Within the four sacred mountains are a series of deep red-rock canyons intrinsic to the identity of the Navajo Nation. The sheer sandstone canyons and rock formations collectively known as Canyon de Chelly feature hundreds of Indian sites,including prehistoric pueblo dwellings and rock art murals spanning several thousand years. The two primary canyons, Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly, shelter an almost tropical oasis of trees and flowers through the high desert terrain. The two gorges and multiple tributaries create one of the Southwest’s most impressive landscapes. The Navajo traditionally called the canyon tsegi, meaning variously “in the rock” or “canyon.” The Spanish spelled it chegui, a Hispanicized version of the Navajo word. As they often did, American settlers later anglicized the name to “de Chelly,” pronounced de shaye. Although the canyons are spiritually significant to the Navajo, the Navajo were not the first to settle in the canyon. The Navajo arrived in the late 1600s following three centuries of an intermittent Hopi presence, preceded by much older inhabitations.
Canyon de Chelly is home to several periods of prehistoric Indian civilizations dating from 2500 BCE until the Great Drought in 1300 CE. The earliest arrivals, a vague cultural classification called the Archaic, were a people who built no permanent homes but left images on the canyon walls to tell their stories. Next on the scene were the pithouse-dwelling Basketmaker people, who were attracted to the canyon by the presence of water to irrigate their primitive farms. They remained for several hundred years before the Anasazi moved into the canyon and built upon the older Basketmaker home sites. Between 1050 and 1300 CE, human habitation reached a peak in the canyon with the building of dramatic cliff dwellings, including the White House, Antelope House, Sliding Rock, and the Mummy Cave settlement. Eventually the Anasazi would vacate the canyon as mysteriously as the Basketmakers did, leaving behind abandoned pueblos, rock art murals and assorted artifacts. To the Hopi people, whose modern reservation is only 50 miles (80 km) away, some sites in the canyon are considered highly sacred, like the kachina paintings in a cave near Antelope House. The Hopi farmed in Canyon de Chelly during the summer months and erected only temporary housing. Although most of the pictographs and petroglyphs in Canyon de Chelly were created by the Anasazi, some examples can be traced to the Archaic people, the Basketmakers, the Hopi as well as modern Navajos. Each culture brought with them their own colorful and distinct style of rock art.
For many years the canyon served as a refuge and fortress to the Navajo people. The Athapaskan speaking Navajos, originally a branch of the Apaches and still recognizably Apachean, moved into the Southwest from the Great Plains in the 15th and 16th centuries. The mysterious serpentine ravines allowed protection from their enemies, as well as fertile farming and grazing lands. So important was the canyon to the Navajo that it was specifically outlined in the original 1868 treaty with the United States: “(the reservation boundary) embraces the outlet of the Canon-de-Chilly (sic), which canyon is to be all included in this reservation, shall be, and the same is hereby, set apart for the use and occupation of the Navajo tribe of Indians, and for such other friendly tribes or individual Indians.” When the first boundary lines for the Navajo Reservation were drawn, Canyon de Chelly was intentionally placed dead center. Navajo tribal members remain in the canyon leading a simple lifestyle herding sheep and growing crops. Many Navajos living outside the canyon and other Colorado Plateau tribes return to Canyon de Chelly on pilgrimage to make prayer offerings or perform age-old rituals as their ancestors have done for many generations.
Getting to Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located 3 miles (4.8 km) from Route 191 near the town Chinle in northeastern Arizona. The 26-mile (42-km) canyon’s sheer cliffs range from 30 to more than 1,000 feet (9 to 300 m) in height, providing a spectacular backdrop for hundreds of prehistoric ruins, as well as modern Navajo farms and houses. The Visitor’s Center offers exhibits and cultural displays. A drive around the canyon offers excellent rim viewpoints. A Navajo guide is required for all canyon access, except for the 2.5-mile (4-km) round trip White House Trail.