Canyon de Chelly with the best jeep driver ever

Trip Start May 19, 2009
Trip End Jun 06, 2009

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Flag of United States  , Arizona
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Our last guided tour!  Canyon de Chelly National monument, which is on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona,  We were picked up at the motel by a battery of four jeeps and Navajo guides and driven through two canyons: Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto.  Sightseeers can drive along the rim overlooking the canyons, but entry into the bottom of the canyon requires authorized Navajo Guides - ours was Eleanor.

We drove across the floodplain of the canyon, intercepting and crossing the shallow, meadering river dozens of times.  There had been some flash floods recently, and there were still stretches of water across the sandy floodplain.  Eleanor, known for her driving skills (and speed), navigated around and through the water expertly, pointing out landmarks, archaeological sites and contemporary Navajo habitations and farms as she went.

The two canyons are full of both Anasasi cliff dwelling ruins and petroglyph sites - too many for even the Navajo to name.  We stopped at some, but others were just pointed out as we drove by.  Eleanor said they had all been investigated by archaeologists.  The canyons are part of the Navajo reservation, but the Navajo have an agreement with the National Park service to maintain the areas not being farmed, and to manage the sites within the canyons.  The term 'Anasasi' is being phased out, as it is a Navajo term for 'enemy ancestors' - the Puebloan peoples prefer 'ancestral Puebloan'.  I will use it here only because it is the term used by the Navajo guides. 

The two largest Anasasi sites we stopped at were Antelope House and White House.  The White House had two sets of ruins:  one at the base of the cliff, and more in a cave just above,  including a structure which still had whitewash on it's walls.  This site is the only place where people can hike down into the canyon without a guide.  There was a little canteen there, with washrooms, and the locals had set up tables with jewellery and crafts for sale. 

Antelope House had a series of pictographs of antelope above the site, beautifully depicted in browns and whites.  They were my favorite of the sites in the canyon.  The ruins were at the base of the cliff, and had remains of dwellings several stories high.  There was an interpretive description at the base which I'll include in the photos.

The sites were all fascinating, especially the pictographs.  But the best part of the trip was the stories our guides told us about the early historical conflicts that the Navajo had with the Spaniards and then the US Army. 

Eleanor showed us a cave within the canyon, and told us that the Canyon del Muerto was named for a massacre that occurred there when the Spaniards were coming through the area.  She said a Spanish priest won the trust of the Navajo people, but when he became familiar with the area he drew a map of the canyon, and passed this on to Spanish soldiers.  They used the map to venture into the canyon, looking for gold.  They arrived at a time when the men were away hunting, so when the women and children heard they were coming, they hid in one of the caves high in the cliff face.  But the group was discovered when one of the women made a noise as they went by.  The Spaniards couldn't climb  up, so they called up to the Navajo to come down until one woman went halfway down the cliff to negotiate with them.  One of the soldiers manged to climb up to where she was, and eventually the two got into an altercation (my guess is he was trying to force her down to the sodiers).  A struggle ensued, and the two fell to their deaths.  The Spaniards then started shooting up at the Navajo.  Their guns were not powerful enough to reach the Navajo, so they climbed out of the canyon and shot at them from above.  The Navajos were caught in a hail of ricocheting bullets, and they were eventually all killed.  When the men returned from hunting, they found the bodies of their families - with their ears cut off.

The second historical event the guides told us about was the infamous 'Long Walk' - a Civil War period attempt by the US Army to relocate the Navajo people to a reserve at Bosque Rodundo, several hundred miles away.  Kit Carson was commissioned to round them up and force them to the reservation, using a scorched earth tactic - burning the Navajo fields and homes and slaughtering their livestock, and shooting anyone who resisted being relocated.   Word spread down the canyon, and a group of Navajo stocked food at a high mesa (now called Fortress Rock), and hid there.  They were discovered, and the army camped at the base of the mesa.  They weren't accustomed to climbing canyon walls, and any attempts were met with a hail of rocks.  Thinking that the Navajo must be short of food, the soldiers build large campfires and cooked bacon, hoping the smell would tempt the people down.  But the Navajo had a good stock of food.  They were short of water, so when the army  slept, the Navajo formed a bucket brigade down the back of the mesa to haul water up to the top.  Accounts differ as the how this seige ended - our guide said the soldiers ran out of supplies and started to starve themselves, so they moved on.  But when the people came down, they found their fields and livestock destroyed, and were eventually forced to move out of the canyon and join the long march to the makeshift reservation.  Many people died of starvation and exposure and exhaustion on the march.  The few rations they were given were unfamiliar foods - coffee beans and white flour.  Many more died from trying to eat the coffee beans and inadequately cooked flour paste. 

They didn't fare much better at the reservation.  There was inadequate housing, and the weather was harsher than in the canyon.  The wood and brush in the area was too scarce for the number of people herded there, and the search for firewood soon became a long walk itself.  The crops they planted were destroyed year after year, first by cutworms and then by consecutive years of unseasonable frosts.  After 4 years, the people on the reservation were in a state of abject poverty and misery, and the government got tired of requests for aid from the reservation.  Plus, the white settlers in the canyons weren't successful in establishing farms there.  So a treaty was signed allowing the remaining Navajo to return to their homeland, granting them a reservation including Canyon the Chelly and Canyon del Muerto.  The Navajo reservation is now one of the largest reservations in North America.
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deannekristin on

Hi Kit!!
Your trip sounds amazing!!! Not sure if you are home by now, but the photos were stunning and it sounds like you traveled with some really fun people too! Kris and I just got back on June 16th, so I'm playing catch up with mail etc. Hope you enjoyed your trip thoroughly!! Talk to ya later....


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