Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly National Monument Travel Blog

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9.28.08 Canyon de Chelly         


Yesterday we rode all over the Hopi Reservation, which is beside the Navajo Nation (Navajo is the largest in the U.S.).  Sallie, our GPS, directed us to a very muddy, wet, dirt road - we sat at the junction of it and our current paved road and watched a truck with horse trailer jack-knife the last 50 yards.  They surprisingly made it.  We waved over the truck behind them - he kindly confirmed that we needed to retrace the last 15 miles to stay on paved roads to Canyon de Chelly, since the road was wet. 


Most of the roads on the Hopi land were not paved, so we had to go the long way around to stay on state-maintained paved roads.

  We didn’t mind though because the country was magnificent with long vistas of beautiful plains, high mesas, red rock, and sometimes people on horseback.  It was the “Indian country” of my dreams.


We made it to the beautiful and free campground in Canyon de Chelly, complete with fresh water and sani-station.  Californian Lazy Daze owners, Dave and Rose, were camped nearby - we were excited that they too are headed to the Balloon Fiesta next week.


Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “Shay” in the French way- they think it was a mispronunciation of the Navajo name) is a Navajo Nations land that is still inhabited today.  We are within the “Four Mountains” of the Navajo tribe, with about 130 clans in the tribe. 


The Navajo Nation runs Canyon de Chelly in conjunction with the National Park Service as a National Monument.

  Today, there was a forum at the campground amphitheatre to discuss whether the Navajo people can be in charge of their Canyon, rather than the NPS.  We were busy exploring the south rim of the canyon and did not attend.


Last night we enjoyed a Navajo Park Ranger’s presentation in the campground.  The talk was supposed to be on Pictographs (where ink or color soaks into the rock to form a picture) and Petrographs (where the “desert varnish” or manganese is chipped away to leave a picture).  However, she kindly took questions about the Navajo people and we learned so much!


She told us her personal introduction that she gives in the Navajo language (which is still spoken today, along with English for most tribal members).  Her intro includes her four clans:  mother’s clan, father’s clan, paternal father’s clan, and paternal mother’s clan.



Why in that order?  Because Navajos, as with the Hopi and Cherokee tribes, follow a maternal lineage.    The mother’s maternal lineage is already known in her name, since that remains the same through the generations of daughters.  When a woman marries, the man moves to live with the woman’s family.  Land is passed to the daughter.  If there is more than one daughter, the youngest daughter inherits the land, as she presumably will live the longest.  It’s the exact opposite of the Euro-American tradition.  Jazy, who is really into her book about woman’s right to vote (Pioneer Doctor), thinks this is terrific!  (Did you know that women did not get the national right to vote until 1920?  Good grief!)


Our Ranger mentioned that introductions of one’s four clans frequently resulted in meeting more relatives- that was the good news.

  The bad news was that she had to skip dating a lot of men because they turned out to be related to her!


She also provided us a paper that indicates meanings of Navajo symbols so that we can understand the pictographs and the symbols in their baskets and pottery.  Very cool!


Yesterday we also enjoyed the Navajo language on 660 AM radio and the native music (along with Country music) that apparently is broadcast nationally and online.  It is worth finding and listening to this fascinating music, which reminded us of the native music we heard at the Cultural Heritage Center in Anchorage, AK.


Also interesting was the confirmation that native American people from northern Canada spoke similar dialects to the Navajo people here.

  We shared that Mr. Robert Assassi near Ft. McPherson at the Gwich’in Visitor’s Center, Northwest Territories, Canada had told us the same.  It is terrific when our learning comes full circle!


Four is a special number for Navajo people:  4 clans, 4 seasons, 4 sacred mountains, 4 directions, after 4 tries then it is probably not right for you to try again, etc


Hogan- is their traditional log and earthen home with the door opening always to the east- they also knew the earth was round before Columbus ever sailed


It was the Navajo language that was used in World War II to communicate and Japan never broke it, as it can be a very difficult language.

  The book “Navajo Code Talkers” looked interesting in the bookstore, but a little too vivid regarding the war to buy for Charles.


The Visitor’s Center was great - we saw a wonderful movie and good exhibits, including the actual handwritten treaty between the Navajo people and the United States.  Fascinating and protected behind glass! 


Also, a man was there hand-making sterling silver jewelry.  I had read about him in our “Guide to National Parks in the Southwest” and he turned out to be our Ranger’s Dad, Mr. Gary Henry.  Ned sweetly bought me (he learned later) a beautiful sterling silver necklace with turquoise from the Sleeping Beauty turquoise mine in Arizona and signifies clarity of mind and the South mountain of the four.  An eagle feather signifies protection.  On the reverse is a red coral jewel with a bear claw, the symbol of courage and strength.

  Jewelry, where the artist shares how he designs and creates it, is a treasure to me because it also contains the memory of a terrific experience.


Cultural:  We learned through printed Visitor’s Center material that cultural differences between the Navajo people and Euro-Americans include (briefly summarized):  minimal eye contact, conversation, expressed enthusiasm, and body contact with Navajo members.  Hand-shakes, if done at all, are gentle.  If visitors do not realize this, one can feel unwelcomed and disliked.  Honestly, Navajo people do have plenty of historical reasons for disliking Euro-Americans and Lia was really glad she was off the hook!  J  I’m glad I got the book about Mexican culture to read in advance.


We visited all the overlooks on the south rim today.  The canyon is below the view of the surrounding land, so it is really powerful to look over the edge of the stunningly beautiful red rock canyon, with lush greenery in the bottom.


It is illegal for visitors to go on Navajo land within the canyon without a paid Navajo guide.  However, there is one exception and we hiked down the “White House Ruins Trail” for 2.5 miles to ancient cliff housing.  While it was a stiff walk uphill 600 feet elevation, we were proud that we could do it without much effort, which is an improvement.  Since we were racing sunset, speed was a good thing.  Lia, on the way down, was leading the hike and walked past (within 18” of) what I think was a young, diamondback rattlesnake!  Thereafter, I led the hike.


The hike was gorgeous as we hiked across graceful, wind-carved sandstone, through rock tunnels, across the canyon floor, and to within 20’ of the ancient cliff dwelling.

  I preferred the accessibility of the ancient cave homes in Bandelier, near Santa Fe, NM, (where you can climb the log ladders and hang out in the actual cliff houses and down into ceremonial kivas) but this was also terrific.


One is not allowed to take pictures of the Navajo people, their houses, or personal property without permission.  If permission is granted, a fee is also usually expected (this is in the printed material).  The Canyon is their backyard and tourist numbers have increased significantly in the past 20 years.  I cannot blame them for wanting a sense of privacy (many people believe a picture takes a part of their soul). 


The canyon itself provided a beautiful setting for terrific pictures, although the sweet desert smell, the gentle wind, and the peace of the place cannot be captured on film.  It is a place of history, spirit, and life.

  We’re so glad we got a chance to visit this unique place.


After visiting over 30 National Parks, today for the first time the kids obtained info on the Junior Ranger program and LOVED it.  After a lot of finger-pointing about why we previously chose not to even *explore* the program, we all felt like idiots.  Needless to say, we hope to communicate better and encourage a spirit of adventure when we travel. 


Charles and Lia enjoyed reading the simple information, doing the extensive crossword puzzle, and picking up trash along the roadside (they each filled a provided bag).  Check out your national parks AND the Junior Ranger program.  You might get free park pencils, a badge, and 15% off your bookstore purchases- Oh, and the kids learn from it too!


We met more nice travellers from Holland, who confirmed that De Wit's Storage in Amsterdam (where they live) is a fine place to store the RV after next summer's travels.

  They had rented an RV in Las Vegas and were visiting the nearby parks.  Death Valley is not allowed for their rental vehicle until after October 1st, since it is too hot, they said.


I’m reading a book we bought at the Sheldon Museum in Haines, Alaska entitled, “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name” and it is terrific.  I love reading of the places, roads, stores, and activities that we’ve explored!  Besides, Haines was one of my favorite Alaskan towns, although quite a few towns claim that status.  J




Africancrab says:
Great blog. My family visited this year and loved it.
Posted on: Nov 08, 2011
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Canyon de Chelly National Monument
photo by: nycitalini