Ancient cliff art tells of life and death in Canyon de Chelly

  • Chinle, the town at the mouth of the canyon, is named for a mispronunciation of a Navajo word meaning “where the water comes out.”

By Judy Nichols

The day we entered Canyon de Chelly, in mid-May, water, lots of it, was flowing through the canyon.

“Usually, by mid-April, the water has dried up,” our guide, Daniel, told us. “This year, we had more than 15 inches of snow. Last year, we had none. I can’t get my tractor in to plant the corn on my mother’s land. My cousin’s bringing his tractor in today. Maybe tomorrow I’ll take the day off to try.”

Both sides of Daniel’s family have lived in the canyon for three generations, growing corn and tending orchards of apple, peach, pear and plum. His mother has two, 5-acre fields and about four acres of orchards. The land, about an hour-and-a-quarter drive into the canyon, has passed from Daniel’s great-grandmother, to his grandmother, to his mother, always to the oldest female in the family.

As a child, Daniel would climb sandstone cliffs, which rise up to 1,000 feet and hold treasures of Anasazi ruins, petroglyphs, pictographs, ladders used to escape marauding U.S. Cavalry, and caves that still bear chips from the bullets of Spanish conquistadors who killed 115 defenseless Navajos.

“For me, it was a 131-square-mile playground,” Daniel said. “My grandparents told me not to climb, but that just made me want to do it more. Now, I tell my kids to go do it, and they say, ‘You’re crazy.’ You know, reverse psychology.”

The Canyon, now a National Monument, is run jointly by the Navajo Nation and the National Park Service. According to the National Park Service website, it preserves evidence of people living here for more than 5,000 years, starting in campsites, then pit houses. From c. 750 to 1300, the Anasazi, or “ancient ones,” started building multi-storied villages with rectangular stone houses up in the cliffs. They, and those who came after, decorated the cliff walls with paintings and petroglyphs.

To drive or ride horseback through the canyon, you must hire a Navajo guide. Daniel took 10 of us on an open-air, six-wheel-drive vehicle that would splash, grind and slide its way through the flowing water, mud and quicksand of the canyon floor.

We left from the town of Chinle, which is a mispronunciation of a Navajo word that means “where the water comes out,” the mouth of the canyon. Canyon de Chelly, is another mispronunciation of a word that means canyon of rock. The canyon is part of the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners area, and is one of the longest continually inhabited landscapes in North America.

Most of the 40 Navajo families with land in the canyon, live and farm there only in the summer.

“Winter is too cold,” Daniel explains. “There is no water, no electricity. If you have a lot of money, you can buy solar for power. But I like to keep it simple, cook over the fire, keep it pitch black, no lights.”

For Daniel, life in the canyon is a respite from the modern world.

“When I have a lot in my head, a lot of bills to pay, I come and just work,” he said. “I come out of the canyon refreshed. It’s like therapy.”

He said people often come to the canyon to meditate.

“They say the canyon has a lot of energy.”

Daniel began giving tours when he was 15, and has been doing it for more than 28 years, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

He tells how the Anasazi came here and began growing “the three sisters,” corn, squash and beans. They left more than 750 ruins, pictographs and petroglyphs. Eventually, they disappeared, some believe because of prolonged drought and persistent enemies. Four tribes can trace their history to the Anasazi: the Hopi, Pueblo, Acoma, and Zuni.

The Navajo, who are not related, are Athabascan, migrating from Asia across the Bering Strait and settling in the canyon about 1500 or 1600.

Daniel shows us petroglyphs (images made by chipping away the desert varnish caused by minerals on the canyon walls) and pictographs (images painted on the rock).

There is Kokopelli, the priest or god of fertility, lying on his back, playing his flute. There are circles, the Anasazi representation of the life cycle and yellow dancers. Zig zags, which means water, or echoes in the canyon, short or long.

Daniel whoops to show us how his voice echoes back and forth, back and forth, back and forth against the canyon walls.

There are hand prints, positive, where a hand is dipped in paint and pressed onto the rock, and negative, where the hand is placed on the rock, and the paint blown around it.

The pictographs are white, yellow and red.

According to a book on the canyon by Scott Thybony, the dyes are made with ground minerals, mixed with binders of animal fat or vegetable oils and painted on using brushes made from yucca fibers or animal fur. Daniel said they also used pine pitch. There are images that represent the clans now present in the Hopi tribe: a bear paw, snake, coyote, and snake dancers. There are dogs and turkeys, which the Anasazi domesticated.

One image shows hunters on horseback chasing down a deer, which they would run through the trees until the deer tired and they could catch it.

The canyon is filled with juniper, pinon pine, oak, box elder and coyote willow. Navajos gather pinon nuts, and use the wood for cooking and making cradleboards.

The tribe and National Park Service are working together to remove Russian olive and tamerisk, which were introduced by Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s to stop erosion, but have taken over, killing out native plants.

The canyon holds mountain lion, black bear, mule deer and elk.

The ruins left by the Anazazi were built high off the ground, often a 60-to-70-foot climb, higher now because the canyon bottom is much lower. Up on the cliff face, they were protected from predators and enemies. The sites were also chosen to protect from rain, wind and snow, and to take advantage of sun in the winter and shade in the summer. Some of the dwellings are three stories high, and all were built with rocks hauled from the canyon floor in baskets carried on their backs.

About 13 to 16 Anasazi lived at Junction Ruins, a dwelling at the junction of the north and south branches of the canyon, Daniel said. They were between 4 and 5 feet tall and lived 30 to 35 years. The doors at Junction Ruins have a sill about three feet off ground, possibly to keep out predators and enemies and to keep kids from falling off the cliff.

At this junction, Canyon de Chelly becomes the south fork. The north fork is called Canyon del Muerto, or Canyon of Death.

We stop at the White House, “the good one” Daniel says, which was built and lived in from 1060 A.D. to 1275 A.D. It is named for the white plaster that coated the long back wall.

Farther up the canyon, we come to Antelope House, named for the beautiful bounding antelopes along its walls. These were painted by Navajo artist Dibe Yazhi, or Little Lamb, in the 1830s. Antelope House was a ground-floor trading place, and archeologists found items from Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and Mexico, including feathers from peacocks and parrots.

Deeper in the canyon, we reach Fortress Rock, which holds great significance for the Navajo people, Daniel explained.

When Col. Kit Carson was sent by the U.S. Army to round up Navajos in January of 1864, thousands of them retreated to the top of this rock, which is 800 feet high and 1,000 feet wide. The soldiers came through the canyon, destroying dwellings, burning crops, chopping down thousands of fruit trees and killing livestock.

When they got to Fortress Rock, they camped at its base until the Navajos were starved out, then took them to Fort Canby. They were force-marched in groups of 200 through snow and freezing temperatures to the Bosque Redondo Reservation at Fort Sumner in New Mexico, more than 300 miles away, in what Navajos call The Long Walk. About 200 Navajos died of starvation and exposure along the way.

Four years later, the Navajo signed a treaty and were allowed to return to Canyon de Chelly. They began the long walk home on June 18, 1868.

“They started over from scratch,” Daniel said.

We head back to the junction and up Canyon del Muerto, named for a massacre by Spanish conquistadors. In January 1805, the Spanish soldiers came into the canyon in response to Navajo raids. Women and children hid in a cave, high up the canyon wall, but the Spanish discovered them. They fired from the ground, the bullets ricocheting of the cave ceiling like pinballs until 115 were dead.

Today the spot is known as Massacre Cave.

At Standing Cow Ruin, named for another Little Lamb painting of a cow, you can see pictographs of the Spanish soldiers, one wearing a red cape with a cross, and two white circles, which Daniel says tells the story that it took two days to kill the 115 people.

Daniel voice quiets as he relates this story of death, and he tells us how he has taught his children the Navajo ways, using cedar and corn pollen in blessings.

Each morning, they greet the sun as it rises in the East.

“My 15-year-old daughter sings in the morning about walking in Beauty Way, asking the blessing of the sun,” he said. “She gives thanks to the sun, asking it, ‘Protect me, the things above me, below me, behind me, ahead of me. Help me keep going all day.”

And he sings, his voice drifting up through the sun-speckled canyon.

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