Canyon de Chelly: Hanging Out with the Anasazi

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?