Sunday, June 19, 2011

Canyon de Chelley

After a week of Ruhi intensive, the youth decided to visit Canyon de Chelley, a national monument particularly important in Navajo history. We drove two hours through sage brush and juniper bordered roads before we arrived at the visitor center and proceeded to the trailhead for White House Ruins.

At its deepest locations, the canyon walls rise 1000 feet above the canyon floor, through which runs a dry and sandy streambed. The name Canyon de Chelley actually refers to several connected canyons, including Canyon de Chelley and Canyon and Canyon del Muerto. People have occupied the canyon for 5,000 years, beginning with nomadic hunters. After corn was introduced from the south, a new way of life changed the people living in the canyon and they are known as Basketmaker for their expert weaving skills. Farming techniques improved and these people became sedentary. They grew the three sisters: corn, squash, and beans. After the Basketmaker were the Pueblo, characterized for their skills in pottery. Dispersed households gave way to villages which changed the social life and structure of the people within the canyons. The Puebloan lifestyle ended around 700 years ago as they moved out of the canyon, establishing themselves along the Little Colorado River and Black Mesa. They became the Hopi and a few stayed or visited the canyon seasonally. Then, around 300 years ago, the Navajo occupied the canyon, bringing with them herds of sheep and planting fields of corn. Among there resources in the canyon was an orchard of peach trees planted in the days of the Spaniards.

In the 1860s, General James Carleton began a process of removing Navajos from their native land and relocating them to Bosque Redondo, a reservation he had “prepared” for them. He promised them happiness at Bosque Redondo when in actuality the soil there was poor for farming and the water unclean to drink. Many died there from famine and disease. The Navajo chiefs resisted for some time but eventually had no other choice but to submit. Carleton partnered with Kit Carson, who had once had friendly relations with the Native Americans, in a campaign which involved removing the Navajos by brute force. There would be no more promises of peace or words of compromise. Many Navajos died from the cold winter, as they had been cornered by Kit Carson in Canyon de Chelley but still refused to leave. Hogans, the traditional Navajo home, were destroyed and herds of sheep killed. The peach tree orchards which the Navajos had so carefully tended were also destroyed. Thousands of Navajos were escorted on The Long Walk to Bosque Redondo over 300 miles away.

In 1868, under the new authority of General Sherman, the Navajos were allowed to return to their homeland.

Today people of Navajo descent live in the canyon, farming corn and raising sheep. Their hogans and homes dot the bottom of the canyon. Tourists are asked not to take pictures of the hogans, as they are the homes of people living there and not a spectacle for tourists to take advantage of. Though it has since been made into a National Monument which many come to see, it is still a home to Navajo people.

We took our time hiking to the White House Ruins, which were built by ancestral Puebloans. A few faded pictures remain on the surrounding canyon wall near the ruins, including a depiction of a road runner and a man. Along the bottom of the canyon vendors sell turquoise and coral jewelry or clay pots. The four of us paused for prayers in a cool tunnel, escaping the heat and refreshing our souls. I played my flute and thought of the people who had lived here throughout the years, wondering if there had been other flute players in this canyon, as I released my own song and prayer into the atmosphere.

Note: Much of the above history I learned from a National Parks service pamphlet and the second chapter of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. One of the youth serving at NABI is Navajo and he also graciously shared his knowledge with us.

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