I began this road trip hiking the red rock canyons of St. George, Utah. Turning north from Tucson, towards my home in Colorado, the stunning red rock Canyon de Chelly National Monument beckoned. I stayed two nights at the Thunderbird Lodge on the grounds, managed and run by Diné (the Navajo name for their people) to enjoy a full day exploring the site.
The Navajo Nation covers over 24,000 miles, mostly in Arizona, spreading beyond over the Colorado and New Mexico borders. The canyon, starting just east of the town of Chinle, cuts through about forty miles, splitting into Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto. On the eastern end, the walls tower over one thousand feet above the floor. The Diné called the site a long name beginning with Tséyi’ (SAY-ih) which means “rock canyon.” The Spanish heard that word as Chelly (Shay).
Jeep trip tours are required to enter the canyon these days. Cut by strong streams and washes, it’s understandable. The water flowing through the canyon was barely passable in sections and there are floods at some times of the year. In the morning, I rode, with Ben, an older Navajo man who lives in the canyon with his family most of the year. I had chosen to book this tour because the website claimed it was a with well-known Navajo storyteller. I was disappointed that his father came instead, saying that his son works mostly in the office booking tours, running the business. Ben was not very talkative at first, so I asked a lot of questions and he loosened up, telling me about history and life in the canyon. Their small home stands by the ruin called Antelope House in Canyon del Muerto, where the touring jeeps turn around. His family makes fresh fry bread and sells snacks and their own jewelry and crafts. I bought a small necklace with a turquoise stone made by the grandmother. Present day Diné farm and raise sheep and other livestock.
The photos in this post were taken from the canyon floor during that jeep ride, amid the shapes sculpted by water and wind. In the afternoon, I took the South Rim drive looking down into the canyon. In some cases, I’ve shown a broader view of where the petroglyphs appear and then a closer look.
Native people have lived in these canyons for almost five thousand years. Some of the images painted on its walls date back to the earliest itinerant peoples. Later, the Basketmaker group built rock structures on ledges and mesas, and began farming corn and beans. About twelve hundred years ago, the Pueblo people, also called Anasazi, a Diné word for ancient ones, built multistoried villages and kivas, their spiritual and meeting rooms. I’ve climbed into their structures years ago at Mesa Verde National Park in the southwest corner of Colorado. Although some groups left for other areas, many of these people are believed to have became Hopi, and later Navajo settled there. My tour guide said the Navajo came down from Alaska after a long journey.
In one of so many tragic, heartrending stories of the American West expansion, the U.S. military under Kit Carson pushed into the canyon in 1863. Most inhabitants were captured or killed. Canyon del Muerto, Canyon of Death, is named for those who lost their lives. Surviving Navajo were forced to walk over three hundred miles, known as The Long Walk, to a holding fort in New Mexico; many died along the way. Released in 1868, the canyon dwellers returned to find everything destroyed. They established trading posts which helped them to recover.
Life in the canyon today
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