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Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Chinle, Arizona

View of Canyon de Chelly

View of Canyon de Chelly
Courtesy of Marina & Enrique, Flickr's Creative Commons

For nearly 5,000 years, people have used the towering sandstone walls of Canyon de Chelly as a place for campsites, shelters, and permanent dwellings. Managed through a partnership between the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d'’SHAY) National Monument, located on Navajo Trust Land, is one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes in North America. The name "de Shelly" is a Spanish interpretation of the Navajo word for "rock canyon" testifying to the long history of interaction between the Navajo and Spanish explorers. The National Monument preserves the remains and cultural resources of various American Indian groups who lived within the canyon’s walls. 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 an understanding of the interaction between the Navaho people and the Spanish and the impact on the region's people and culture.

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), the Navajo (1700-present), and the Spanish interactions with these peoples. 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, hunting and gathering rather than building permanent homes. Their history is 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, the Archaic people's lifestyle became less nomadic and they built communities of dispersed households with large granaries and rudimentary public structures.

White House Ruins
White House Ruins
Courtesy of Brian Wheeler, Flickr's Creative Commons

Gradually, the Basketmakers’ style of dwelling 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 name Pueblo originated with the Spanish explorers who referred to the compact villages of these people as “pueblos,” meaning “villages” in Spanish. 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 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 dependable 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. Life in Canyon de Chelly for the Hopi also led to interactions with the Navajo and the Spanish as both groups were carried to the canyon for agricultural and land.

This pictograph in Canyon de Chelly is a Navajo depiction of Spaniards, possible marking the Spanish battle against the Navajo in January 1805.
This pictograph in Canyon de Chelly is a Navajo depiction of Spaniards, possible marking the Spanish battle against the Navajo in January 1805
Courtesy of the National Park Service

While archeological records do not clearly indicate when the Navajo arrived in the canyon, patterns on the landscape indicate that the Navajo quickly adapted to an agricultural lifestyle, contributed to significantly by Spanish influence. The Navajo and Spanish were likely in contact since the 1500s and exchanged goods and skills. The Spanish introduced the Navajo to sheep and goats encouraging pastoral patterns of life for the Navajo. The Navajo used rock shelters in the canyon walls to keep their flocks of sheep, scenes depicted in detail on some canyon pictographs.

All interactions between the Navajo and Spanish were not peaceful, however. By the late 1700s, lengthy warfare erupted between the Navajo, other regional American Indians, and the Spanish colonists of the Rio Grande Valley. A particularly violent battle took place in January of 1805. Lt. Antonio Narbona, a Creole lieutenant, traveled to Canyon de Chelly with Spanish troops and local guides. Narbona was sent to retaliate against the Navajo for their attacks on Cebolletta. At the time, Ceboletta functioned as a Spanish military post at the base of Mount Taylor, a place considered sacred by the Navajo. The Spanish fought a day-long battle with the Navajo who sought protection 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 killing and capturing numerous Navajos. The shelter where this battle ocurred is referred to today as Massacre Cave and serves as a site of commemoration. Massacre Cave can be viewed at the “Massacre Cave Overlook” on the North Rim Drive of the park

After the Spanish colonial government left, the Navajo continued to resist encroachment by subsequent troops sent by the Mexican and American governments to lands occupied by the Navajo. In 1846, the United States fought battles against the recently-independent Mexican government for control over present-day Arizona and New Mexico. Despite these military advancements, the Navajo attempted to maintain control of some lands and initiated raids against the US government. To indicate they would not tolerate such attacks, the United States military conducted a campaign against the Navajo in 1864. Colonel Kit Carson led an operation against the Navajo, resulting in the forced removal of 8,000 Navajos to a fort in eastern New Mexico. The Navajo people were made to walk the 300 miles from Canyon de Chelly to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. The forced removal was referred to among the Navajo as "the Long Walk." Many died during the Long Walk and with the conditions at Fort Sumner being equally grim, many others perished as well. After four years, the first reservation experiment the U.S. government used to manage the Navajo population proved unsuccessful, and the Navajo were permitted to return to their land in Canyon de Chelly.

Today, Canyon de Chelly sustains a thriving community of Navajo people. A visit to the park provides great insight into the present-day life and rich history of the Navajo community. Visitors to Canyon de Chelly National Monument can observe 1,000 foot sheer sandstone walls and well-preserved Anasazi ruins. Interwoven in these sites are also pieces of the history of Spanish interaction with the American Indians in the United States.

Plan your visit

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 and in the Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures: Explore their Stories in the National Park System Travel Itinerary.

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