Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bilaga'ana among the Diné: Canyon of the Curly-Haired Chief

Overview of Canyon de Chelly; from map in visitor center
There's a big chunk of northeastern Arizona (pretty much that entire quadrant) that belongs to the Dine' (the People), or the Navajo. They share their high, windswept desert, multi-hued mesas and buttes, and vivid blue sky with the Hopi, and more recently, us Bilaga'ana, or white people (mostly as visitors). Both the Hopi and Navajo have lived in this area almost continually for centuries (barring the forced migration out, see below). With that sort of history and sense of place, imagine the stories they can tell.

And they do. Stories and tales abound, many handed down verbally over time to family and clan. Some, however, are etched in rock as petroglyphs, others are painted on the vivid red and tan canyon walls with a mineral powder mix as pictographs--and these stories seem to be the most magical of all because in many cases, it's up to our imagination to determine their meaning.

Both cultures merge in Canyon de Chelly ("de shay"), just outside of Chinle. While fully on Navajo land and managed by the Navajo people (and National Park Service) as a national monument, Canyon de Chelly has both Hopi and Navajo history, as well as Anasazi, who inhabited this canyon long before these relative newcomers.

With friends Sharon and John, Bruce and I took a guided tour this past weekend. To travel along the bottom of the canyon, you must be accompanied by a certified guide. There are other options for visitors; one is to drive the two roads along the periphery of the canyon on the top; and a second option is to hike down to the famous White House Ruins (any calendar of the southwest will probably have a photo of White House Ruins) which gives some sense of the splendor that awaits when you're in the bottom of a red rock canyon looking up. We chose the guided tour, as that would offer more opportunities to see ruins, petroglyphs, and pictographs.

Our guide, Delbert George (he went by George), was eager to share his wealth of stories and information about the canyon. To become a guide, he had to undergo an interview process that tested his knowledge of the geology, cultural history, and current management of the park. He also had to answer such questions as "which family lives at the base of the big rock by the tree stump, and which family owns that peach orchard at the curve of the river by Two Owls rock?" The guy knows his stuff, for sure.

To make a centuries-long story short, the Anasazi, a prehistoric Pueblo people, lived--and flourished--throughout the Four Corners region in the American southwest from about A.D. 1 to 1300. Then, from reasons not totally understood even today, they essentially vanished across the land. Much of the rock art here, as in other areas, are from the Anasazi; but there is also early rock art from Navajo and Hopi peoples scattered throughout the canyon. Most, if not all, of the very cleverly-designed pueblo dwellings (adobe and wood) were constructed by the Anasazi, and found on ledges, nooks, and crannies that seem to be impossible to reach. You see later, as Delbert George would point out, small indentations signifying hand and footholds along the canyon walls to access these dwellings. How did they get the materials up there to begin with? How did they haul water and food up there while scrambling up a vertical wall using only fingers and toes? It's a marvel of human grit and the determination to be safe and survive.

Had it not been for both the rock art and the solid foundations of their structures, they would be unknown to us, as the next people to arrive and inhabit this canyon came 200 years after the Anasazi left. Archaeologists popped in and out, when allowed, to conduct formal inventories of the cultural resources in the canyon around the early 1900's, around 1965, and in the early 2000's. By the end of the 1965 survey, about 430 sites in total were documented. The latest survey in about 2004 found about 1,000 more sites. Even now, archaeologists estimate only 65% of the entire canyon has been surveyed. More treasures remain to be found.

Perhaps the most famous ruins in Canyon de Chelly:
White House Ruins, named for the almost-gone
white wash on the original walls
Those people to arrive 200 years after the Anasazi left were the Hopi, and then later on the Navajo. The Hopi are a part of the larger Pueblo native culture, while the Navajo are descendants from the early Athabaskan peoples migrating slowly from the Bering sea and dividing into the tribes of interior Alaska/northern Canada/Pacific northwest; and the Navajos and Apaches of the American southwest (the Navajo and Apache languages are surprisingly similar). Living rather peaceably with each other with a few skirmishes here and there, but eventually wanting the canyon to themselves, the Navajo finally ousted most of the Hopi over time. Adding their own brand of rock art, they recorded ceremonies, historical events, cultural markers, and tokens of daily life.

Canyon de Chelly is just one area in the homeland of the Dine', which stretches between four mountain peaks in the Four Corners area, all considered sacred: Blanca Peak (Sisnajini) and Hesperus Peak (DibeNistaa) in Colorado; Mount Taylor (Tsodzil) in New Mexico; and the San Francisco Peaks (Dook'oosliid) in Arizona. To subdue the Navajo (who used Canyon de Chelly as a stronghold) when the Bilaga'ana arrived, a certain Colonel James Carleton led a campaign to remove the Navajo entirely away from their homeland to force them to "forget" their heritage. He engaged Kit Carson to lead this effort in 1863--which they called the "scorched earth campaign." Thousands surrendered and were gathered at Fort Defiance, and then forced to walk nearly 400 miles to Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico.

Map of Four Corners area showing Navajo place names

A little closer
After four years of imprisonment at Fort Sumner, even U.S. soldiers recognized the inhumane conditions under which the Navajo suffered, and began to contact Washington D.C. officials to end this incarceration. In 1868, the Navajo Treaty allowed the Dine' to return to their land. This entire experience is known as the Long Walk Home.

Even closer; see Chinle and east of that, "Tse' Yi'"
or "Chelly" as we dumbed it down
Canyon de Chelly was one of these areas the Navajo called home. The canyon became divided into eight large clan-based plots, each managed by a chief; seven of these areas were for Navajos; one remained under Hopi ownership. One Navajo chief was named for his curly hair, the Navajo pronunciation sounds like a guttural and mouth-clicking "tsst-ayi", which over time morphed into "Chelly." So the literal translation of this incredible place means Canyon of the Curly-Haired Chief. Canyon de Chelly became a national monument in 1931, encompassing 83,840 acres (about 130 square miles). It lies solely on tribal lands; the National Park Service essentially manages the walls of the canyon; their jurisdiction ends at the bottom of the canyon walls. As such, about 40 families with historic and documented ties to the land remain in the monument's three canyons, earning a living through farming and livestock grazing.

I was under the perception that the Navajos and Hopis aren't...well...the best of friends. This notion was dispelled by Delbert George, who said with a flourish "oh, that feud was so overblown," and proceeded to relate the story of two warring families a decade or two or three ago (the details escape me as I was already hypnotized by all the stories I was hearing), Navajo and Hopi, one whose daughter married the other one's son. They couldn't decide where to live--on Navajo land, or on Hopi. Court case followed, a lot of angst, bad feelings, people lining up on both sides, and absolutely no agreement; the judge decreed he would divorce the couple. Each had to return to their respective families, and the families had to stay away from each other permanently. Almost made the Hatfields and McCoys seem tame.

As we tour the canyon, we see families tending their crops and sheep grazing in pastures. Orchards of fruit trees pepper the creek flowing through the canyon. It is a well-lived and well-loved place.

Grazing in the shadow of pre-historic ruins,
how cool is THAT?

Riding up and down the canyon, visiting ruins and rock art sites, talking with craftsmen and women, listening to Delbert George relay story after story--it was a memorable day. However, I think it will be the moments of silence, when just the breeze and cottonwood trees talked to me as I pondered these ancient drawings and homes, that I felt the most connected to this place where red rock, blue sky, and green trees meet, and where the conversations of the ancient Anasazi may be heard if you listen closely enough.


  1. Great blog Sue! Truly enjoyed reading it and seeing your beautiful pictures!

  2. Sue, I felt like I was on this trip with you. Your narrative made the photos speak. Thanks for putting this together and sharing. Liz

  3. Sue, I felt like I was on this trip with you. Your narrative made the photos speak. Thanks for putting this together and sharing. Liz