Thursday, January 4, 2018

Postcards from the Plateau: Shiprock


Photograph by Thom Polineros
Shiprock or Tsé Bitʼaʼí, rises 1,583 feet (482.5 m) in the distance above the high-desert plain of the Diné Nation. The name Tsé Bitʼaʼí refers to the story of the great bird that brought the Navajo from the north to their present lands.

The name "Shiprock" or Shiprock Peak or Ship Rock derives from the peak's resemblance to an enormous 19th-century clipper ship. However Anglos first called the peak "The Needle," a name given to the topmost pinnacle by Captain J.F. McComb in 1860. United States Geological Survey maps indicate that the name "Ship Rock" dates from the 1870s.

The peak and surrounding land are of great religious and historical significance to the Navajo people. It is mentioned in many Navajo myths and legends. Foremost is the peak's role as the agent that brought the Navajo to the southwest. According to one legend, after being transported from another place, the Navajos lived on the monolith, "coming down only to plant their fields and get water." One day, the peak was struck by lightning, obliterating the trail and leaving only a sheer cliff, and stranding the women and children on top to starve. The presence of people on the peak is forbidden "for fear they might stir up the chį́įdii (ghosts), or rob their corpses."

In a legend that puts the peak in a larger geographic context, Shiprock is said to be either a medicine pouch or a bow carried by the "Goods of Value Mountain", a large mythic male figure comprising several mountain features throughout the region. The Chuska Mountains comprise the body, Chuska Peak is the head, the Carrizo Mountains are the legs, and Beautiful Mountain is the feet.

One legend has it that Bird Monsters (Tsé Ninájálééh) nested on the peak and fed on human flesh. In one version, after Monster Slayer destroyed Déélééd at Red Mesa, he killed two adult Bird Monsters at Shiprock and changed two young ones into an eagle and an owl. (In another version, the Warrior Twins were summoned to rid the Navajo of the Bird Monsters.)

The peak is mentioned in stories from the Enemy Side Ceremony and the Navajo Mountain Chant. It is associated with the Bead Chant and the Naayee'ee Ceremony (Excerpt from Discover New Mexico).

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