Canyon de Chelly with the best jeep driver ever
Trip Start May 19, 2009
11Trip End Jun 06, 2009
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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
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
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
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.