Scientists, archaeologists, and some environmentalists fear that agricultural and business activities by the Navajo tribe are damaging fragile ecosystems and ancient dwellings and artifacts in Canyon de Chelly. The area is also threatened by invasive species that destroy native habitat, cause erosion, and increase the risk of fire. Though Canyon de Chelly is a national monument, it’s on Navajo reservation land—and that’s where the problem begins. The National Park Service is anxious to preserve this major archaeological site, with its 5,000-year-old dwellings and rock art from the Ancestral Puebloans (also known as the Anasazi). But for the Navajos, these sandstone canyons are also a place to grow corn, graze their livestock, and lead visitors around on lucrative horseback and four-wheel-drive tours. What that’s doing to the canyon’s delicate ecosystem is a source of running debate.
Granted, it’s not just the animals. Invasive species, especially tamarisk and Russian olive trees, have gained a foothold and are altering streambeds, causing erosion, and creating a fire hazard. But expensive eradication projects get hung up in negotiations between the land’s Navajo owners and the parks system.
When this remote section of north-eastern Arizona was made a Navajo reservation, archaeologists hadn’t yet discovered the value of its Ancestral Puebloan remains. Ancestral Puebloan civilization reached its zenith between A . D . 1100 and 1300, but evidence suggests that these particular canyons were occupied as long ago as A . D . 300. In the nooks and crannies of the canyons you’ll see more than 100 ancient dwellings hollowed into the rock walls, including several circular sacred rooms, or kivas. The most recent, and most impressive, ruins are the ghostly pale White House Ruins in Canyon de Chelly, but visit adjacent Canyon del Muerto as well to see its ancient tombs— the Tomb of the Weaver, near the Antelope House ruins, and the Mummy Caves.
Two scenic drives lead you through the park: the 15-mile (24km) North Rim drive, which overlooks Canyon del Muerto, and the 16-mile (25km) South Rim drive, which overlooks Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “duh Shay”). Hiking trails lead down to the Antelope House and White House ruins, but to really explore the canyon floor, you’ll have to hire an authorized Navajo guide. Along the way, don’t get so hung up on the relics that you forget to notice the scenery—at several spots the canyons open up to breathtaking rugged vistas of glowing red-and-yellow stone.
It’s a sacred ground for the Navajos as well; you can see their ancient pictographs, designed in colorful paint on dark patches of where seeping water oxidized on the sandstone walls (known as “desert varnish”). In contrast, the Ancestral Puebloans’s designs were petroglyphs, created by chipping away the desert varnish to expose lighter-colored rock beneath. Commemorating important tribal events, both kinds of rock pictures are windows into an ancient way of life. The Navajo have been guardians of this land for a long time—can we question the wisdom of how they choose to care for it?