visitors center. The park is now the most visited corner of the Navajo reservation. “The Navajo Nation were really the trailblazers for other Native American groups to set up parks,” says Martin Link, former director of the Navajo Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, who helped train the first Navajo park rangers in the early 1960s.

Goulding’s Trading Post is now a sprawling complex of 73 motel rooms, a campground and an enormous souvenir shop. (Harry Goulding died in 1981, Mike in 1992.) The original 1925 store has been turned into a museum, displaying film stills and posters from the dozens of movies shot in the valley. Even the Gouldings’ old mud-brick potato cellar, which appeared as the home of Capt. Nathan Brittles (Wayne) in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, remains. A small cinema shows John Wayne movies at night.

For the end of my trip, following my overnight atop Hunt’s Mesa, I decided to camp on Monument Valley’s floor among the most famous monoliths. To arrange this, Lorenz Holiday took me to meet his aunt and uncle, Rose and Jimmy Yazzie, whose farm lies at the end of a spidery network of soft sand roads. The elderly couple spoke little English, so Lorenz translated the purpose of our visit. Soon they agreed to let me camp on a remote corner of their property for a modest fee.

I built a small fire at dusk, then sat alone watching as the colors of the buttes shifted from orange to red to crimson. In the distance, two of the Yazzies’ sons led a dozen mustangs across the valley, the horses kicking up clouds of dust.


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