1. You’ll have to drive 70 miles for a beer.
The Navajo reservation is dry and no alcohol can be bought or transported on to it. Because Navajoland is the largest piece of indigenous land in the world — with over 25,000 square miles stretching across Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona — you may be driving some time before you can get yourself a beer at a “border town” like Gallup, New Mexico, on the outskirts of the rez.
2. You’ll get used to seeing dead animals on the side of the road.
The “Big Rez” is open range land, so there’s always the possibility of hitting any number of domestic animals — sheep, goats, cows, and horses. There are also approximately 500,000 stray dogs running wild and, more often than not, you’ll see their corpses strewn across the poorly-maintained two-lane highways. For this reason, it’s best not to drive at night — black cows are difficult to see.
3. Hitchhikers will be everywhere.
Many people do not have reliable transportation, and therefore must hitchhike. Hitchhiking is legal all over the reservation, and it’s not uncommon to see men and women at all times of the day or night, walking with their thumbs out or waving a dollar bill to entice you into stopping. Sometimes a grandma or grandpa may be hitchhiking into town for groceries; walking with a cane in hand, old beat-up cowboy hat or scarf on the head, and shuffling along. Picking up one of these folks and taking them into town is a much appreciated offer, and will be rewarded with a big smile and ahééhee’. Beware of the occasional drunk hitchhiker wearing all black, wandering into the road at night.
4. Elders are now “grandma” and “grandpa.”
In most other parts of the country, using these words to describe someone who is not officially related to you can be offensive. However, the Navajo use these terms out of respect, and many chés and shimás enjoy the honor.
5. You’ll need to learn how to point with your lips, not your hands.
On the rez, it’s considered impolite to point with your fingers. Instead, many Navajos point using their entire hand, or more often, their lips. When asking for directions to the nearest gas station, you might find someone puckering up to point the way.
6. Learning some Navajo words will go a long way.
Approximately 170,000 people speak Navajo, or Diné bizaad. It is the most widely spoken Native American language north of the Mexican border. Navajo soldiers, who were mostly Marines, used this unique and obscure language to serve the United States during WWII. These soldiers, called Code Talkers, developed a code using the Navajo language that was indecipherable to the Japanese enemy. Navajo speaking radio operators provided rapid and secure communications at all levels of the American command. The program remained classified as “top secret” until 1983, and is the only spoken military code never to have been deciphered. The last of the Navajo Code Talkers who helped create the code died in 2014. A simple yáʼátʼééh and a handshake will go far when meeting someone new during your travels across the reservation.
7. You’ll need to understand and respect that many people are living without electricity or water.
In many parts of the reservation, people cannot afford the basics. Water is often hauled from a neighbor’s house or from water wells being pumped by windmills, a local spring, or the community Chapter House which can all be miles away. Wood is chopped from the nearby forest, or bought from local sellers to stoke cast iron wood-burning stoves used to heat homes.