Canyon de Chelly is an open air museum and an ancient art gallery, where art is etched on the canyon walls and encompasses thousands of years in history. Visiting Canyon de Chelly, located on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, has been my old dream. This remote place has an inexplicable allure because it hosted generations of Native Americans for about 5,000 years. It has been their spiritual and ancestral home, and it is closely connected with their religion and beliefs. My dream came true on my birthday. We spent two days in Canyon de Chelly. Our visit included a jeep tour with a Navajo guide.
The first people who lived in Canyon de Chelly, from 2500 B.C. to 200 B.C., are called Archaic people. They were hunters-gatherer. The next group of people, called Basketmakers, inhabited the canyon from 200 B.C. to 750 A.D. These people were farmers. After them Pueblo people settled in the canyon from 750 to 1300 and Hopi Indians from 1300 to 1600. These people were also farmers and hunters. Navajo people, who belonged to Athabaskan group of Native Americans, migrated from Alaska and settled in the canyon in the 1700s.
We learned this history and much more from our Navajo guide, Dilbert Wilson from Beauty Way Jeep Tours. He introduced himself and said Hello in the Navajo language Ya’at’teeh, which I tried to pronounce correctly but was not successful. He drove us around the canyon in his red jeep. The ride was quite bumpy at times as we made our way through the sand and dirt of the canyon floor.
Dilbert is a professional guide and a history buff by trade but also an avid bull rider on the weekends. He told us that he and other members of his family often travel to the Apache Reservation to compete in rodeos with other bull and bronco riders. Our guide told us how the Navajo fought with Spanish troops and Utes, about Kit Carson’s brutal campaign, about the Long Walk and the internment in Fort Sumner and finally, about the Navajo’s return to their land in Canyon de Chelly. We passed peach orchards and hogans, which Navajo still live in today. In fact, there are about 80 households in the canyon. Our guide showed us many petroglyphs. He talked about almost every petroglyph: what does it mean and what historical era it belongs to. We learned a great deal about Navajo customs and culture during our tour as well.
The first stop was near a shallow cave on the ledge of a cliff, where Native American women came to give birth. There are lots of petroglyphs on the walls and ceiling of the cave, such as positive and negative handprints, a snake, a man-frog, Kokopelli playing his flute, and human figures. Our guide explained us that positive handprints are the handprints of departed people whereas negative handprints were left by people still alive. Kokopelli, according to a legend, is a travelling god, who entices women by playing his flute and makes them pregnant. Our guide told us how to distinguish petroglyphs that belong to the Archaic period from the art created by Pueblo Indians and Navajo.
Next to the cave is a ceremonial place where Kinaalda, a puberty ceremony, took place. During this ceremony a girl has to grind grain on an ancient grinding stone and run twice a day for four days. Each time she runs a longer distance in order to be a strong and agile woman. During this ceremony the girl has to identify herself with the Holy Changing Woman. It is considered that during this ceremony the girl also gains Changing Woman’s healing and regeneration powers. In the end of the ceremony a corn cake is baked in an oven, dug into the ground. The girl treats the guests with cut pieces of the baked cake, giving her blessing to each guest.
Changing Woman, according to Navajo legend, represents the changing cycle of nature, where spring is birth, summer is maturity, fall is aging, and winter is death. Unlike humans, when new spring comes Changing Woman is reborn. Her mother is the Earth and her farther is the Sky. Her birth was planned by the First Man and the First Woman and they raised her. Four days after her birth she reached puberty and holy people summoned Talking God, who performed the first ceremony of puberty for Changing Woman. A few days later she met a young man, who was the inner form of the Sun. She got pregnant and gave birth to twin boys: Monster Slayer and Born for Water. After her first birth, when her sons grew up, Changing Woman created four couples from pieces of her skin. These four couples became the ancestors of all Navajo people.
At the next stop we caught up with Dilbert’s nephew, who guided another group of tourists. He demonstrated the ancient art of throwing an atlatl, which was first used about 30,000 years ago. It is a spear, thrown from a shaft and was more powerful than simply throwing the spear by itself. Our atlatl thrower successfully hit a yucca roughly one hundred feet ahead of him three times out of four under the cheerful applause of all spectators.
This second stop was next to a high cliff that separated two branches of the Canyon, where hunting took place. There were lots of petroglyphs from different time periods depicting running deer and hunters chasing a herd of animals. There was a figure of a conquistador on a horse and also two Navajo horseback riders hunting a deer.
Our guide told us that hunting was done in a few stages. Hunters took turns while chasing a herd of deer or antelope. When a horse of one hunter got tired, another hunter, who was waiting nearby, took over the chase. Then, a group of hunters stood in line to block the fleeing deer and divert them into a box canyon.
Typically, the hunters let the first animal run away, but killed the second one and those thereafter. A thankful prayer was read over the animal’s body in order to ask permission of the animal’s spirit to use its meat and skin for their own needs. This would let the spirit of the animal progress and reincarnate in another world. If the skin of the animal was intended to be used for ceremonial purposes, the hunters forced a tired and fallen animal to breathe corn pollen instead of shooting it with an arrow. The animal suffocated and the skin was preserved.
There was a petroglyph that looked like the number eight. It represents the four seasons and perpetuity. There was also a figure of a shaman, performing a rain dance. The shaman is holding a snake, which represents lightning. Other petroglyphs included etched images of a ceremonial belt, bracelets and a rattle.
Another interesting petroglyph that our guide showed us was a symbol of life. It looked like two semi-circles connected by a vertical line, which was crossed by five horizontal lines. This symbol represents the creation and evolution of life cycles and is one of the most important concepts in Navajo myths. According to legend, the semi-circles at the top and the bottom represent the Earth and the Sky. The horizontal lines represent five different worlds. The first line from the bottom represents the first world. It was black and was inhabited by insects and the Air-Spirit people. The second world was blue and was inhabited by birds. The third world was yellow and it was the home of the six sacred mountains and the Holy people. The fourth world was white. It was there that the First Man and the First Woman built their first hogan to live in and the Sun, the Moon, and the stars were created. The fifth world is the present day world and combines all the colors mentioned above. There is much more to this legend, but there were more stops ahead and we drove to the next stop.
Our third stop was called the first ancient Indian ruins, because it was the first ruins you come when traveling down the canyon from Chinle. Our guide told us that these ruins were a home to two different groups of people from forty to sixty members each. They decided to join their forces in order to gain more protection. This ruins had two round kivas, one for each group. Here men would get together for religious ceremonies or to discuss the next hunting trip. There are also the remains of a granary, perched on a ledge to the right from the living quarters.
Our fourth stop was at the junction of Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly, where there were ruins called junction ruins. They were much smaller than the first ruins. Here traders could ask for directions and for an occasional overnight stay. These ruins contained fifteen rooms and one kiva.
The fifth stop was White House ruins, the most impressive in Canyon de Chelly. There are two sets of dwellings: one was built on the ground at the foot of the cliff, another was built on a ledge of the cliff inside an alcove. Top dwellings have a high rising wall inside, covered with white plaster, hence the name. Archeologists think that the walls of the ground level dwellings were so high that they reached the upper White House dwelling on the ledge. These ruins served as a fortress for a tucked away ancient Pueblo settlement. The White House ruins were built by Pueblo Indians and used between 1060 and 1275. It has about eighty rooms and four kivas.
The walls of the canyon rise about 600 feet high at this point and have different hues of orange, terracotta, beige and brown colors with dark gray and black vertical streaks. It looks like someone spilled a dark paint from the top of the cliff. The dark streaks are called desert varnish which was caused by deposits of manganese oxide and iron.
We drove by a Navajo hogan and our guide told us that it’s a female hogan. The walls are built of nine logs, representing the nine months of pregnancy. A male hogan looks like a teepee and has a pointed top.
The last stop was at a site with petroglyphs etched on the canyon wall. There was a man with hands, which looked like crab’s pincers, a woman dressed in an apron, a dog, a dancing shaman, hand imprints and different squiggles.
We did not notice the entrance to the narrow tunnel at first, which looked like a crack in the cliff. We walked through the tunnel with only a narrow strip of sun light coming from the top high above. However, we could see how the walls of the tunnel were carved into intricate web-like patterns by the wind. It looked like swirls of sand blown away from the top of sand dunes by the wind. Water and erosion chiseled deep diagonal wrinkles into the strata of the walls. The sunlight contrasted by shade emphasized every groove and knot on the walls creating an elaborate design. The tunnel was about two feet wide and our guide told us that he would follow and push us through the tunnel if we got stuck. That was a good joke!
He also pointed out more petroglyphs on the wall of the tunnel, which we would miss otherwise. There were animals and a symbol of a snake. After we came out of the tunnel, our guide showed us an image of two people, who were depicted upside down on the canyon wall. There is a legend about “the place where two fell off.” But this will be the story for the next post.
The ruins told us about what the people lived in but the petroglyphs told us about how they lived.