Arizona: Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Prehistoric rock art found at the National Monument
Prehistoric rock art found at the National Monument

Courtesy of National Park Service

For nearly 5,000 years, people have used the towering sandstone walls of Canyon de Chelly as a place for campsites, shelters, and permanent homes. Managed through a partnership between the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation and located on Navaho Trust Land, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d’SHAY) National Monument represents one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes of North America. The National Monument preserves the remains and cultural resources of various American Indian groups that have lived within the canyon’s walls throughout history. The sites, cliff dwellings, and images on cliff walls, as well as the living community of Navajo people within Canyon de Chelly today, contribute to our understanding of American Indian cultural heritage in the United States.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument preserves the distinct architecture, artifacts, and rock imagery of the Archaic people (2500-200 B.C.), the Basketmakers (200 B.C.-A.D. 750), the Pueblo (750-1300), the Hopi (1300-1600s), and the Navajo (1700-present). Archeological evidence suggests that people have lived in Canyon de Chelly for nearly 5,000 years. The original inhabitants were the Archaic people, who lived in seasonal campsites, conducted hunting and gathering expeditions, and did not build permanent homes. Their stories are understood through the remains of their campsites and the images they etched and painted on the canyon walls. By about 200 B.C., a fundamental shift occurred in the way people lived within the canyon. The Basketmakers started to sustain their community through farming, instead of by hunting and gathering. As their agricultural skills improved, their lives became more sedentary and they built communities of dispersed households with large granaries and rudimentary public structures.

As time passed, the Basketmakers’ style of home gradually changed. From c. 750 to 1300, they abandoned their pithouses in dispersed hamlets and built connected rectangular stone houses above ground. From these connected dwellings, the inhabitants eventually formed multi-storied villages that contained small household compounds and kivas with decorated walls. The people of this time are called the Pueblos; pueblo is the Spanish word for village, and refers to the compact village life of these people. These ancient Puebloan people are the predecessors of today’s Pueblo and Hopi Indians, and they are often referred to as Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning “ancient ones.”

Canyon de Chelly National Monument contains the remains of these ancient Puebloan villages. Built into a sheer 500 foot sandstone cliff, the White House was constructed and occupied between 1060 A.D. and 1275 A.D. The White House takes its name from the white plaster used to coat the long back wall in the upper dwelling. Visitors can view the White House Ruins either from the “White House Overlook” on the South Rim Drive, or by taking a 2.5 mile round-trip trail to the ruins (this is the only trail by which visitors may enter the canyon without a permit or an authorized Navajo guide). The largest ancient Puebloan village preserved in Canyon de Chelly is Mummy Cave. Situated 300 feet above the canyon floor, this village has close to 70 rooms. The east and west alcoves contain living and ceremonial rooms, and the walls are decorated with white and pale green plaster. Mummy Cave was occupied until about 1300. Visitors can view the ruins from the “Mummy Cave Overlook” on the North Rim Drive of the park.

By 1300, the Puebloan life in Canyon de Chelly abruptly ended. A prolonged drought in the 1200’s that dried out what is now the Four Corners region of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico; disease; conflict; and the allure of new religious ideas to the south prompted the Puebloan people to disperse. They left the canyon in search of a constant water supply and eventually established villages along the Little Colorado River and at the southern tip of Black Mesa. The people of these villages, known as the Hopi, continued to occupy the canyon sporadically. The Hopi used the canyon for seasonal farming, ritual pilgrimages, and occasional lengthy stays. The Hopi’s pattern of life continued from 1300 until the late 1600s or the early 1700s when they encountered the Navajo in Canyon de Chelly.

Around 1700, adversaries pushed the Navajo people south and west into the Canyon de Chelly region. They brought with them domesticated animals acquired from the Spanish and a culture modified by years of migration and adaptation. By the late 1700s, lengthy warfare erupted between the Navajo, other American Indians, and the Spanish colonists of the Rio Grande Valley. Canyon de Chelly National Monument preserves and interprets the site of a battle that occurred during this time. On a winter day in 1805, a Spanish military expedition, which Lt. Antonio Narbona led, fought an all-day battle with a group of Navajo people fortified in a rock shelter in Canyon del Muerto (another canyon located within the Canyon de Chelly National Monument). By the end of the day, Narbona reported that 115 Navajos were killed. The rock shelter where this occurred is called Massacre Cave. Visitors may view Massacre Cave at the “Massacre Cave Overlook” on the North Rim Drive of the park.

By 1846, the Spanish and subsequent Mexican control of what is now Arizona and New Mexico came to an end with a short military campaign that concluded with the United States claiming the territory. By 1863, the United States military was conducting a brutal campaign against the Navajo. Under the orders of the territorial commander, Colonel Kit Carson led a campaign against the Navajo which ultimately resulted in the removal of 8,000 Navajos to new lands in eastern New Mexico. The Navajo people were forced to walk the 300 miles from Canyon de Chelly to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. They called this The Long Walk. Many died along the Long Walk, and the conditions at the fort were not much better. After four years, this first reservation experiment failed, and the Navajo were permitted to return to their land. Today, Canyon de Chelly sustains a living community of Navajo people, and a visit to the park provides great insight into the present-day life of the Navajo community.

Visitors to Canyon de Chelly National Monument can observe 1,000 foot sheer sandstone walls and well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and simultaneously gain an understanding of the diverse cultural heritage of American Indians in the United States.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, a unit of the National Park System that is managed in partnership with the Navajo Nation, is located in Chinle, AZ. The Visitor Center is 3 miles (4.8 km) from Route 191 in Chinle, AZ. The visitor center is open daily all year from 8:00am to 5:00pm, except for Christmas Day. The North and South Rim Drives and the White House Trail remain open all year. For more information, visit the National Park Service Canyon de Chelly National Monument website or call 928-674-5500.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument has been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey. The National Park Service Museum Management Program exhibit, A New Lease on Life, includes information on the conservation of artifacts from Canyon de Chelly. Canyon de Chelly is featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary.

Last updated: August 7, 2017