Navajos looking for art and peace and finding death


On our tour of Canyon de Chelly  we saw two different types of indigenous art.  We saw pictographs (which are also called pictogramme or pictogram)  which are icons that convey their meaning through a pictorial resemblance to a physical object. Pictographs can be considered an art form or a method of communication such as language or symbols.

Petroglyphs (also called rock engravings or carvings) are a form of pictogram created by removing part of a rock surface by incising, picking, abrading, or carving. Petroglyphs are found around the world and are often associated with prehistoric people.   Petroglyphs were also used by Ancient Puebloans to provide astronomical markers for the different seasons.

The difference between the two is that a petroglyphs are images drawn on rock or painted on a rock surface whereas petroglyphs are actually cut out of or carved out of rock.

Our tour guide, Dan also drew our attention to the fact that both petroglyphs and pictographs are fading.  Like old men. That is a natural process caused by weathering and slow deterioration through time. Like the First Nations of the west coast of Canada who are allowing their totem poles to rot into oblivion rather than artificially preserving them, the Navajo have decided to let nature take its course. Sometimes that just makes sense.


Our tour guide, Dan, explained to us that the tribes had been peaceful until the Spaniards arrived in Canyon de Chelly .Things changed when the Spaniards arrived. After that wars broke out between the Navajo and other tribes as a result of competition to trade with the Spanish. According to Dan, many of these skirmishes were intended to gain favor with the Spanish whose main goal was gold and silver. It seemed strange to Indigenous people, but the Spaniards lusted after gold and silver for some inexplicable reason. Raids occurred and were inevitably followed by reprisals. The long peace was over.

Of course skirmishes broke out with the Spanish as well. These were usually quick raids, and reprisals over animals and land. After all, the Spanish were invaders. They did not discover the Canyon they invaded it. The days of peaceful co-existence were over.

The Navajos took refuge in the Canyon de Chelly’s winding canyons, sheer walls, small caves, and rock outcroppings. They fortified trails with stone walls, shelters in rock alcoves, and stock-piled food and provisions including, importantly water.


It is difficult to see on this photo, but I wanted to show the scale of how small the cliff dwellings were compared to the massive cliff. The homes are about 1/3rd of the way up from the ground.

At different times the Spanish, the Utes (another tribe) and US cavalry breeched the Navajo defences, leaving death in their wake. In 1846 the US Army had claimed the land that is now Arizona and New Mexico from Mexican forces. It was a typical battle between colonizers fighting for control over a country without asking the inhabitants what they wanted. No one cared about them. After all the inhabitants were savages weren’t they? Exactly what the Europeans did in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.  As a matter of fact, they also did it in Canada during the 7 Years War of 1756 to 1763.  Although efforts at peace were made, they were largely unsuccessful. Conflict followed for 17 years with frequent American intrusions into Navajo territory.

In 1863 Colonel Kit Carson, considered an American hero, began a brutal campaign of what we would now call ethnic cleansing or genocide. The American government wanted to remove the Navajos to New Mexico and Carson was its instrument. Forced removal of people is one of the indicia of genocide according to the United Nations definition. In the winter of 1864 he and his troops entered Canyon de Chelly and pushed the Navajo toward the canyon mouth. The Navajo were not able to resist the overwhelming forces against them for long. as a result most of the Navajo were killed or taken prisoner.

A modern hogan

In the spring, Carson and his men returned to complete the destruction of the Navajo nation. They destroyed the remaining hogans in which the Navajo lived, ravished their orchards and crops, and killed their sheep. After that, the Navajo could do nothing to avoid starvation.

Those Navajo who survived the massacres were forced to march (‘The Long Walk’) in humiliating fashion, more than 300 miles to Fort Sumner New Mexico. Many died along the way from hunger, thirst, or fatigue. The years of internment at Fort Sumner were no less brutal. Poor food, inadequate shelter, and disease ravished the survivors who refused to give in.  After all this was not their home! They wanted to go back home to Canyon de Chelly and other places in Arizona. In 1868 the American government gave in and allowed the Navajo to return to Arizona and Canyon de Chelly.

Of course, when the Navajo returned to Canyon de Chelly, their crops were ruined, their livestock gone, and their orchards destroyed. Why did the Americans destroy their orchards?  Life was harsh all over again. Many of those who made it all the way back faced starvation again!

Dan casually mentioned to us that he had gone to “boarding school.” When we cross-examined him on this statement, he acknowledged this was an involuntary residential school. His parents had no choice but to send him. He went far away from his family to California to attend school as a young lad. In his understated manner, he said that the school was “not enjoyable” and the people who ran it were “strict.” He was not permitted to use his language and was told to forget it. He rebelled and managed to retain his language. He was justifiably proud of that achievement. In the face of brutal oppression, people like Dan have preserved their culture.

Once again I have to ask: who was civilized and who were the savages?

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