History & Culture

Betatakin Village is one of the three cliff dwelling sites protected by NPS.
Betatakin is a Navajo word that translates to "Houses on the Cliff".

NPS Photo

Ancestral home of Hopi clans today: Fire and Coyote.
White fir log across the entrance of Keet Seel.

Marc Steuben

Navajo National Monument represents a long cultural history. The monument was first created in 1909 to protect the remains of three large pueblos dating to the 13th century C.E.: Keet Seel, Betatakin, and Inscription House. In addition to the large pueblo villages, archaeological evidence documents human use of this region over the past several thousand years.

The earliest people to live in the Tsegi and Nitsin Canyon regions were hunters and gatherers, who relied on hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants for food. These early people were highly mobile, and moved around a large region to gather food with the changing seasons. Their archaeological footprint is limited.

Around 2000 years ago, the inhabitants of the region began to grow maize, soon followed by other crops. They also began to live in more settled villages of semi-underground pithouses. The early communities are known as the Basketmakers.

Ancestral home of Flute and Deer Antler Clans, who live in Hopi today.

Marc Steuben

The Ancestral Pueblo culture emerged as these early farmers began to depend on farming for most of their food. They built above-ground masonry houses, farmed the canyon streambeds, and interacted with far-reaching communities across the Colorado Plateau.

Betatakin, Keet Seel, and Inscription House were all built in large, natural alcoves which formed in the towering Navajo Sandstone Formation due to the local geological conditions. As water moves through the porous Navajo Sandstone, it hits the less porous Kayenta Formation of shale and limestone, and moves horizontally. This movement causes cracking, sheeting, and spalling of the rock, resulting in eroded alcoves, as well as seeps and springs inside the canyons. For villagers living here and farming the canyonlands, the alcoves offer shelter from the elements, as well as natural spring water.

Double-walled kiva in Kawestima/Keet Seel
Keet Seel

Marc Steuben

The Ancestral Pueblo people farmed the streambeds in the canyon bottoms, enabling them to flourish in this high desert environment. They hunted wild game and grew corn, beans, and squash. Climate at this time was similar to today, and these farmers relied on the canyon streams for water. Although they succeeded here for several hundred years, by 1300 CE, the villagers had all moved on. They may have left after a prolonged drought made farming here extremely difficult.

Today, the land surrounding Navajo National Monument is part of the Navajo Nation. The Navajo, or Diné, have lived in this region for several hundred years. Sheep and cattle ranching are an important part of life for the Navajo, which is visible on the landscape today.

Last updated: August 5, 2023

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