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Canyon de Chelly - A Bridge to the Past

by Miles Hecker

Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located in northeastern Arizona within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation. It encompasses some 131 square miles. It's extent includes the floors and rims of the three major canyons, Canyon de Chelly, Canyon del Muerto, and Monument Canyon.

What makes Canyon de Chelly unique is that it sustains a living community of Navajo people. These Navajo are connected to the landscape and it has for them, great historical and spiritual significance. Canyon de Chelly National Monument is an unusual partnership between the Navajo Nation and the federal government. The Navajo are responsible for the natural resources, and the National Park Service protects the many archaeological sites.

Early every spring, after the winter thaw, a dozen Navajo families still return to their old homesteads at the bottom of the canyons. It is believed that the canyon has sustained human civilization for over four thousand years. Early Anasazi, ancestors of the Hopis, built their first cliff dwellings high in the sandstone alcoves. The Navajo people followed them and have used it as a sacred refuge for centuries.

In a very real sense when you photograph in Canyon de Chelly, you will be moving back in time. The native culture you experience within it's walls exists free of the burdens of modern civilization. Leave your cell phones at home, open your minds and perhaps you may capture in your images a sense of what it was to be one of the, 'Ancient Ones', living in the sunlight and natural protection of this great canyon.

White House Ruins

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De Chelly Hogan

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Access to the canyon floor is restricted and most park visitors view Canyon de Chelly from the rim, following both North Rim Drive and South Rim Drive. The sole exception to this rule is the White House Ruin Trail. White House Ruin, seen in the photo above was immortalized in Ansel Adams famous photo, taken in 1942.

From the rim, prehistoric ruins and geologic structures are visible, but from a distance. Any photographers wishing to truly experience and photograph the real Canyon de Chelly, must take part in a tour or obtain a back country permit and hire an authorized Navajo guide. For more information on canyon tours, see this publication.

I highly recommend hiring your own guide. You may provide your own 4WD vehicle or your guide can provide it for a fee. With a guide you can experience the canyon and photograph it at your own pace.

The most dramatic event in the modern history of Canyon de Chelly is the battle of Canyon de Chelly during the Navajo wars.

At the time of the American Civil War the Navajo nation was the largest remaining Native American entity within the United States. Colonel "Kit" Carson had waged a successful war against the Navajos employing a scorched earth policy. His men destroyed all Navajo homes, food and supplies. Carson had a policy to treat the Navajo people as humanely as possible, capturing instead of killing them.

However, by November 1863 Carson had only sent 200 people on to the reservation at Basque Redondo. His progress in eliminating the "Navajo problem"  was too slow and he was ordered to take the Navajo stronghold in Canyon de Chelly.

The Navajo in Canyon de Chelly were members of the bands led by Manuelito, Barboncito and his brother Delgado. Barboncito and Manuelito had both vowed not to surrender. The two led their followers to a rocky butte known as Navajo Fortress , at the confluence of the Black Rock Canyon and Canyon del Muerto. Here the Navajos had stockpiled food and were able to hold out against the army’s incursions into the canyon.

Although the battle itself had been somewhat anticlimactic, the operation as a whole proved to be a great success to the United States. The destruction of the Navajo camps, crops and supplies came at a crucial time for the Navajo. Cold, hungry and tired, many realized they would not be killed by the soldiers if they came in peacefully.

By the summer of 1864, Nearly 8,000 people had surrendered and were soon moved to the Basque Redondo reservation. The arduous journey became known as the Long Walk of the Navajo.

In 1868, after four years of exile, the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland.

Conquistadors

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Standing Cow Ruins

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When you take your guided trip into Canyon de Chelly be sure to visit Canyon del Muerto. It contains the finest pictographs and some of the most interesting ruins in the park. It also experiences far less traffic than the famous White House Ruins area. The ruins you can visit in the Canyon del Muerto area include, Antelope House, Standing Cow Ruin, Massacre Cave, and Mummy Cave. Standing Cow Ruin is pictured at left. One dwelling there is still in use and often occupied in the summer by a Navajo medicine man.

You can observe the relatively recent and outstanding Narbona Panel seen above, just before reaching Standing Cow Ruins. It is a Navajo painting of a Spanish cavalry unit accompanied by a priest. In 1805 a Spanish punitive expedition under Lt. Antonio Narbona, who later became governor of the Province of New Mexico, fought an all-day battle with a band of Navajos fortified in a rock shelter in Canyon del Muerto. Narbona's official report to the Governor stated that 115 Navajos were killed, including 90 warriors. Because of this, the rock shelter is called Massacre Cave.

Fall, winter and spring are the best time to visit Canyon de Chelly. It can be rather hot in the summer. If you are doing color photography fall might be the best. The cottonwoods and willow trees on the canyon floor can be spectacular during the last week of October. My most enjoyable trip was during a snow storm, that occurred the last week of December. My wife, myself and our guide were almost the only ones in Canyon del Muerto. It was a trip to remember


 

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About Miles Hecker

Miles has been involved with photography for over forty years. He teaches digital photography at Casper College in Casper,Wyoming. His photos have won awards from Natures Best magazine, Photo.net, The Luminous Landscape and Wyoming WIldlife . Miles' photos have been published in American Vignette, Backpacker Magazine, Natures Best Images, Popular Photography, Wyoming Audubon, and Wyoming Wildlife. He is co-founder of WyoFOTO LLC.

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Geotagged Photolocation Index

November, 2011

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Concepts: Navajo Nation, Navajo people, New Mexico, Grand Canyon, Native Americans in the United States, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Long Walk of the Navajo, Navajo tribe

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