Navajos of Canyon de Chelly


A couple of years ago Chris and I signed up for a guided tour of Canyon de Chelly.  This is the second largest canyon in the knitted States. You know which is the biggest. Our guide and 4-wheel drive operator was a Navajo called Dan.  He started up by driving right into the river at the bottom of the canyon. I was stunned. Of course Dan knew exactly what he was doing. Everything was fine. The water was not very deep. He advised that only occasionally did he get stuck in the river and then would have to call for help. He knew a lot about Navajo history and was happy to share his knowledge.

In Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “d Shay”) in northern Arizona archaeologists have found 4 distinct periods of Indigenous culture.  The first known here were Basketmaker people around AD 300. They were followed by the Ancestral Puebloans who created the astonishing cliff dwellings in about the 12thcentury AD. After that came Hopi people who lived here very successfully for about 300 years and then left.  They were able to take advantage of the fertile soil. The Hopi left in the 1700s and moved to the mesas a little farther to the west, but they did return to farm during the summer months. After that it became the cultural center of the Navajo Nation.

According to the Hopi this was all part of a migratory pattern of life. Archaeological evidence and Traditional Knowledge both indicate that there was seasonal farming in the region, pilgrimages, and occasional stays in the canyon. This pattern continued, without permanent occupation, until the Navajo arrived in the late 1700s.

The Anasazi built this in 1035 A.D. Dan pointed a wonderful rock formation that we passed. It was called Junction rock. It was stupendous and I took a number of photographs of it. Dan was very kind about my frequent requests to stop so I could take pictures. He was very patient and new photographers and their manias. He was not in a hurry.




Next we saw White House, a world famous structure.  The structure is named after the white walls of one of the buildings. It was located about 550 ft. (160 m.) from the canyon floor. It was also a significant distance from the rim.  A precarious case to build, but incredibly secure once complete. This was a group of rooms tucked into a tiny hollow in the cliff. Like it did form the rim, from the ground it seemed as if has not been touched by time. The dwellings were originally situated above a larger pueblo much of which has disappeared.  This ruin is the only one within the park that can be reached without a Navajo guide, but it requires a substantial walk down a steep path. Some people do that. The walk is 2.5 miles long from the rim to the canyon floor.

The darkest point in the history of the canyon was (of course) when the “civilized” Spaniards arrived. In 1805 a Spanish force tried to subdue the Navajo Nation for the greater glory of God and the Spanish crown.  They claimed the Navajo were raiding their settlements. Of course, the Spanish were really invaders! What do you think would have happen if modern Spanish descendants from Mexico arrived today to drive out the Americans? When the Spanish arrived the Navajos fled by climbing to the rim of the canyon and hid in caves high up the cliffs. The Spanish fired their guns into the caves  and later one of them bragged that he had killed 115 Navajo including 90 warriors. The rest were of course women, old men, and children. The Navajo claim that most of the warriors were gone at the time of the attack and most of the people killed by the “civilized” Spanish were women and children. Only one Spaniard was killed and that happened when he attacked a Navajo woman  and she fought back and both of them plunged over the cliff to their death. The cave is called Massacre Cave by the Anglos. The Navajo call it “Two fell over.”


We learned from Dan that the Navajo are actually an Athabascan-speaking people.  They called themselves Dené.  Nowadays, the Navajo call themselves Deni. It is astonishing to find this close connection to the people of Canada’s north. Chris and I both remember the Dené village near Churchill and the tragic story of their forced relocation not entirely unlike the forced relocation of Navajo in 1864. I intend to blog about this. The name Navajo was given to the people by the Spaniards, and the Navajo don’t even know where that name comes from. Dené, the name they prefer, means ‘the People.’  I found similar stories around North America. Nations throughout North America referred to themselves as ‘the People.’ In some cases it even seems that only the people (themselves) are human beings.

The cliff dwellings are not always easy to spot.

In any event, the Navajo as they are commonly called here, entered Canyon de Chelly about 400 years ago.  They brought domesticated sheep, goats and culture shaped by centuries of migration and adaptation. Like the many people before them, they used the canyon to facilitate their way of life.

Canyon de Chelly was famous throughout the region for its fine farmland, especially corn fields, and peach trees. They established orchards on the canyon floor. According to Dan, the Navajo were so successful because of minerals that seeped down the canyon walls into the canyon making the land very fertile.  He pointed out to us black stains which indicated the presence of manganese in the water that dripped down canyon walls. In other places we saw blue stains an indication of cobalt. According to Dan, the sandy soil on the floor of the canyon is so rich in minerals that the Navajo farmers had no use for fertilizers. Unlike modern industrial style farmers, they had no need of fertilizer. All in all, they were pretty smart farmers long before Europeans arrived.



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