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Arizona's First People — Native American Indians, Sedona, Northern, and Central Arizona

laws spring petroglyphs closeup

Like no other part of the country, Native American culture and history play an immediately present and dynamic role in the life of northern and central Arizona. The landscape itself is imprinted with evidence of thousands of years of human life. You can't contemplate the San Francisco Peaks, the austere desert hills of the Verde Valley, the box canyons of Red Rock Country—without hearing whispers of what life was like centuries or millennia in the past. And if that's not direct enough, you only need look to the vibrant capital of the modern Navajo Nation at Window Rock, AZ, or to the vivid pictographs found on rock walls throughout the Northland, transmitting the hopes and struggles of people who lived here at least 10,000 years ago, to get a feel for the deep connection between the Colorado Plateau and its native people.

Pre-history: The Anasazi and Sinagua

There is a wealth of remarkably-preserved evidence of human activity from as far back as 10,000 years throughout northern and central Arizona. The earliest people in the area were nomadic hunters, who over time began to settle in rudimentary pit houses, turning more and more to agriculture as their technology developed. The people generally known as the Anasazi occupied what is now the Four Corners region, reaching into a good-sized chunk of northeastern Arizona. (Anasazi, the most widely-used archaeological term for this broad grouping of people, is a Navajo word meaning "enemy ancestors." The Hopi refer to these ancient people as "Hisatsinom. Others use the term "Ancestral Puebloans.") Roughly 1,000 years ago, they began creating pueblo-style communities, building complex multi-family dwellings into cliff and canyon walls throughout the area. Then, for reasons not fully understood, the Anasazi gradually deserted their Arizona homes in the 12th and 13th centuries. One theory is that a centuries-long drought made agriculture unviable, and the Anasazi migrated North and East to follow better growing conditions and eventually merge with the ancestors of current Pueblo peoples in New Mexico and Colorado.

Around 600 AD, the Verde Valley and Mogollon Rim area saw the development of a somewhat distinct cultural group that archaeologists call the Sinagua (from the Spanish words sin-without and agua-water.) While it's unclear just how direct the genetic or cultural link is between the Sinagua and the Anasazi, they followed similar patterns in the way their communities developed, moving from pit houses clustered around rudimentary agriculture to elaborate cliff-dwellings and sophisticated agricultural techniques. And, like their more Northern neighbors, the Sinagua also completely abandoned their communities by the end of the 14th century.

What's important to remember when trying to get a grasp on the stories of Arizona's ancient people is that the division and naming of particular groups is an inexact, and often not particularly satisfying process. Because of the highly variable terrain that the ancient people called home, spanning hundreds of miles over arid desert floors and high-country forests, with obstacles like the Grand Canyon cutting off some groups from others, genetics, technology, language and cultures varied accordingly. What remains consistent, however, is the incredible resilience and resourcefulness required to live and thrive in the Southwest high country.

The Hopi

The modern Hopi reservation is spread over 1.5 million acres, to the northeast of Flagstaff. The 11 main Hopi villages are clustered among the tops of three mesas across three mesas that serve as the concentration points of the Hopi community. Old Oraibi, located on Third Mesa, is considered the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States. As of 2000, the Hopi reservation's population numbered about 7,000. By tradition, the people are divided into several matrilineal clans that serve as a powerful source of identity for their members.

The Hopi, who are most likely direct descendents of the Anasazi, are perhaps best known for their rich spiritual life marked by yearly ceremonial cycles that are still performed in their villages today. These ceremonies are more than the expression of philosophical abstractions—they developed in part as a matter of survival. A couple millennia spent coaxing corn, beans and squash to grow in the high country, where rainfall maxes out at 12 inches a year, puts man's dependence on his environment in the forefront of the collective consciousness. The ceremonies are designed to help maintain the correct harmony among the people and the universe so the best conditions for survival continue uninterrupted.

The fanciful Kachina dolls that command the shelves of art galleries all over Arizona are an artistic outgrowth of one fascinating aspect of Hopi religious life. The Kachina (also Katsina or Katchinam) are not "gods" per se, but something like embodiments of specific aspects of the life force, who for six months out of the year, descend from their home in the San Francisco peaks to mingle among the villages and maintain social order, as well as agricultural success. In ceremony the Kachina are represented by dancers in costumes. The dolls, which have become an elaborate and prized art form, evolved from the simple stick figures given to children to teach about the various Kachina and the lessons they carried through countless generations. Learn more about the Hopi: www.hopi-nsn.gov

While the Hopi identity is inextricably linked with a harmonious, peaceful, "correct" life, Hopi history is still fraught with struggle. They lived in relative peace until the arrival of the Spanish and their attempts at conversion, culminating in the "Pueblo Revolt" of 1680. This marked a decrease in Spanish control over the area, and also a shift in population concentration from the foothills and valley floors to the top of the mesas for better defense. There has also been nearly 150 years of conflict between the Hopi and the Navajo over land rights, and today the Hopi reservation is surrounded entirely by the Navajo reservation.

The Navajo

Anthropologists and linguists theorize that the people known today as the Navajo were part of a larger group of people that migrated south from Alaska and Canada and began arriving in the Southwest between 1000 and 1200 A.D. Part of this group settled around the Four Corners region and adopted the agricultural lifestyle of the Hopi and Pueblo peoples, and became known to the nearby Hopi and Pueblo people, and exploring Europeans as the Navajo, or in their own language, Diné (The People).

The modern Navajo Nation includes about a quarter million people within 27,000 square miles spanning across the Four Corners region. Their land is contained within a rough circle with four mountains at the compass points: Mt. Blanca to the east, Mt. Taylor to the south, the San Francisco Peaks to the west and Mt. Hesperus to the north. These mountains and the land within their circle are all considered sacred by the Navajo.

At the center of that domain is Canyon de Chelly, a place of intense natural beauty that is deeply important to the Navajo. As the epicenter of their creation stories and spiritual traditions, few physical places so fully encompass a people's historical and spiritual life like Canyon de Chelly. Dozens of Navajo families still live among its dramatic rock formations and sheer canyon walls, as the Navajo have continuously for about 300 years.

SpiderRockSpider Rock, one of the most dramatic rock formations in Canyon de Chelly, is also the legendary home of Spider Woman, a powerful figure in Navajo spiritual traditions. She is credited with bringing the art of weaving to the people, an art with as much symbolic significance as artistic and pragmatic. Weaving became a particularly significant economic and cultural force in Navajo life in the 1500s when the Spanish brought introduced sheep into the Southwest. Authentic Navajo rugs, tapestries and blankets are highly-sought items in galleries throughout Arizona, prized for their rich colors, durability and intricate design.

The Spanish also introduced silver jewelry-making to the Navajo, who promptly turned it into another enduring artistic tradition. The combination of local turquoise and exquisitely crafted silver jewelry has found a place on the list of jewelry classics, and the southwest is rich in gorgeous one-of-a-kind creations by contemporary Navajo artists. Learn more about the Navajo: www.DiscoverNavajo.com and www.navajo-nsn.gov

The Yavapai

The most common interpretation of the name Yavapai is that it comes from the Yavapai words Enyaleva (sun) and pai (people). The “People of the Sun” have been identified (or mis-identified) by handful of names throughout the centuries, but none that connect so perfectly to the heart of their very existence and the sun-drenched mountains, deserts and valleys that make up Yavapai country.

The Yavapai were among the first people in Sedona, Arizona. According to the Yavapai creation story, the Lady of the Pearl was sealed in a log with the Woodpecker and sent from Montezuma Well to prepare for a Great Flood. For days and nights to follow, it rained incessantly. Flood waters rose to cover every land form on the Earth. After 40 days, the rain stopped, the water receded and the log (ark?) finally came to rest in Sedona. The Woodpecker freed the beautiful young woman from the log and guided her as she traveled to the summit of Mingus Mountain, bearing the white stone or pearl her people had given her for protection. There, she met the Sun, who fell in love with her. Returning to Sedona, she bathed in an enchanted pool in Boynton Canyon. Soon afterward, she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter who became the "First Lady," mother to all the Yavapai people.

The pre-19th century history of the Yavapai is less well-documented than those of many other Southwest peoples, possibly because of the Yavapai’s nomadic nature. Some anthropologists trace the Yavapai to groups who migrated from the Colorado River regions around 1,300 AD, overlapping to some extent with the Sinaguans, while others think they may be direct descendants of the Sinaguans. Prior to the 19th century, the nomadic Yavapai occupied a triangle-shaped wedge of land bordered by the Colorado, Gila and Verde rivers. Small family groups would sometimes travel up to 30 miles a day to follow game or other resources, and would only cultivate small crops, typically in riparian areas, that they would return to seasonally.

Based on linguistic and cultural similarities, the Yavapai are considered to be closely related to the Havasupai and Hualapai people. In addition to a rich folkloric tradition, the Yavapai are also well-known for their striking basket designs, often made from willow and devil’s claw. Baskets served a critical function in the Yavapai’s nomadic lifestyle, providing a sturdy but lightweight means of transporting belongings—some were woven so tightly they could even carry water.

Today the Yavapai are officially represented by two tribes: the Yavapai-Apache Nation located in Camp Verde, AZ and the Yavapai-Prescott Tribe in Prescott, AZ.  Learn more by visiting the Yavapai-Apache Nation.

The Apache

The Apache descended from people who migrated from the North & East, settling in the plains and throughout the Southwest in the 9th century A.D. Subsets of the Western Apache group occupied much of Eastern and central Arizona. They came into frequent conflict with the pueblo people in New Mexico, and it’s generally thought that the word “Apache” comes from a Zuni word meaning “enemy.” The Apache garnered a reputation as fearsome warriors among other Four Corners area natives, the Spanish explorers, and the U.S. Forces that engaged with them in the long and devastating “Indian Wars”

The Apache were somewhat more nomadic than their Hopi and Navajo neighbors, moving camp frequently to follow game. Even in the southwest where the Navajo constructed permanent hogans and the Zuni people created dwellings carved into rock, Apache dwellings resembled the tent-like structures of the plains, with supporting poles covered with brush or reed mats. They had a unique relationship with domestic dogs, using them as pack animals to haul their belongings from camp to camp. Even in the 17th century when they turned more to agriculture, the Apache still traveled to take advantage of wild crops including mescal, saguaro and acorns, in addition to planted crops.

Ever resourceful, taking the best of what they encountered among other people and adapting it as their own, the Apache became legendary horsemen once the animals were introduced by the Spanish, and feats of hunting and raiding on horseback still are woven throughout Apache legend.

The Apache are known for their dramatic ceremonies, particularly the puberty ceremony for girls, known as the “Sunrise Ceremony.” This rite connects young women to the Apache creation myth as she embodies the spirit of White Painted Woman, the first woman of the Apache. It is through this ritual that she becomes a woman, and symbolically all women. As such, her physical and spiritual endurance must be proven through four days of intricate ritual and physical trials including hours on end of dancing and running in the four directions. An entire community may participate in the ceremony with dancing, singing, and re-enactments of the creation story. One woman will be chosen to act as a “godmother” to the initiate, guiding and caring for her throughout the experience.

Culturally and linguistically the Yavapai and Apache are clearly separate, but nothing bands people together like adversity and tragedy, and a common enemy – and the Yavapai and Apache experienced all three in the latter part of the 19th century, as settlers began pouring in to the Verde Valley and the US Government waged an open campaign to ride the Verde Valley of all native inhabitants. Various raids, murders and battles culminated in 1875, when 1,500 Yavapai and Apache people were forcibly removed from their Camp Verde reservation and marched 180 miles away on foot to San Carlos on an order from the US government. Twenty-five years later, two hundred Yavapai and Apache people made the journey back home to the Verde Valley, where their new reservations combined in 1927 to form the Yavapai-Apache nation, which encompasses 665 acres around Camp Verde, Clarkdale and Rimrock.

All the native people of Arizona have complex, rich, and ongoing histories and cultures, and there are endless options for learning more:

Ruins and archaeological sites:

Wupatki National Monument: www.nps.gov/wupa

It is theorized that a blend of Anasazi and Sinaguan cultures lived at Wupatki, an enormous mesa-top dwelling about 30 miles northeast of Flagstaff. Wupatki was built shortly after the eruption at Sunset Crater, presumably by people who had been displaced by that event.

Palatki Heritage Site: http://www.fs.usda.gov

This Sinagua dwelling, located down a long, bumpy Forest Service Road just outside of Sedona may be short on interpretive material, but long on amazing views, and stands out by offering the opportunity to actually stand inside the rooms of a 1,000 year-old cliff house. There are also fascinating pictographs, remarkably well preserved and accessible.

montezuma castle near sedona

Montezuma Castle National Monument: www.nps.gov/moca

An impressive, multi-story Sinagua cliff-dwelling near Rimrock, AZ, observable from a 1/3 mile trail with plenty of interpretive material. There is also an excellent museum with artifacts and educational exhibits about the Sinagua and the site.

montezuma well

Montezuma Well: www.nps.gov/moca/planyourvisit/exploring-montezuma-well.htm

A natural limestone sinkhole fed by an underground spring, through which 1,500,000 gallons of water emerge each day. Located about 11 miles northeast of Montezuma Castle, it contains the ruins of several prehistoric dwellings around its rim.

View from Tuzigoot National Monument in the Verde Valley, Arizona.

Tuzigoot National Monument: www.nps.gov/tuzi/index.htm

An ancient village on a hilltop built by the Sinagua people. It overlooks the Verde River with spectacular views of Mingus Mountain and the Verde Valley.

v bar v petroglyphs

V-Bar-V Heritage Site: http://www.fs.usda.gov/


Verde Valley Archaeology Center: www.VerdeValleyArchaeology.org

and our article about the Verde Valley Archaeology Center.

Smoki Museum: www.smokimuseum.org

Located in Prescott, AZ, the Smoki Museum holds an impressive permanent collection of artifacts, crafts and arts from every era, from prehistoric to contemporary, as well as a 600-volume library on Native American history and ethnography.

Museum of Northern Arizona: www.musnaz.org

The native art, history, culture and natural sciences of the Colorado Plateau all have a place at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. Special art exhibitions, workshops, cultural festivals, a huge permanent collection of art, artifacts and biological specimens and a large research library are just the tip of the iceberg.

Navajo Nation Museum: www.NavajoNationMuseum.org

Located in Window Rock, AZ, the Navajo Nation Museum offers a wide range of permanent collections and featured exhibitions of fine art and historic objects as well as workshops and the Navajo Nation Library.


Anyone visiting ancient Native American sites, petroglyphs, and archaeological sites must be respectful—PLEASE DO NOT carve or write your name, or deface them in any way. See this recent story, where a prominent celebrity was fined for defacing a Sedona site.

Article by Sarah Horton. Photo of Hoop Dancers courtesy of Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, Sedona. Photos of Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well by CanstockPhoto.com.


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