There are plenty of cliff dwellings in the Southwest. One — Canyon de Chelly — is unique.
The Diné or Navajo people call the canyon Tsegi (SAY-ih), and clans farm family plots as they have for centuries. Here tour guides tell from personal experience what it is like to live under the shadow of Anasazi ruins.
The walls of Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d’SHAY) have provided human shelter for nearly 5,000 years, the longest uninterrupted human habitation on the Colorado Plateau.
Today ancient cliff dwellings and pictographs hug canyon walls above active Navajo farms, sacred sites and tourists.
The maze-like canyon includes two major defiles forming a Y carved in the landscape, an oasis of water and shade in summer and shelter from blowing red sand.
At the canyon’s mouth, rock walls rise 30 feet; elsewhere they reach 1,200 feet higher.
Established in 1931, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a partnership between the Navajo Nation and the National Park Service. The 84,000-acre park is under the careful watch of the Navajo.
NPS-authorized Navajo guides are required for canyon floor tours, which offer the best view of ruins and pictographs.
A visit here is a conversation with another culture rather than just seeing a painting or diorama in a museum.
The monument is in the northeast corner of Arizona, within the Navajo Reservation, the largest in the United States. The reservation is a semi-autonomous region in three of the four corner states — Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
My wife Linda and I visited the monument last spring, along with three other national parks. After dinner in Chinle, AZ, that included traditional Navajo fry bread, we arranged at the front desk of our hotel for a tour from 9 a.m. to noon the following day.
Our guide arrived, a few minutes after 9 a.m., with her four-seat 4x4 truck, and we were soon churning up the water of Chinle Wash (creeks that flow out of the canyon).
The twisting labyrinth can quickly confuse one’s sense of direction, as the U.S. Army once discovered in the 1860s searching for Navajo.
Guide Eleanor Yoe was sure of the way as she pointed out rocks that revealed animal shapes, a sleeping goose or prowling bear.
The Native American culture has a more personal and spiritual connection to the landscape than scientists. Example: Naturalists call water-darkened rock “desert varnish.” Navajo use a term that translates to “Mother Nature’s hair.”
Each turn in the canyon prompted a fresh story and a few moments of silence to consider the tale. Then Yoe would tell a new story. Her subjects ranged from the amusing to tragic.
Yoe said her grandmother would take care of the children during the summer. They lived in a traditional hogan, an 8-sided house made of 9-stacked logs. Each log symbolizes a month of pregnancy.
Tradition requires the door to face the rising sun in the east. Her grandmother would wake the children to tend sheep.
The Navajo culture is carefully selective about assimilating western culture. Tractors and 4x4 trucks are a common sight in the canyon. Coming from the Central Coast where grass is abundant, the austere life of the reservation is a stark contrast. Tourism is accepted as a way to support the clan. Our guide would preface information from archaeologists with “Scientists tell us” leaving unspoken room for more than one story to account for the mysteries in the landscape.
Some stories were reserved, untold until you asked.
The name of the northernmost branch of the canyon, Canyon del Muerto, memorializes the 115 men, women and children, shot by a Spanish military expedition while sheltering on a ledge above the canyon floor in 1805.
Yoe paused to let this sink in.
We asked about the U.S. military’s history in the canyon. She then told of Kit Carson’s expedition of 1864.
When a group of Navajo took refuge in the canyon attempting to elude forced relocation, two boys were captured by the U.S. Army and tortured.
Water wells were filled, houses burned and peach orchards chopped down.
Scores died as survivors were forced to walk at gunpoint to Fort Sumner, 450 miles east to New Mexico during the winter.
The details were passed down by her great-great grandmother, who marched the Long Walk.
It is a measure of the enduring outlook of the Navajo that they were able to survive and negotiate a return to their homeland with a progressive expansion of reservation boundaries over the years. It also helped that individualistic wheat farming European settlers could not fathom how to live in the beautifully stark landscape.
The reservation now covers 27,425 square miles, larger than West Virginia.
When we finished our tour sometime after noon, we were grateful for having shared time in another world.
IF YOU GO
There is no entry fee but access to the best views inside the canyon require an authorized Navajo guide.
Guided private hiking, camping, horseback and 4-wheel drive options are available. If you have a full day, the upper canyon road is free and offers a different view of the canyon, though views of cliff dwellings are limited.
Only one unescorted walk is open to the general public, the trail to the White House Ruin. You may recognize the white plaster walls on the upper house from photos by Ansel Adams. Carry water; pit toilets are available at the bottom.
We paid $150 plus tip for our guide to drive us in her 4x4 for a three-hour tour. If you have your own 4x4 you can hire a guide for as little as $15 hour. The rates vary according to the type of tour. Check at the Visitor Center to see if there are ranger-led activities.
The monument is open year-round except Dec. 25. Some of the inner canyons are impassable in winter and at certain other times of the year, the NPS says.
Navajo culture values listening; trying to push the pace of a conversation can be counterproductive.
Alcohol is prohibited within the park and Navajo Reservation.
Weather is often ideal in October with fall color and April with spring growth.
Pets are prohibited on the White House Trail and canyon tours (even if you use your own vehicle); they must be on a leash on the North and South Rim Drives and in the campground.
Ask permission before photographing or drawing people. A fee is usually expected.
Watch for livestock on roads.
Lock valuables in the car; the park guide map warns against theft at turnouts.
This is private property; do not hike or drive off established roads without permission. The area is semi-autonomous, with its own governing council, judiciary, police force and flag.