Canyon de Chelly, Arizona: Sandstone and stories

By Felicia Fonseca
Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona (AP) 7-08

This majestic canyon is lined with towering red sandstones. But the physical landscape is only part of the draw.

Canyon de Chelly, replete with thousands of ruins, carvings and paintings on stone, is revered by the Navajo people. It is classified as a living monument by the National Park Service. Over campfires, during a hike through the canyon’s trails, by horseback or by jeep tour, visitors can get a sense of the canyon’s history and its spirituality.

“I always think of this place as the soul of Navajo culture,” says park ranger Ailema Benally.

“It’s important to spend some good personal time here,” she says. “Time to sit awhile and listen with your mind (to) what the canyon has to say to you.”

The monument is managed by the federal government but the land remains Navajo-owned. Only the canyon rim and a single trail leading to the ruins of a dwelling called the White House are accessible without a Navajo guide.

Ask the guides, or let them tell you about the Navajo deities who are said to reside there. You’ll hear stories of the medicine men who bless this sacred site, and tales of the massacres and forced relocations of the tribe, from the Spanish colonial era through America’s 19th century westward expansion.

As you travel through this canyon you literally are in someone’s back yard. About 200 Navajos call the 83,000-acre monument home, though few live there year-round. From the canyon’s rim, visitors can spot a traditional Navajo home, or hogan, along with the often-photographed White House and fertile land once flush with peach orchards.

Medicine men often go to the White House to make offerings and pray to spirits they call the Holy Ones, who are said to provide knowledge to tribal leaders and for growing corn. The White House is named for a whitewashed cliff, but if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s actually yellowish for the material with which it was plastered – corn pollen, derived from a Navajo staple.

Near the White House ruins is Spider Rock – twin towers that stand isolated within the canyon walls. The Navajos believe they are home to Spider Woman, who, according to tribal legend, devours disobedient children and taught Navajos how to weave. It is said that the white caps of the towers are children’s bones.

Other deities central to Navajo creation stories who are believed to live within the canyon include the Hero Twins, Talking God and the great horned monster, says guide Adam Teller.

The pictographs of the canyon walls close to Teller’s residence near the Antelope House ruins show the Hero Twins walking to their father, the Sun God, over a rainbow. It is there that the twins received weapons from their father and used them to destroy all the unnecessary evils, Teller says.

The Navajo call the canyon “tseyi,” which means “within the rock.” Spaniards spelled the word Chelly (pronounced SHAY). Canyon de Chelly includes Canyon del Muerto, Monument Canyon and other gorges.

Throughout the canyon, you’ll find other petroglyphs, or carvings, and pictographs, or paintings. Medicine men pray to some pictographs of handprints, where important holy men are believed to be buried. Other handprints mark ordinary graves.

Camping at Canyon de Chelly adds to the experience. “Camping is very special because of the aspect of being around the fire and being able to listen to the stories without any distractions around,” Teller says. “When a song and story echoes off the wall, it’s like the Holy Ones are singing you the story.”

Both the Navajo and Hopi tribes share their cultural histories at Canyon de Chelly. Visitors will see how the style of living has changed over the centuries from circular pit houses of basket-makers to cliff dwellings of the Anasazi and Pueblo people to Navajo hogans.

Teller promises a “journey of the spiritual soul.”

“When you come into my world ... you learn about the Navajo, not only sacred beliefs but how they live everyday, how they farm, how they survive,” he says. “It’s an eye-opening experience to realize people haven’t lost a lot of the old ways – no matter how much the contemporary world creeps into our lives.”

If You Go...

Chinle, Ariz.; or 928-674-5500. Open year-round. There is no entrance fee.

TOURS: You can hire guides at the visitors center, through the Thunderbird Lodge or Best Western, or through tour companies such
as De Chelly Tours, or 928-674-3772, and Canyon de Chelly Tours, or 928-674-5433.

CAMPING: Campsites are available at no charge. Reservations for groups of 15 people can be made by contacting the monument; or 928-674-5500. Backcountry camping requires an authorized Navajo guide.

LODGING: Thunderbird Lodge (and cafeteria), located inside the park, or 800-679-2473, $102-$162. Best Western Canyon DeChelly Inn (with adjoining restaurant), 100 Main St., Chinle, 928-674-5288, $109.

GETTING THERE: Chinle is 215 miles from Flagstaff, Ariz., and 230 miles from Albuquerque.

The Navajo Nation observes daylight saving time; the rest of Arizona does not. Between March and November, local time will be an hour later in Canyon de Chelly than elsewhere in the state.