October 06, 2023  •  Leave a Comment


This week I would like to take you to the Canyon de Chelly, which my family visited during our road trip around the Four Corners area in 2002. In many ways , this was the highlight of our trip, which is saying a lot when you also get to go to Bryce and the Grand Canyon, among other parks. The reason I enjoyed the canyon so much was that it was off the beaten track, unknown to me before our visit, and allowed a brief glimpse into a Native and very foreign culture.


                                                             SOME OF THE BEST FARMLAND IN ARIZONA BELOW THE RIM

The Canyon de Chelly is deep in the heart of the Navajo Nation and one of the places on the reservation that feels very far away from the modern American landscape. In typical Anglo-Saxon fashion, it's name is pronounced "de shay" which is a bowdlerization of the original Navajo through Spanish with French spelling just to confuse anyone encountering the place for the first time. This crack in the high desert, whose canyon walls protect a micro-climate about 1000 feet and a world away below the flat desert above, has been inhabited by humans for more than 4000 years. The Navajo lived here hundreds of years after the Anasazi people first came here and occupied cliff dwellings in the canyon walls. These "Old Peoples" and then the Hopi lived in the Canyon before the Navajo used the Canyon as a hiding place and refuge from the US Cavalry until they were removed to other parts of the reservation in the 1860's. In many ways one of the spiritual centers of Navajo civilization, the canyon is now a National Monument, jointly administered as a National and Navajo Nation Park. It became a National Monument in 1931, and is run as a park by the Navajo Nation.

                                                               CONTRASTING ENVIRONMENTS

                                                              THE CANYON FROM ABOVE THE RIM

Today about forty extended Navajo families still live in the Canyon. The climate at the bottom of the canyon is like an oasis in the desert, with some of the best farmland in Arizona. The only way to tour the canyon is to take a Jeep tour with a Navajo guide. I rode shotgun in front and the meeting of cultures between Navajo and New York Jew was both strange and delightful. To call it an urban/rural split is to discount two entirely different world views. We revere our history in our built environment, even if its history might be just a second compared to a tenure like the Navajo's in the Southwest. But the Navajo do not preserve any of their built environment - their houses are not inherited, but burnt to the ground when someone dies. Their entire history is preserved as oral tradition, and this New Yorker could not fathom an area where two hundred thousand people lived with no real hint that anyone you did not literally meet that day actually lived in the place. Jewish mothers are legendary, but they do not run a matriarchal society where all property and wealth runs through the mother's line. When a man marries, he joins his wife's extended family, and it is considered a little radical if your mother-in-law will even speak directly to you. My guide could only lead the jeep tours because he had had married into his wife's extended family who farmed in the canyon. When we reached the canyon rim at the end of the tour he nicely pointed out his home in the far distance; I just as nicely pretended that I could see it in the midst of nothingness. He then declared that he was in the process of moving because "it was getting too crowded" near where he lived.

                                                               THE WHITE HOUSE RUINS DWARFED BY THE CANYON

                                                         THE WHITE HOUSE IS LITERALLY PART OF THE CANYON, ABANDONED FOR 700 YEARS

The White House ruins were built and abandoned by the Anasazi people around the year 1300. Only a White cultural historian could begin to explain why we call this cliff dwelling ruin the "White House" - our Navajo guide left us to our own devices since like most of his people he will not go anywhere near a remnant of the Old People.

                                                               SPIDER ROCK CATCHING SOME RAYS

Another highlight of the Park is the 700 foot tall Spider Rock, which is estimated to be 230 million years old. Named after Spider Woman, who taught the Navajo how to knit their exquisite blankets, it suddenly rises up at one bend of the canyon. Canyon de Chelly is such a hidden gem that you can't even see this rock beyond the canyon rim since its top is still 300 feet below the surrounding high desert.                                                               TWO VIEWS OF TREES PROVIDE SHADE IN THE CANYON

I hope you have enjoyed these images of the Canyon, and I hope that you someday can find your way there yourselves.. My very limited understanding of the cultures of the Southwest has been heightened by the mystery novels of Tony Hillerman and now his daughter Anne Hillerman, who weave an incredible amount of Indian history and culture through their stories. Tony Hillerman was honored  by the Navajo for his deep understanding and portrayal of their way of life. The only way to read these novels is alongside the historic and contemporary AAA map of "Indian Country" which can guide you through this landscape where GPS etc is still hit and miss at best.