Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Canyon DeChelly

Yesterday, Monday, June 3, we were at Canyon DeChelly.  This is a very special place for the Navajo people, considered a very spiritual place, where many ancestors lived during the Basketmaker and early Puebloan periods, with many of the ruins from the period 700 to 1350 AD.  In the visitor center when we watched the video, much of the accompanying music was flute music by R. Carlos Nakai, and, since I had had the privilege of studying the flute at a workshop he led some years ago, it was quite special for us!  The video was interesting as it spent some time talking about the often difficult struggles of the modern day Navajo people, trying to hold on to traditional ways and beliefs, and how to balance that with their efforts to fit into modern society.  I can only imagine how tough that can be.

This is a place where about 50 Navajo families still live and farm the lands on the canyon floor, following the traditional ways of their ancestors, who raised corn, beans, squash and cotton, and also raised sheep.  There are still some sheep herds here, but many of the sheep farms are fading away.  You can drive along the canyon rim and look down from overlooks, but in order to explore the canyon floor, you have to hire a Navajo guide.  We went to the visitor center and they gave us a list of private tour guide companies authorized to lead tours, and just had to pick one to call and arrange a tour.  Trisha was drawn to one company called Changing Woman Tours, so that's who we called.  Well, it turned out to be quite an experience!  Our guide was a young woman driving a Nissan Pathfinder, which we were happy about, since many of the tours are in open jeeps or trucks configured with seats in the open back, and much of the canyon floor is heavy, deep sand and kicks up a lot of dust.  

Anyway, we knew we were in for a different time when she showed up late and seemed to be somewhat distracted.  At the first part of the tour she was doing a great job explaining some of the history of the ancient peoples in the canyon, taking us to some walls with lots of petroglyphs and explaining her theory of why the ancients made these drawings--her belief is that there were people in these tribes gifted with insight into the future, who somehow knew that there would one day be modern societies here and wanted to leave a visual record of their lives.  Anyway, as the tour progressed, she seemed more and more distracted, and, frankly so out of it that we concluded that she may have been on something.  A couple of times she had to ask us where she had picked us up, as she couldn't remember that she met us at the visitor center.  She was also driving very slowly, as compared to most of the other tour guides, which seemed to be the result of her having to really concentrate on driving.  That was somewhat annoying, but we did get to see several ruins, some farms, and learn about the struggles of the people who live in the canyon.

As we had been approaching this area we had begun to see these round buildings, of different sizes, some that looked like they may be dwellings, some seemed more as outbuildings near more traditional houses.  Some were completely round, some octagonal, some with windows, some without.  When we got to the visitor center there was one made of logs on the grounds of the center.  We learned that these are hogans, traditional Navajo dwellings dating back to the ancient times.  When the Navajos were primarily a nomadic people, they had "male" hogans, rounded mound looking structures, built of mud plastered around a crude wooden frame, very temporary.  Once they began to be more agricultural, leading them to stay in one place longer, they began to build "female" hogans, which were much more permanent.  Today, even when people live in modern houses, many Navajos still build a hogan on their property, as a connection to their past and traditions.  Some use them for spiritual purposes, as a place for meditation, sometimes the elderly members of a family will choose to live in them, some are used just for storage, but they just want to have it on their property.  While there are different materials used today, most of them still have some of the same characteristics as the ones used in ancient times--they are basically circular, which is from their belief that all life is a circle, and have a dirt floor, to emphasize the connection of people to Mother Earth, and the doorway always faces east.  Very interesting!

As we drove through the canyon, our guide explained how some invasive species of trees over the years have grown so thick as to block access to the San Juan River that runs through the canyon, so the animals who depended on the river for water could hardly reach it.  We had learned of this in other parks, particularly about the tamerisk tree, which has a thick root system and the trees just keep getting more thickly embedded with each other.  In some of the other parks they had programs of trying to cut these trees back, as they also will suck up their entire weight in water each day, thus further straining the capacity of the river to support other life forms.  Anyway, here there are salt cedars and Russian olive trees that do the same thing in this canyon.  It's a tough issue, as these trees are pretty, but they do pose a problem.  So here the park service is using some chemical root killer on them to try to speed the process, but the guide talked about how the native people fear the toxic effects of this chemical treatment polluting the air and water.  There is also an underlying resentment of the fact that these trees were introduced into the area by non native people when they came into these lands many years ago.  Very complex, yet interesting to hear the perspective of people whose ancestors have been here for thousands of years.

The ruins were particularly interesting--for obvious reasons you can't get really close to the ruins (when they were first discovered, many sites were plundered by people looking for artifiacts to sell, and to prevent that and further deterioration of the fragile structures, they have the approaches to them fenced off.  These pueblos, often housing a hundred or more people with living spaces, storage facilities and kivas for worship, look somewhat small from a distance, but are actually much larger than they appear when you get closer to them, or look at them through binoculars or telephoto lenses.  They are built high above the canyon floor, on ledges, tucked up under rock shelves, both to offer protection from the elements and from any invading enemies.  It's amazing to see how high up they are, and to realize that, after a day of farming down on the canyon floor, they all had to scale these steep and treacherous rock walls to get to their homes.

Our guide also told us of her grandfather and great grandfather having sheep herds in the canyon, and showed us the place where they would bring the sheep down from the high elevations to the canyon floor after spending the winter up higher.  It was in a place of what looked like completely sheer rock walls, and she said every time she's tried to follow the trail to the top, she sees so many straight drops, it's hard to figure how they did it--made us think of the Mormon Hole in the Rock expedition!

Anyway, after the canyon tour, we drove along the rim road for a while to stop and observe from several of the overlooks.  We noticed a man taking video and narrating into the microphone at some of these, so when we caught up with him we saw on his van a sign about TV filming so we asked him about it.  Apparently his name is David Rush and he has a travel show; we'll have to check it out!

Then we headed from Chinle, making our way toward Taos, and spent last night here in Farmington, New Mexico.  Found a nice small RV park, appropriate named Mom and Pop's, where Pop makes little cast metal toy soldiers and animals, builds model ships and has an extensive model train collection--he was so cute when I checked in--after he took care of the paperwork, he said, "Okay, Santa now it's time for you to inspect my toys and let me know how I'm doing!"  But we were glad to have found it, as we needed the hookups to fill up the fresh water tank.  Today we'll continue on our way to Taos!

Trisha in front of the "female" hogan at the visitor center.
 Some of the canyon walls with rock art

 A lot of these  are faded and more difficult to see

 Foundation remains of a building along the canyon wall
 Holes in the wall where our guide theorized that the ancients used poles to support a roof system over the building built on the foundation shown above.

 Our guide's little horse, Eclipse
 Eclipse's mama
 More petroglyphs

First set of ruins

 Ruins called the White House, as the uppermost structure was whitewashed, for reasons no one really knows

High canyon walls

Looking down into the canyon from an overlook--there was a lot more green on this canyon floor than in some of the others we'd visited--the San Juan River flows through this one.

Hogan down on the floor, in a farm site

 Looking down on the White House ruins

 Some of the vendors, Navajo jewelry, pottery and weavings for sale--one woman from whom Trisha bought some jewelry, hikes down to the canyon floor every day, while others drive their pickups.

Beautiful patterns fashioned in the rock by water over millions of years--playing around a little here with some camera settings to try to get more definition and color contrast.

 Driving out of Chinle into New Mexico
Namesake of the little town of Shiprock!


  1. Nice pictures-brings back some great memories.

    1. Thanks, Chuck. This really is a pretty special place, isn't it?

  2. check out the Canyon de chelley video on the david rush travel show at youtube.com/davidrushnet or www.davidrush.net