Canyon de Chelly

The Future of a Sacred Past

By Gregory McNamee

Canyon De Chelly National Monument

Joseph Campbell, the famed student of mythology and religion, once called Canyon de Chelly "the most sacred place on Earth."

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, who had a few ideas about the sacred himself, concurred. He added that Canyon de Chelly, a complex of wide chasms in northeastern Arizona, was the only place he knew outside of the Valley of the Nile that so truly embodied the very essence of antiquity.

Sacred and ancient the place is, to be sure. But I got the sense that change was coming to timeless, storied Canyon de Chelly when on a visit there late this winter, a young Navajo artist asked me whether I knew anything about the Internet. I'm no expert, I told him, but I do quite a lot of my work these days in cyberspace. "Interesting," he replied. "I'm just learning how to write HTML. I'm going to put up a home page sometime this year to advertise my jewelry business, Spotted Antelope Designs."



Adam Teller, the artist, smiled when I remarked that his house, located a few miles inside the Canyon just across from Antelope House Ruin, lacked electricity. "Yeah," he said, "I thought about a satellite uplink to get around that problem, but that started running into big money. I'll just have to drive into Flagstaff every few days and check my e-mail on my friend's computer. It'll be good to keep track of my customers in Europe. I won't have a phone or a fax, but I'll have the web."

Horse getting a drink

Teller is one of several hundred Navajos whose families have lived within the Canyon for hundreds of years. The sturdy stone house where he and his wife live has been in his family since 1868, when the federal government designated Canyon de Chelly part of the Dinetah, the Navajo Nation. Stone is the dominant motif here: in Canyon de Chelly stone pillars vault hundreds of feet in the air, flanking stone cliffs and stone mesas. The very name of the place is a Spanish mispronunciation of the Navajo word tsegi, "standing rock."

Wonderland of Standing Rock

Occupying 131 square miles, Canyon de Chelly National Monument (which encompasses Canyon de Chelly, Canyon del Muerto and Monument Canyon) contains more than 800 known archaeological sites -- places that, while much younger than the Egyptian pyramids, lend authority to Campbell's and Jung's ideas about the ancientness of the place.

Rock art in the canyon

Most of those sites mark spots where the forebears of today's Pueblo Indians, known by the Navajo name Anasazi ("enemy ancestors"), lived; some of them, ranging from simple pit houses to many-storied pueblos, date to the 4th century A.D. The Navajo came to Canyon de Chelly about 300 years after the original ancestral Puebloans had migrated late in the 13th century, when a regional drought caused the small river within it to dry up. (The river now runs for most of the year, exiting the Canyon at the little town of Chinle, "the place where the water flows out.")

Visitors can get a sense of Canyon de Chelly's ancient history by following two scenic routes, the 36-mile-long South Rim Drive, with eight overlooks, and the 34-mile-long North Rim Drive, with four overlooks.

South Rim Drive

The first on the South Rim Drive is Tsegi Overlook, which offers an Canyon De Chelly National Monument acrophobiac's nightmare view down a 500-foot canyon face. The third, White House Overlook, offers access, via a 2.5-mile, round-trip trail, to a heavily visited Anasazi cliff dwelling; if you're in good shape, you can make the trip in a couple of hours, and it's the only inner-canyon hike for which you don't need a permit. At the end of the South Rim Drive, Spider Rock Overlook takes in a view where the Canyon walls fall off more than 1,000 feet, just across from a slender, 800-foot-high monolith called Spider Rock. There, in Navajo belief, lives Spider Woman, the master of another kind of web entirely, who taught humans the art of weaving.

Upon looking at Spider Rock, you'd believe that only a spider could in fact negotiate its heights, although it's said that humans have scaled it. The Navajo take a dim view of heaven-taunting enterprises like climbing within the Canyon, however. They have good reason to. On a visit to Spider Rock Overlook a few years ago, a man named Ronnie Nez remarked to me that the Navajo Tribal Council had voted to ban hang-gliding within the Canyon.

"The insurance load must have been pretty heavy," I, ever the Anglo, volunteered.

"No, it wasn't that, really," Nez said. "It was just too expensive to have to hire medicine people to exorcise the ghosts every time someone crashed."

North Rim Drive

The North Rim Drive offers a view of Antelope House, located at the point where Canyon del Muerto and Black Rock Canyon come together. There, a Navajo artist drew a stunningly beautiful series of pictographs of running antelope, paintings that later inspired some of Adam Teller's subtle jewelry designs. Eight miles up the road is the famous Mummy Cave Overlook, giving a view of an ancient pueblo that owes its name to a group of mummified corpses found inside.. Nearby Massacre Cave Overlook is a reminder of more recent deaths, those of 100 men, women, and children slaughtered by Spanish soldiers in 1805.

Natural gas fueled flatbed truck

Inner Canyon Tours

The best way to see Canyon de Chelly is from within, however. To do so, you'll need to rent or bring your own four-wheel-drive vehicle and hire a Navajo guide; stop by the visitor center at the Canyon's entrance to make arrangements. The rate for a guide is usually about $10 per hour for a single vehicle.

You can also take a motor tour of the Canyon by signing on at the Thunderbird Lodge, a good place to stay if you're not inclined to camp out, and the site of a better-than-average cafeteria. Led by Navajo guides who drive a fleet of natural gas-fueled flatbed trucks frankensteined into ungainly buses, these tours venture into the Canyon on half-day (about $35.00) and full-day (about $57.00) trips. Canyon entry gives you the opportunity to see the ruins up close, and to learn about the area from people who know it well.

You may even get a chance to talk about the internet and insurance premiums while you're taking in the ancient sights.

Getting There

To reach Canyon de Chelly National Monument from Flagstaff or Albuquerque, take I-40 to Chambers, then U.S. 191 north to Ganado, where the road detours west for 6 miles. Continue on U.S. 191 for another 47 miles to Chinle. The entrance to Canyon de Chelly National Monument lies 2 miles east of Chinle, Arizona on Indian Route 7.


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