Canyon De Chelly

A Measure of Time

By Jay W. Sharp

I heard a raven call from a nearby grove of cottonwood trees, his insistent crock, crock echoing off the red sandstone walls of Canyon de Chelly, in northeastern Arizona. I could see the first light of the dawn of the summer day shining softly through the walls of our tent. I could hear Martha, my wife, breathing quietly, still asleep. Soon, I heard Gary Henry, a Navajo friend and our guide, begin to build the morning fire. We had camped on his family’s land in the canyon, not far from a sheep pen built under a rock overhang where people of the Puebloan Anasazi tradition had painted stars on the roof centuries earlier.

Reluctant to give up the comfort of my sleeping bag, I thought about a story Gary had told us around our campfire the night before. In 1863, his great great grandmother had made the “Long Walk” – the Navajo equivalent of The Exodus – from her home in Canyon de Chelly eastward across the desert to the U. S. Army’s Fort Sumner concentration camp on New Mexico’s Pecos River. Driven by the foul conditions of imprisonment and by the incessant call of her homeland – the Dinetah – the young woman, pregnant at the time, escaped Fort Sumner. Eluding army search parties and civilian slavers, she made a hard and lonely trek across the desert back to her canyon. On the way, utterly alone, the young woman delivered her child, a little girl, who would become Gary Henry’s great grandmother.

I remembered that he told us about the Navajo sheep dogs, which shepherd the flocks of the canyon. (Earlier, we had seen an older dog and a half-grown pup with a flock of sheep in the canyon.) A good, well-trained dog takes his sheep to pasture in the canyon every morning. He keeps them from straying through the day. He protects them from predators. He drives them home at night. The mature and experienced dogs mentor puppies, teaching their young students the art of herding and protecting the flocks.

I thought, too, about the afternoon before, when we had seen, directly above the canyon, a “sundog,” a colorful optical phenomenon caused by the refraction of sunlight through ice crystals in the atmosphere. We had seen a look of concern on Gary’s face. “Something bad is going to happen,” he had said. I had dismissed his comment at the time. Sundogs couldn’t foretell trouble. Could they?

I crawled out of my sleeping back and out of our tent. The sun had just risen above the canyon walls, its first light rimming the grove of cottonwood trees. It soon cast its rays over the canyon’s sculpted sandstone formations. With Gary, we would continue our exploration – begun the previous day – of Canyon de Chelly. We would see more of the cliff dwellings built and then abandoned by the Puebloan Anasazi people centuries ago.

The Geologic Past
Nature used water flowing from 9000 feet high in the Chuska Mountains to the east as her primary instrument for sculpting Canyon de Chelly and its branches. Like a consummate artisan, she cut and ground and smoothed the canyon complex from a 200-million-year-old, cross-bedded formation of Sahara-like sand dunes that had consolidated into solid stone. She used water trapped and frozen in fissures as an instrument to wedge rock slabs away from the mother formation, exposing more surfaces to be worked and shaped into new creations in stone.

Tsaile Creek cut the northernmost branch – Canyon del Muerto – or Canyon of the Dead. The Chinle Wash creek cut the largest branch, Canyon de Chelly itself. (The name “de Chelly” is a Spanish corruption of the Navajo word “tségi,” or “rock canyon.”) The two westward-flowing, intermittent streams join forces near the Navajo community of Chinle, where they issue from the canyons and often die in the desert sands.

Standing Cow ruin, in the Canyon del Muerto branch of the Canyon de Chelly canyon system.

From a high-flying aircraft, the Canyon de Chelly complex looks much like a 1000-foot deep, 20-mile long track of some giant primeval creature. From the canyon floor, the complex feels like a stupendous sculpture garden, enveloping you with monumental spires, sinuous sandstone walls, large niches, natural windows, secluded alcoves. Its walls bear stains that look like ragged black and red tapestries—the products of runoff laden with manganese and iron oxide leached from strata near the rim. Canyon de Chelly vests its inhabitants and its visitors with a sense of reverence and awe.

The Human Story
In a trip through Canyon de Chelly, you will be drawn first to the Puebloan Anasazi cliff dwellings, small villages sequestered in alcoves near or well above the canyon floor. “…I saw a little city of stone asleep…” said Willa Cather in The Professor’s House, after she saw one of the cliff dwellings. “It all hung together, seemed to have a kind of composition: pale little houses of stone nestling close to one another, perched on top of each other, with flat roofs, narrow windows, straight walls…”

“Such silence and stillness and repose—immortal repose.”

The cliff dwellings, however, represent only one, relatively late, chapter in the long story of man’s presence in Canyon de Chelly. Human communities have felt themselves drawn to the canyon for thousands of years, from the times of small nomadic bands to early village farmers to Puebloan cliff dwellers to the historic Navajos.

Canyon De Chelly

Spider Rock, in Canyon de Chelly.
The Navajos believed that Spider Rock was the home of one of their most important deities. 

Paleo Indians – Although the archaeological evidence is sparse, occasional small bands of nomadic big game hunters – Paleo Indians – surely passed through the Canyon de Chelly region in their restless search for prey late in the Ice Ages, perhaps 8000 to 12,000 years ago. They drove their spears, tipped with superbly chiseled points of stone, into the great animals of the time. They camped near their kills, cutting the meat from the bone, eating their fill in celebration, then moving on to hunt again. Some archaeologists suggest that the Paleo Indians may have contributed materially to the extinction of the big game.

Archaic Indians – As the Ice Ages drew to a close and great animals fell into extinction, nomadic bands came to depend less on game and more on wild plants for their survival. Called “Archaic Indians,” these groups apparently passed through the Canyon de Chelly region in seasonal treks calibrated to the ripening of the wild plants. They still hunted game, for example, deer, antelope and rabbits, but they turned increasingly to harvesting the produce of grasses, shrubs, cacti, trees and other plants to meet their needs for food, medicine, tools, containers and ritual offerings. They apparently lived in rock alcoves, temporary shelters and open campsites, then moved on once the wild plant harvest was done. Late in their history, they probably began to experiment with the idea of agriculture, planting corn seeds casually for possible harvest should a future opportunity arise. For seven millennia or more, they lived in a world of cultural stability and in exquisite harmony with nature, never exhausting critical wild resources.

Basketmakers – A few centuries into the first millennium, people of Canyon de Chelly emerged as true village agriculturists, according to Pat Fall in her article “The Anasazi of Canyon de Chelly,” which appeared in the School of American Research Annual Bulletin Exploration, in 1986. They raised crops of corn, an ancient domesticated plant developed in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico from a grass called “teosinte” some 8000 year ago. They began planting gardens of squash, also domesticated in Mexico. They kept dogs and raised turkeys. They lived in pithouses – structures of logs, brush and clay built over shallow excavations – within the caves of the canyon. They buried their dead in nearby bins that had previously been used for storage. They cached surplus food in the natural niches of the canyon walls. Skilled artisans, they developed the craft of basketry to such an extent that archaeologists dubbed them the “Basketmakers.”

Midway through the first millennium, the Basketmakers of Canyon de Chelly added beans and cotton to their suite of crops. Always hunters, they adapted the bow and arrow, an innovation that some archaeologists suspect may have come from the north. In addition to weaving elaborate baskets, their craftsmen began making pottery, an innovation that most archaeologists think came from the south, from Mexico. They continued to live in small pithouse hamlets in the caves of the canyon. Amidst their lodges, they built a larger pithouse-type structure that may have functioned as a center for village community activities and ritual and that may have served as a prototype for future Puebloan kivas, or ceremonial chambers. They began to build some small storage structures on the surface of the ground for use in banking surplus corn, beans and squash.

Puebloan Anasazi – While the Basketmakers established a firm foundation for village agriculture, their cultural progeny, the Puebloan Anasazi, introduced change to Canyon de Chelly with glacial slowness. In the 8th century, suggests Fall, the emergent Anasazi evidently followed a lifestyle similar to that of their immediate predecessors. They did, however, begin to build their lodges with sandstone slab and jacal-type walls, foreshadowing later Puebloan construction. (Jacal walls comprise adjoining upright posts interwoven with sticks and plastered with mud.) Although the population size did not change appreciably over the next two or three centuries, the canyon residents began to move to the “city,” abandoning their small hamlets for larger villages, possibly to make better use of water resources and arable land during a prolonged drought. They built their new homes, not over pits, but on the natural surface of the floors of the larger caves, raising either masonry or jacal walls—another step toward full Pueblo-style construction. Remaining true to their ancestry, they still built large pithouse structures, not as lodges, but rather as kivas in the front of their villages. Meanwhile, their artisans breathed new life into the design and production of their ceramics.

Sheep pens, built in rock shelter.
There are Anasazi pictographs, of stars, on the roof of the shelter.

As the drought gave way to increased rainfall in the middle of the 11th century, the Anasazi of Canyon de Chelly intensified their farming, increasing their harvests of corn, beans and squash—the classic trio of Puebloan farming in the Southwest. They grew more cotton for their looms. They gathered more produce from the wild plants such as pinyon pine nuts, cactus fruit and beeweed. They intensified their hunting, especially for rabbits, and for deer, antelope and mountain sheep. They opened trade routes with their cultural cousins, the Anasazi of the fabled pueblos of Chaco Canyon and of the towering cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. In a hundred years, their population doubled, then doubled again.

Then, in the middle of the 12th century, the drought returned. The residents moved to still larger communities, adding new living quarters, new work and storage rooms and new ceremonial chambers to make way for the growing populations. Possibly, they coalesced in order to make better use of their workforce, the arable land and the diminishing water supply. They apparently welcomed emigrants from Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, former trading partners who had been swept up in the widespread and poorly understood phenomenon of Puebloan abandonments and relocations underway across the Southwest. The Chaco Anasazi, evidently, introduced the architectural design concept of multistory buildings with massive walls built of stone rubble cores enclosed by stone masonry veneers in Canyon de Chelly. The Mesa Verdans likely introduced the notion of a central room block with a stately multistory tower that was square or rectangular in cross section.

The Anasazi of Canyon de Chelly and their new neighbors from Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde had scarcely completed their new and expanded cliff dwellings – their “houses of stone nestling close to one another, perched on top of each other, with flat roofs, narrow windows, straight walls…” – when they began the cycle of abandonment and relocation anew, probably migrating south or south and east. They may have sought to escape drought, resource depletion, regional marauders, disease or some unknown factor. Or they may have been attracted to other areas by new cultural ideas, new religious ideals, a new political system, new economic opportunity, new leadership, more promising land or, again, some unknown factor. In any event, by the end of the 13th century, the Anasazi people had simply walked away and left their homes in Canyon de Chelly.

“Such silence and stillness and repose—immortal repose.”

Navajo – We don’t know just when the Navajos came into Canyon de Chelly. According to tribal tradition, they arrived in the region centuries before the Puebloan people left. According to a confusing archaeological record, they may have arrived considerably later, perhaps after the Puebloan abandonment, possibly as late as historic times. In either event, the Navajos would make Canyon de Chelly their own. They may have come originally as Athabaskan-speaking bands of a nomadic hunting, gathering and raiding people. At some point, reflecting the influence of the Puebloans, they took up agriculture in the canyon. “They lived in roughly built forked-stick ‘male’ hogans and grew patches of corn, beans, and melons,” said Raymond Friday Locke in his The Book of the Navajos. Later, capitalizing on the introduction of sheep and goats by the Spanish, they became pastoralists. Their lives revolved around their flocks and their horses. They lived in snug circular or polygonal, domed “female” hogans in the winter. They drove their animals to distant pasturage in the summer. They raised weaving of their wool to the level of art. They made their famous wool fabric goods a currency at frontier trading festivals. They believed that Spider Rock, twin 800-foot high natural spires in the canyon system’s main branch, served as the home for Spider Woman, one of their most revered deities.

The Navajos took refuge in Canyon de Chelly – a natural fortress – during the inevitable conflict and violence that arose as the Spaniards, then the Mexicans, then the Americans pushed the frontier steadily westward, into tribal territories. Navajo raiding parties retreated to the canyon after striking and plundering the intrusive settlers. Navajo warriors used canyon vantage points to fight off military expeditions and Ute, Comanche and Apache raids while women and children huddled in the canyon’s many secreted stone shelters.

Navajo pictograph of Spanish expedition into Canyon, probably early 19th century

The Navajos also knew disaster in their canyon. On a snowy day early in January of 1805, one of their villages suffered a surprise attack by Spanish Lieutenant Antonio Narbona and his military expedition deep in Canyon del Muerto. As they retreated in the snow, the warriors swiftly hid their families in a cave high up the canyon wall. Narbona’s men discovered the hiding place, and “they finished off the Navajos, the aged, hysterical mothers and crying babies, to the last person,” according to Locke. Since the slaughter, the Navajos have called the place “Massacre Cave.” The Navajos fought off raids by the Utes, who sought not only plunder but also women and children to satisfy the thriving slave markets along the upper Rio Grande settlements. Finally, in 1863, the Navajos of Canyon de Chelly came under siege by an expedition led by Kit Carson. By now, the Navajos, ragged and malnourished, had been “badly worn down by…repeated wars and raids; soldiers had destroyed their crops and run their herds off,” according to David M. Brugge in his article “A Military History of Canyon de Chelly” in the 1986 issue of Exploration. They gave up. They – including Gary Henry’s great great grandmother – began the Long Walk east to the concentration camp at Fort Sumner.

The Record in Stone – From Archaic through Navajo times, the residents of Canyon de Chelly chiseled or painted realistic and abstract figures on the stone surfaces that surrounded them. The Archaic through the Anasazi peoples left images that suggested a deep concern with what the preeminent Southwest rock art specialist, Polly Schaafsma, called “a world of spirit powers to which they related through shamanistic specialists…” in an article in the 1986 issue of Exploration. The Navajos of Canyon de Chelly left images that reflected not only their concern for the spirit world but a record of their history as well.

Exploring Canyon de Chelly

You have various options for exploring the canyon, which is administered jointly by the National Park Service and the Navajo Tribe.

You can, without a guide, drive from Chinle over two paved rim roads that take you to turnouts with overlooks of the canyon and the Puebloan Anasazi ruins. One road, Highway 7, takes you along the south rim of the major gorge, Canyon de Chelly itself. It passes the head of a 2 _-mile-long trail (originallyguide at Canyon De Chelly an Anasazi pathway) that you can hike, without a permit or a guide, down into the canyon to the cliff dwelling known as White House ruins. Highway 7 ends at an overlook with a stunning view of Spider Rock. The other road, Highway 64, takes you along the rim of the northern branch, Canyon del Muerto. It leads to turnouts with overlooks of some of the most spectacular ruins in the Canyon de Chelly complex.

You will be required, by the park service and the tribe, to be accompanied by a Navajo guide if you wish to explore the canyon from the floor, within the walls. You can join guided four-wheel-drive, horseback or hiking tours, which take you, not only to the larger cliff dwellings in the canyon, but also to some splendid panels of rock art, and to some powerful and graceful sculptures in sandstone. You can take private tours with a guide, although you will have to provide a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

As a courtesy, you should ask the Navajo people for permission to take their photographs. In the interest of preserving the archaeological record, you must leave any artifacts in place, the rock art untouched. No one may enter the fragile ruins, a rule the Navajo guides enforce strictly because they feel a deep sense of responsibility for the prehistoric heritage of Canyon de Chelly.

With Gary Henry as our guide, we drove from Chinle first up the floor of the Canyon de Chelly branch, to Spider Rock, which we had seen the previous day from the Highway 7 overlook. From its base, Spider Rock, which stands on the canyon floor like a sentinel, towers a third again higher than the Washington Monument.

As we drove back down Canyon de Chelly, we stopped at the foot of a high cliff, where we could see the trunk of a ponderosa pine tree leaning against a ledge. The Navajos had used it as a ladder to ascend the cliff, seeking refuge from Kit Carson’s soldiers in 1863. With binoculars, we could see piles of stones along the edge of the top of the cliff. The Navajos had intended to use the stones as missiles if Carson’s soldiers should try to follow them up the cliff. Finally, overwhelmed with hunger and thirst, they had to surrender.

Continuing down Canyon de Chelly, we stopped at several cliff dwellings: Sliding Rock Ruin, which has several dozen rooms and four kivas built at the top of a long, sloping ledge; Tse'-ta's ruin, which rests on a site occupied from the time of the Basketmakers through the last of the Puebloan peoples; and the most memorable, the 13th century Mesa Verdan White House ruin, which lies in an alcove near the floor of the canyon, beneath a sandstone wall that rises vertically for perhaps a 1000 feet. It was here that we had seen the sundog that had so disturbed Gary Henry.

After we spent the night encamped on Gary’s family land in the canyon, we began the drive up Canyon del Muerto, knowing that we would climax our trip with a stop at the ruin at Mummy Cave, one of the largest, and perhaps the most famous, of the cliff dwellings in the canyon. We paused at Antelope House, a 13th century ruin with four dozen rooms and four kivas. It is distinguished by the figures of four antelope painted on the canyon wall by a Navajo artist. We came next to the Standing Cow cliff dwelling, which lies in virtually complete ruin, although it once had more than five dozen rooms as well as three kivas. Nearby, there is a stone female hogan with a large cow with a blue head painted on the canyon wall. We passed Big Cave, a Basketmaker site that has yielded an archaeological treasure trove of normally perishable artifacts.

Mummy Cave ruin, in the Canyon del Muerto branch of the Canyon de Chelly canyon system.

Finally, we came to the Mummy Cave ruin, located directly across the canyon from Massacre Cave. Named for well-preserved burials found within the ruin, Mummy Cave, with 70 to 80 rooms, lies on a ledge 300 feet above the canyon floor, nestled in immense twin alcoves. The site was occupied for a full millennium, from early Basketmaker times to the Puebloan Anasazi abandonment.

As I set up my camera, I realized that Gary Henry was examining the ruin very carefully through binoculars. “Some people are in the ruin,” he said. “They’re hiding. They’ve been picking up artifacts.” Martha and I could see the anger in his face.

He summoned them down. They complied sheepishly. A young woman, wearing a park service uniform, appeared to be their leader. She claimed to be a summer intern, doing research. Gary spoke to her and her followers very quietly. They quickly left, disappearing up a trail, heading for their vehicle.
“I knew something bad was going to happen,” said Gary. We remembered the sundog at White House ruins the day before.

With the day winding down, we started back to Chinle. We drove past the lofty sandstone walls and the ruins without commenting. At length, the lowering sun painted the sculpted canyon in reddish gold. Finally, Martha broke the silence. “This is a beautiful place,” she said.
“You should see it in the autumn,” said Gary.


There are motels in Chinle, AZ, three miles from the monument's entrance. For more information and a complete list, click here. (Rates, availability and reservations online.)

Canyon de Chelly National Monument
P. O. Box 588
Chinle, Arizona 86503
Ph 1-928-674-5500
FAX 1-928-674-5507

Canyon de Chelly package


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