Canyon de Chelly
Administrative History
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As has doubtless become apparent in the preceding chapters, the unifying theme in the story of Canyon de Chelly National Monument has been that of relations with the Navajos—with the canyon residents, the tribe as a whole, and at various levels between these extremes. Many events that would seem to have had no bearing on this theme, such as the problem of the Air Force and its sonic booms, seem inevitably to have involved the native population. Even those developments that do not evidence Navajo involvement must often have been subject to the scrutiny of Navajo observers, who, albeit, often felt they had no way to inform the distant powers in "Washindon" of any objections or suggestions they might have had.

Conditions have changed greatly through the years, but the essential elements of cultural differences, the conflicts these are capable of generating, and the means by which they can be resolved have not been altered in any basic manner. Effective and honest exchange of ideas and feelings between Navajos and non-Navajos remains the vital factor for any policy or program in which the two peoples are to work successfully together for any extended period.

When the monument was established most Navajos spoke only their own language. In 1920 only about 25 percent of school-age Navajo children were actually enrolled students and as late as 1930 the figure had increased to only 46 percent. [1] Today the majority of Navajos are literate in English, but there are many who have little or no skill even in spoken English. Navajo is still the household language for most Navajo families. While a high degree of ability in the use of English can be a valuable asset to Navajos who aspire to leadership positions, many very influential and knowledgeable leaders function, on the local level especially, with little or no knowledge of the national language. It will remain important to the monument to have personnel fluent in Navajo for quite some time to come if it is to maintain good communication with the local people. When the area had only one permanent position, the custodian himself worked so closely with his Navajo maintenance man that he was able to keep in touch with Navajo affairs to the degree necessary. With the overwhelming growth of visitation, the increasing complexity of problems to be dealt with, and a larger staff the need for a Navajo speaker at a higher level appeared, even if it was not fully realized at first. One of the keys to Guillet's success was his ability to communicate with local Navajos in their own language. This is not especially apparent in the documented history, but interviews with Navajos who remember his superintendency or who spoke of current Park Service affairs frequently emphasized the importance of this. [2] It should be remembered that ability to speak a foreign language does not necessarily give a person confidence to use it in stressful or business situations. Even Navajos with a fair command of English for social use will sometimes insist upon the aid of an interpreter if they feel a matter requires precise communication and understanding.

Linguistic capability alone cannot assure smooth relations in intercultural dealings. When the time comes that all Navajos speak at the very least good colloquial English, differences in values and world view will still exist. These differences may well be far more subtle than they are today, but they will nonetheless influence the degree of intercultural understanding that can be achieved. While more Navajos will be full converts to Christianity, there will probably always be those who are adherents of their own faith and some who will give some allegiance to both. For all, the past, as expressed both in the sacred lore of the tribe and in history, will be significant. The availability of Navajo religious tradition in published works in both languages, coupled with an increasing level of literacy, will probably result in more Navajos having a greater familiarity with this body of knowledge than ever before. Places considered holy because of associations with the Navajo deities and those significant in the history of the tribe will continue to be meaningful to almost all Navajos. Canyon de Chelly and its environs will not lose their importance in this respect.

The patterns of residence within the monument may undergo drastic alterations, but there will still be Navajos for whom the canyons are home. Respect of their right to privacy and to follow whatever lifestyle they may choose will still be required as long as the National Park Service administers the area. Any attempt to tailor the Navajo way of life within the canyons to what is thought to be the tourists' expectations will inevitably lead to serious complications and perhaps to charges of manipulating the local population for devious ends.

The line between cooperation and manipulation can be extremely hazy for an administrator who must show some results for the approval of superiors—men who sometimes lack an understanding of the patience and time required in gathering together and studying all views before decisions are made and actions taken in cross-cultural contexts. Under these pressures tact can gradually fade into diplomacy, thence to manipulation, and ultimately to coercion. Despite the problems of poverty, health, education, and discrimination that face so many Navajos, perhaps the one trait that Navajos most resent in whites is their tendency to take over and run things in their own way. The present movement toward Navajo control of more and more of the activities in Navajo country is the expression of very deep-seated emotions and even if it should suffer setbacks will not be a passing fad. [3]

The policies implemented by Guillet in improving Park Service-Navajo relations in the 1960s may not be entirely applicable in situations that will arise in the future, but contemplation of their success suggests that certain basic features can be guidelines even in changing situations. Guillet has been criticized for being paternalistic in his dealings with the Navajos. In some ways the charge does have a degree of truth, but the conditions under which he worked and the nature of white-Navajo relations at that time and place doubtless justified many actions that in Anglo eyes are judged paternalistic. It may safely be assumed that he also found himself entering situations so fully Navajo in cultural content that, even with his extensive knowledge and experience in the Navajo world, had not certain Navajo friends dealt with him in a paternalistic fashion, realizing his shortcomings in such circumstances, he would have suffered at the very least discrimination and perhaps failure in some of his undertakings. When some whites comment that some Navajos are "like children" they fail to realize that the behavior on which they base this conclusion is that of Navajos poorly educated in Anglo ways trying to function in a society not their own. Even less understood is the reciprocal fact that if they were to take part in internal Navajo affairs of any sort they would soon find themselves reduced to an equally childlike role in which their dependency on guidance from sympathetic tribesmen would become very important. Any who doubt this can be quickly convinced if they make a sincere effort to participate fully in a Navajo religious ceremony.

There is indeed a difference between paternalism and actions that give reassurance and aid to one of another culture. In some cases identical actions can be either one or the other. The difference lies not entirely with the action itself, but also with the attitudes of those acting and the values of the recipient culture. An important question must be answered in order to fairly judge Guillet's work. That is, did he give various sorts of aid to Navajos in order to buy their support and make them feel dependent upon him and the National Park Service, or did he do so in order to create the kind of symbolic kin relationship that is so important in much interpersonal action in Navajo society and to reaffirm Park Service acceptance of Navajo residency in the canyons?

Given the conflict of values that is inherent in any intercultural relationship, Guillet himself might find it difficult to honestly answer this question. Only if he were motivated by the second alternative, however, could he have developed a personal concern for the Navajos as individuals. Such limited evidence as exists in the documentation suggests that he did feel this concern, but did not consider it an appropriate subject for full expression in official reports. It is not so important here to make a judgment on Guillet's record in this regard as it is to note the need for awareness of factors of this sort when dealing with peoples of a different cultural background.

Even more necessary for those who might attempt to utilize the data presented here will be an awareness of changes that will have taken place in their own culture and especially in Navajo culture. He who tries to apply today too uncritically perhaps, or too mechanically, or too enthusiastically, to Navajo affairs what he has learned in reading about Navajo ways of the 1930s is destined for trouble. He must deal with the people as they are now and to do so he must know them now. It is very valuable to know their past for it will help in understanding the present, but it will not suffice by itself.

A knowledge of aboriginal Navajo material culture can enhance one's appreciation of modern Navajo arts and crafts, but it should not lead to the belief that a person of Navajo ancestry must deny his heritage if he drives a new pickup or modern sports car. A knowledge of Navajo religion may give a better understanding even of Navajo Christians, but it is equally a mistake to expect a Christian to accept all aspects of Navajo dogma or to dismiss his tribesmens' religion as mere superstition. Knowledge of traditional Navajo social structure will help a supervisor evaluate his subordinates' needs for time off in terms of kin obligations that are often very powerful forces in Navajo society, but he must not assume that a man who observes these obligations is any less competent to carry out jobs requiring formal education or knowledge of Anglo-American culture. A knowledge of the history of Navajo political development can be particularly valuable to someone dealing with Navajo communities or the tribe itself, but it is probably a mistake to expect consistency from any politician regardless of culture. In short, Navajos have doubtless always been, are today, and will certainly continue to be individuals whose degree of conformity to their native culture or to that of the Anglo-American world varies almost infinitely according to the advantages offered by either society at any particular time. There are regularities in the differences between Navajo and Anglo culture, but they are most irregularly distributed. One who deals with a different culture should learn all that he can about it and then use his knowledge as though he doubted its validity, continually but unobtrusively testing its applicability in each situation he encounters. He must learn not to feel surprised by or disdainful of what appear to him to be incongruous or illogical juxtaposition of old and new or of Navajo and Anglo. What may seem inappropriate from a purely Anglo view-point is often the expression of real and pressing personal or collective efforts to reach accommodation between the two ways of life. Above all one should not revert to stereotypes.

Navajo culture once succeeded quite well in meeting the needs and desires of most of the people most of the time. To state this is not the same as accepting the romantic myth of the "noble savage" concept. There were conflicts and inequities even under aboriginal conditions, but alternatives did not exist in the bewildering complexity they do today. Not only did the system work, but it helped the individual define his own goals, providing him with a value system that matched cultural realities. Culture change, while more rapid than that in many traditional societies, was slow compared to the rate of change today and there was strong continuity in most aspects of life. The importance of a degree of continuity in any society should be self evident, but it is easy to ignore it in the presence of the very great forces for change that exist in the modern world. It is equally easy for the Anglo administrator to fail to recognize a problem as resulting from a conflict in cultural norms. Many Navajos are quite understandably reluctant to reveal to Anglos customs and beliefs that they know will most likely be met with incredulity, derision, or moralizing in terms of Anglo values.

Thus it is apparent that considerable care must be taken in the assignment of personnel to an area such as Canyon de Chelly. Not only should people transferred to the area be either knowledgeable in Navajo matters or possessed of the skills and temperament that will allow them to learn and to deal effectively with the Navajos, but they must be people in whom superiors can have confidence, because it is likely they will have to undertake actions that will not be entirely in accord with established policies if they are to be able to maintain smooth working relationships with the local community.

The frequent changes in personnel in any widespread organization such as the National Park Service create unique problems that a more localized institution does not face. Personal associations are much more important in Navajo-white relations than in relationships between whites alone. A factor of significance here is that most Navajos view the white world as a whole with some degree of suspicion. They can be quite perceptive in identifying individual differences among various whites, particularly in regard to the individual's attitudes toward and tolerance or acceptance of Navajos and Navajo ways. They are no more infallible than the rest of us, however, and furthermore Navajo tradition teaches that non-Navajos are inherently dangerous. Therefore tradition and personal experience often combine to reinforce suspicion of outsiders so that trust is not easily gained and can be easily lost by one who has not established his worth over a long period. The high potential for failure in intercultural personal relations is well documented. [4]

Another complication that arises from personnel transfers is the result of the continuation of a strong pre-literate tradition within the tribe. Preservation of knowledge depends more upon human memory than upon written documentation. Verbal agreements are the basis of most local cooperation, and a special effort is made to remember the details of such agreements and to pass these on when an agreement is in force beyond one lifetime. Verbal agreements made by early administrators, undocumented or recorded on documents no longer in the area files, will doubtless cause complications for years to come. Because of increasing literacy among tribal members, problems of this sort undoubtedly will decline, but it remains imperative that all agreements with Navajos be documented in as precise detail as possible for future reference. Definition for the Navajos of who can speak with authority on behalf of the National Park Service no longer seems as much of a problem as it once was. The Service appears to be committed, in Navajo eyes, to promises made by Bureau of Indian Affairs officials in the early negotiations that established the monument, some of whom may have been speaking with little or no real authority in the matter, others of whom, such as Hagerman, were representing the interests of the Federal Government as a whole and of the National Park Service in particular.

Today, after the passage of over a generation in time and the administrations of 14 custodians and superintendents, plus various acting custodians and superintendents, any of whom may have made verbal commitments of various sorts to individual Navajos or to official Navajo entities, even a study of the documented history of the monument leaves considerable uncertainty as to the validity of many Navajo assertions. Unquestioning acceptance of any claim of any Navajo regarding past promises by officials long departed would be a rash course to pursue, yet summary dismissal of claims made in good faith would not be conducive to good community relations and might lead the Service to violate moral obligations that do exist. Each case must be considered on its own merits and settled in a manner that will leave all concerned fully aware of the reasons for the decision ultimately made. Where the means to evaluate a Navajo claim are not readily at hand, Navajo participation in resolving an issue may be especially important. Misunderstandings that originated during the difficult process of translating English to Navajo or vice versa are sometimes among the causes of claims made today and often cannot be discovered without the aid of someone who knows both languages. Judgment of the reliability of an individual across cultural borders can be very difficult, and if this judgment must be made regarding a deceased ancestor, only the community knowledge of his memory can serve the purpose.

More important, community and general Navajo participation in the operation of the monument are needed to preserve the values that made it a national monument and significant to the Navajo people. It is one of the few areas, if not the only one, in the National Park system whose continuation as a part of that system has been seriously questioned despite the fact that no one seems to question its value as a park as such. There is a very real possibility that sooner or later its administration will revert to the Navajo tribe. If, when, and how this might occur will be determined in large measure by Navajo opinion of the National Park Service's record as administrator of the monument. Navajo participation is the one way to teach the techniques and responsibilities of such management while increasing Navajo appreciation of the value and potential benefits of the canyon area as a park. Only if the Navajos have the opportunity to cultivate their own interest in the canyons as a park area will they resist the temptation to take over its administration prematurely and continue to preserve it well should they in time acquire the entire responsibility.

The desirability of tribal administration of Canyon de Chelly National Monument is an issue beyond the scope of the present study, but the history of the monument shows that tribal control is an alternative that cannot be completely ignored. For the sake of the monument itself and of the people who make their homes within it, the National Park Service needs to administer the area in such a manner that the higher aims of this administration will endure even if there should be a change in the governing authority.

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Last Updated: 08-Mar-2004