One of the iconic spots to visit for those interested in First American history is Canyon de Chelly (Tseyi’ in Navajo) in Arizona. I remember taking trips with my family when I was a small girl, and today the experience is even greater as I have a better understanding of the culture and lives of these peoples.
My mother instilled in us kids a healthy respect for the dwellings, as back then we were able to scramble up the short steps and peer in them. Pottery sherds, including beautiful polychrome pieces, were all over the ground, and we were constantly admonished by our mother not to touch or disturb. Today, of course, with over 800,000 tourists pouring into the Canyon de Chelly National Monument each year, access is more restricted and archaeologists are working hard to preserve the history of these peoples.
The first settlements in the canyon were over 5,000 years ago. They are perched on the Colorado plateau, a large geologic structure with deep, protected canyons similar in some ways to the Grand Canyon. It is possible to get private tours via car, horseback, or by hiking through portions of the canyon area, though most parts are restricted as Navajo peoples still live in the canyons.
Another option is to take a driving tour along the North rim or the South rim, and peer down into the canyon with sharp eyes or binoculars. I strongly recommend stopping at the National Park Service Visitor Center first, and get a free map for your visit to Canyon de Chelly. And as always when driving about the Southwest, make sure you have plenty of gas in the vehicle and plenty of drinking water for yourselves.
We learned at the Visitor Center that the Canyon de Chelly National Monument area is actually three linked canyons, de Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument canyon. The National Monument sits on the Navajo Nation, just to the east of Chinle. Thus, the National Monument is part of the Navajo Nation, though it is managed by the National Park Service.
While you are in the National Monument area, you will see a lot of well-preserved cliff dwellings, ancient petroglyphs on the walls, and a startling variety of plant and animal life. The Navajo and Hopi descendants of the Puebloan peoples settled in the canyons because of the abundance of fertile land. Around the mid-1300’s, they left the Canyon areas, with the Hopi moving further to the west where they currently occupy the three mesas in the center of the Hopi Nation, and the Navajo spreading out around what is now the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners region. Even today, the Hopi and Navajo hold the Canyon de Chelly lands and surrounding mountains with reverence as religious locations.
And once you have driven out to Chinle to begin your adventure in the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, you will want to extend your immersion in learning about the Hopi and Navajo peoples by visiting nearby Monument Valley to the north, the Hopi Cultural Center on the Second Mesa to the west, and the Navajo Nation capital to the east in Window Rock, where you will find the Navajo Nation Museum and Window Rock’s inspiring Navajo Veteran’s Memorial. The area is rich with the footprints of the First Americans, and fortunately they have left visible traces of their lives so that we can learn of them, their culture, and the ways in which they lived in harmony with Mother Earth. Every time I go, I learn something new, and I can’t wait for our next trip back to Canyon de Chelly National Monument.