Canyon de Chelly

June 5–6, 2014

Note on notes: We spent three nights in Chinle, at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly, and in the two days between them we took three excursions: a tour inside the canyon on the first day, and drives along the north and south rims on the second. Our pictures are divided into three galleries, one for each excursion. But this is the only note page, so all three galleries are linked to it. To get from here to the gallery you were looking at, use your browser’s Back button or choose it from the menu bar above.
Canyon de Chelly
Canyon de Chelly is a national monument, but of a special kind: located within the bounds of the main Navajo reservation (the so-called “Big Rez” that fills more than 25,000 square miles of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico), the park is administered jointly by the NPS and the Navajo Nation. The canyon has two main branches, a northern one called Cañon del Muerto (‘Dead Man’s Canyon’) and a southern one called Canyon de Chelly. The last word is a Spanish borrowing of the Navajo word tsegi, meaning simply ‘rock canyon.’ This name has been subsequently confused by the adoption (for which the Navajo are certainly not responsible) of a Frenchified spelling. The pronunciation of tsegi is something like “tsay-yee,” so when American palefaces pronounce it à la française as “shayee” (or, if they didn’t take French in school, à l’americaine as “shay”) neither version is too far off. In the rest of this note, I’ll use the term Canyon de Chelly to refer to the whole complex including both branches, as as per standard practice.

The sheer canyon walls were created in the sandstone by a combination of geological uplifts and cutting by the streams that still run through the canyon, though they’re much smaller now than they were millions of years ago when the major work was going on.

As the NPS brochure and all the guidebooks make clear, Canyon de Chelly has had people living in it for possibly 5,000 years. (The NPS brochure dates the earliest residents, archaic hunter-gatherers, from about 2500 BCE, which would make the period closer to 4,500 years.)

The first people were succeeded by (or perhaps evolved into) farmers who grew corn and excelled in basketmaking. Later—around 750 of the Common Era, when France was ruled by Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short—the first villages of ancestral Pueblo people began to appear. This was more likely a cultural development among the people who were already living there than the influx of a new ethnic group. These ancestral Puebloans are sometimes called Anasazi, a Navajo word that the NPS brochure diplomatically describes as meaning ‘ancient ones.’ In fact, however, it means ‘enemies’ ancestors’—a name that may reflect later conflicts between the Navajo and the local Hopis.

The ancestral Puebloans constructed the cliff dwellings that can still be seen in this canyon and elsewhere in the southwest, but they left the dwellings and the canyon sometime around 1300, perhaps in search of better farming conditions. Some of their descendants became the Hopi people, however, and they sometimes built dwellings and lived in the canyon in what (according to the brochure) Hopi traditions describe as a migratory cycle.

The Navajo didn’t come on the scene, and into Canyon de Chelly, until the beginning of the 18th century, pushed southwards by more powerful tribes. They were farmers, but also herdsmen who kept sheep and goats. (These animals, like horses, had been acquired through contact with Spanish colonists.) Apparently the Navajos moved in peacefully enough, but later in that century they became involved in wars with other tribes as well as Spanish settlers. In 1805, Spanish soldiers killed 115 Navajo who had hidden in a cave in the canyon wall. (This happened in the northern branch of the canyon—perhaps that’s how it got its Spanish name Cañon del Muerto.) According to Navajo tradition, most of the victims were women, children, and old people. The Spanish lieutenant’s report doesn’t mention this, but of course it wouldn’t.
Canyon de Chelly map
The map at the left shows the canyon and its surroundings. I haven’t attempted to mark our progress, because, as we were driven around the inside, we were too new to the place to know exactly where we were at any given time, and the map shows the two rim drives (from which we couldn’t have deviated even if we wanted to) clearly enough. (Although Navajo Rte 64 continues off the top of the map, Massacre Cave Overlook is the last stop on the part of that road that serves as the north rim drive.)

Our three nights in the town of Chinle, near the canyon entrance, gave us two full days to see the sights. Having spent most of the previous two days driving, we spent most of our first day in Chinle resting. We wanted to see the inside of the canyon before driving around it and looking down from the rim drives. Something I read while planning the trip had suggested that the light would be best if we took the latest tour available, which ran from 4:00 to 7:00pm, so that’s what we signed up for. The only way to visit the inside of the canyon is to take a tour with a licensed Navajo guide—an arrangement made not only because of the shared administration between the tribe and the NPS, but also because some Navajo still live and farm inside the canyon.

Kenneth, the guide who met us at a trading post near the entrance, told us that no one actually spends the whole year in the canyon; they’re there only when the farmland is workable and there’s grass for animals. In the winter they move to their permanent homes outside the canyon. His family is one of those who own some canyon land, and his grandmother, he told us, used to insist on staying in the canyon until autumn was advanced well beyond the point where the rest of the family was ready to leave. We did see fences and fields here and there, but it was very early in June, and we didn’t observe any agricultural activity going on. Of course, we were there late in the day, and I suppose Navajo farmers, like all other farmers I’ve heard of, get up early and do most of the day’s work while city folk are still asleep. Also, the route of our tour ran close to the cliffs, where there were ancient dwellings, petroglyphs, and spectacular rock formations to be seen. Most of the farms may have been off that scenic route.

Kenneth took us in his SUV to see the cliff sights, and told us interesting things about them, but what fascinated us most was his story about how his father became a traditional Navajo shaman and about some of the cures he had worked. Two of Kenneth’s brothers, he said, were currently studying to be shamans. When I asked him about how the Navajo language was doing, he replied that fewer and fewer of the young people were learning it. He also spoke candidly about the malign influence of alcohol (a long-standing curse) and drugs (a relatively new but increasingly serious one) on the younger generations. (Poverty, here as elsewhere, is a gift that keeps on giving.)

The following day, we again followed photography tips about lighting, and drove along the north rim in the morning and the south rim in the afternoon. There’s no easy connection that turns the two rim drives into a loop; when you get to the end of either one, the only practical route is back the way you came. (Unless you’d prefer a drive that looks about three times longer on the map, a good part of it on “unmaintained dirt road.” So we left a long and restful gap between the two excursions, while we waited for the late afternoon sunlight. The views were spectacular, and they also allowed us to see a little more evidence of the farming that goes on in the canyon.

Photo Notes

First, a couple of IDs: #11 in the Inside the Canyon gallery is Kenneth, our guide, who drove us around the canyon in the white SUV he’s leaning on. #20 in the South Rim gallery is a very pleasant lady who had jewelry for sale at one of the viewpoints.
Hogan and shade house frame
#21 in the North Rim section includes a Navajo home, seen from high above. I’ve enlarged that part of the picture here. (Further enlargement would make it too blurry, so nothing happens if you click it.) At the left is a traditional 8-sided house called a hogan (pronounced not like the homonymous Irish surname, but as if it were two words with equal stress: “hoe gahn”). The entrance is always on the east side, so the householders face the rising sun when they come out at the beginning of the day.

To the right is the frame of what the Navajo, when speaking English, call a shade house, a place to shelter from the hot sun in summer. They’re built all over Navajo territory, sometimes in a ramshackle-looking fashion in places where there isn’t much wood available. But the brush thatching put on top every summer makes a decent sunshade, and the open sides admit whatever breezes may happen by.

Tony Hillerman, the late mystery writer whose books have provided a good many of us Secondary Americans with information about what it is to be a Navajo, uses the term brush arbor to refer to shade houses. But when I googled that phrase, I couldn’t find anything related to the Navajo. It seems, however, that brush arbors were similar structures that once upon a time were common in the American south and midwest. They were often constructed (on a rather grand scale, I imagine) to shelter the congregation at a religious camp meeting.
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Site Map
Home
    Navigation and Display
    Where We Went

Colorado National Monument
    Gallery       Notes

Colorado River Valley
    Gallery       Notes

Arches National Park
    Gallery       Notes

Dead Horse Point State Park
    Gallery       Notes

Canyonlands National Park
    Gallery       Notes

Lake Powell Boat Trip
    Gallery       Notes

Canyon de Chelly, Inside
    Gallery       Notes

Canyon de Chelly, North Rim
    Gallery       Notes

Canyon de Chelly, South Rim
    Gallery       Notes

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
    Gallery       Notes

Garden of the Gods
    Gallery       Notes

Faces