Historic Canyon


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Published: November 21st 2012
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White House RuinWhite House RuinWhite House Ruin

White House Ruin, the largest Ancient Pueblo structure in Canyon de Chelly
Many areas of the southwest show artifacts from layers of history.

Ancient Pueblo ruins, old Spanish buildings, Victorian houses, and much else populate the area.

Northeast Arizona unusually shows multiple layers of Native American history, first of the Ancient Pueloans and then from the Navajo.

The Navajo are relatively recent arrivals, having migrated from the northeast in the 1500s.

Very few spots on the reservation are as crucial to both groups as Canyon De Chelly, where I’m going today.


Canyon de Chelly




Visitors have two main options for seeing the canyon.

They can drive roads along the rim and stare down from multiple overlooks.

While the views are dramatic, they are all at a distance.

The other option is a tour with a Navajo guide.

These are pricey, but worth it for the close views and Navajo perspective on the canyon.

The most popular are truck tours organized by Thunderbird Lodge, the so-called “shake and bake tour”.

The name refers to the rough roads and lack of shade.

The “bake” is less of an issue today, because the sky is still clouded over from yesterday’s cold front.





The canyon starts out
Canyon de ChellyCanyon de ChellyCanyon de Chelly

Typical view of Canyon de Chelly. The trees are all cultivated by Navajo. Note the tire tracks in the wash, the only access to the canyon
rather dull, a wide wash in a shallow wide canyon.

The walls then climb, and keep climbing.

Once it looks like a proper canyon, it forks.

Canyon de Chelly is really two canyons, Canyon de Chelly to the southeast and Canyon del Muerto to the northeast.

‘de Chelly’, incidentally, is an English corruption of the Spanish corruption of the Navajo name for the canyon.





We headed southeast.

Soon afterward, the reason behind the prohibition on independent tours becomes readily apparent.

The floor of the canyon is covered in fields.

The path is almost entirely in the wash itself to avoid them, which gives an incredibly rough ride.

Hogans (see yesterday) appear in places in the fields.

Like Monument Valley, the hogans are only used for ceremonies at this point.

Our guide mentioned that Navajo farm the canyon because plants grow here better than elsewhere on the reservation; the walls provide shade and the canyon retains water.





Our guide stopped at a panel of petroglyphs.

Rock art appears throughout the canyon, and a guided tour is the only way to see it.
Refuge mesaRefuge mesaRefuge mesa

During wartime Navajo took refuge on this mesa. Kit Carson starved them out in 1863

This particular set shows recognizable Hopi clan symbols, making this another site they passed through on their long migration to Black Mesa (see Land of Iconic Dreams).





Notably, our guide described the clans as ‘Anasazi’.

Once widely used to describe Ancient Pueblo groups, it means ‘ancient enemies’ in the Navajo language.

For obvious reasons, current pueblo groups object to that label, hence the name change.

The Navajo in fact may have fought the Hopi and other tribes when they first migrated to the region, but archeologists have no evidence of this.


White House Ruin




Pueblo ruins start appearing soon afterward.

All are located in alcoves in the walls.

They are much smaller than those I saw elsewhere, small clusters of rooms or single granaries.

A few of them are bigger.

We stopped at the largest of them, White House Ruin.

It really was white at one point; the whitewashed walls still appear on some back rooms.

Unusually, it was built in the alcove and extended onto the canyon floor.

It holds about a dozen rooms, the same size as a small ruin, such as Spruce Tree House, at
Antelope House RuinAntelope House RuinAntelope House Ruin

The largest Ancestral Pueblo ruin in Canyon del Muerto
Mesa Verde (see Ancient Civilization).





Since the ruin is popular, Navajo run a concession stand nearby.

Food is cooked on an open fire.

It’s not cheap, but it is authentic.

This is the first genuine Navajo cooking I’ve had since the powwow nearly a month ago (see Old Traditions in a Modern World).

A few craft sellers sit near the food area.





After White House Ruin, our guide drove into the northern branch, Canyon del Muerto.

The name is unfortunately very appropriate, because ‘muerto’ is Spanish for death.

Navajo hid in the canyon when the tribe battled other groups, such as Ute raiders.

It worked well until a Spanish force led by Antonio Narbona showed up in 1804.

They had guns.

A large group of Navajo had climbed to a nearly inaccessible rock shelf now called Massacre Cave.

The Spanish ricocheted bullets off the canyon walls above and turned the rock into a bloodbath.





Halfway up, the canyon contains a mesa shaped like a ship’s bow.

It has steep walls on all sides.

The Navajo also took refuge on this
Massacre memorialMassacre memorialMassacre memorial

Part of the Navajo art memorializing the Spanish massacre in the canyon
mesa during times of war.

Anyone trying to climb it is fully exposed, and the Navajo on top shot them with arrows and other missiles.

In 1863, the US Army ordered Kit Carson to round up the entire Navajo tribe and move them to a reservation in New Mexico in retaliation for years of raids.

That included the Navajo in Canyon del Muerto.

Kit Carson surrounded the mesa with troops, and simply waited for the Navajos’ food supplies to run out.

The Navajo call their subsequent exile “The Long Walk”, their version of the Cherokee Trail of Tears (see The Majesty of Trees).


Antelope House




The tour ends at the largest ruin in this canyon, Antelope House.

Unusually, the ruin sits on the canyon floor instead of an alcove; otherwise it looks like a slightly smaller version of White House Ruin.

The real reason it’s important is the large panels of rock art nearby.

One has a large petroglyph of an antelope, the source of the name.

A newer one shows figures on horseback, including one in black with a small white cross.

This is Navajo art, memorializing the massacre by the Spanish.

The figure in black is something
Spider RockSpider RockSpider Rock

The sacred home of Spider Woman in Canyon de Chelly
first seen with that group, a Franciscan priest.





I drove the rim road above Canyon De Chelly after the tour.

The canyon itself looks more dramatic from above, but the ruins look worse.

They are much further away and hard to spot.

Cultivated areas really stick out from the viewpoints, a sea of green surrounded by red rock.


Spider Rock




The most notable natural feature occurs at the far end of the canyon.

Two tall thin rock spires reach nearly to the rim.

They are more impressive from above, showing the height.

The Navajo call them Spider Rock, and venerate them as the home of Spider Woman.

This major Navajo deity taught the tribe to weave.

More darkly, she also kidnaps children who break sacred rules and leaves them on top of the rock.

The Navajo must be quite good recently, because I didn’t see any 😊





All of the major overlooks have vendors selling crafts.

It’s an unfortunately side of reservation life in many ways.

Making a living by other means in this desert is tough.
Gift from the GodsGift from the GodsGift from the Gods

Rain and double rainbow in the desert, the literal source of life.






After Canyon de Chelly, I headed east.

Clouds gathered, and the sky opened up again.

As noted above, in a desert rain is the literal source of life.

It probably appropriate, then, that afterward I saw another double rainbow.





The road passed through Window Rock, another spread out desert town.

This one is surrounded by sandstone outcrops.

One of them contains a perfect oval window that used to have a spring at its base.

The spring became a gathering point for tribal members, and gave its name to the town.

The Navajo Nation now uses it for its capital.

The outcrop sits in a hard to find park.

A large monument appears alongside, to the most important military heroes to ever come from the Navajo Nation, the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II.

As noted two days ago (see Land of Iconic Dreams), when the Marines recruited tribe members because they could speak Navajo, it validated a culture the government had spent the last half century trying to wipe out.





When I crossed into New Mexico, I had
Window RockWindow RockWindow Rock

Window Rock in the town of the same name
to confront a painful case of déjà vu.

Three weeks ago, I planned to go to Chaco Canyon, the most important Ancient Pueblo historic site in the southwest, but had to change plans due to rain (see Rocky Mountain Highs).

The roads to the canyon become impassible mud bogs when wet.

For the second time, I planned to go to Chaco next, and rain has thwarted me.

More is forecast for tomorrow, so once again I have to head elsewhere.

I ultimately drove back to Albuquerque.

Finding a room was much easier this time around 😊

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