Shiprock (Navajo: Tsé Bitʼaʼí, “rock with wings” or “winged rock”) is a monadnock rising nearly 1,583 feet (482.5 m) above the high-desert plain of the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, New Mexico. Its peak elevation is 7,177 feet (2,187.5 m) above sea level. It lies about 10.75 miles (17.30 km) southwest of the town of Shiprock, which is named for the peak.
Governed by the Navajo Nation, the formation is in the Four Corners region and plays a significant role in Navajo religion, myth, and tradition. It is located in the center of the area occupied by the Ancient Pueblo People, a prehistoric Native American culture of the Southwest United States often referred to as the Anasazi. Shiprock is a point of interest for rock climbers and photographers and has been featured in several film productions and novels. It is the most prominent landmark in northwestern New Mexico.
The Navajo name for the peak, Tsé Bitʼaʼí, “rock with wings” or “winged rock”, refers to the legend 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. Americans first called the peak “The Needle”, a name given to the topmost pinnacle by Captain J. F. McComb in 1860.
Shiprock and the surrounding land have religious and historical significance to the Navajo people. It is mentioned in many of their 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.”
Navajo legend 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.
Navajo legend has it that Bird Monsters (Tsé Ninájálééh) nested on the peak and fed on human flesh. After Monster Slayer, elder of the Warrior Twins, destroyed Déélééd at Red Mesa, he killed two adult Bird Monsters at Shiprock and changed two young ones into an eagle and an owl. The peak is mentioned in stories from the Enemy Side Ceremony and the Navajo Mountain Chant, and is associated with the Bead Chant and the Naayee’ee Ceremony. There are a number of other legends regarding what the Shiprock pinnacle might be. Some say that it is a geological anomaly that it may have originated as a work of the ‘star people’.
Photo by: Susan Gutman