CANYON DE CHELLY NATIONAL MONUMENT: Lessons from the Navajo
One thing I love about going to National Parks is that there’s always so much to learn. Whenever Elizabeth and I go to a new park we head straight for the Visitors Center so we can soak in the exhibits, watch the intro video and get an orientation to the park. But sometimes the most valuable lessons we get from a park aren’t found at a Visitors Center. This was the case during the first leg of our trip when we visited Canyon de Chelly National Monument and set up a meeting with retired chief ranger William Yazzie. We didn’t know exactly what to expect from our chat with William. We knew we were really excited and lucky to hear his insiders perspective on the park, but what we learned from him was so much more.
Canyon de Chelly (pronounced ‘Shay’) National Monument and the nearby town of Chinle, AZ are in the Navajo Nation. William was Navajo himself and the first thing he told us is that you cannot talk about the canyon without talking about the Navajo people – their stories are intimately woven together.
For one, Canyon de Chelly is unique among NPS sites because the land in and around the canyon is actually owned by the Navajo Nation, which grants permits for individual Navajo to use the land. Therefore the canyon still contains the homes and farms of Navajo people and outside visitors can only go into the canyon through the 5-mile out-and-back White House Trail unless they have a Navajo guide. White House (below) was an ancient cliff dwelling.
William told us his favorite part of working as a law enforcement ranger was going into the canyon. And every time he did, he announced his presence and purpose to Mother Canyon.
The spiritual, emotional and physical connection of the Navajo with the canyon goes back to 1450 when they first entered the land. William explained that tragedy came in the 1860s when Kit Carson received orders from the U.S. military to remove the Navajo from their land. The Navajo had a long-standing history of raiding their neighbors and the government had probably grown tired of the conflicts with settlers. When the Navajo resisted relocation by hiding in the canyon, Carson ordered his men to “scorch the earth”. With their crops and homes destroyed, the Navajo had no choice but to come out of hiding and submit to the soldiers. They then began the darkest chapter in Navajo history, the “Long Walk.”
The Navajo people were marched hundreds of miles under grueling conditions to Fort Sumner near Albuquerque, NM, where they were interned for 4 years. Eventually Chief Manuelito agreed to a treaty with the U.S. government and the Navajo were allowed to return to their land. But by the time the Navajo had returned home over 60% of the people who began the Long Walk had died and many others had trouble adjusting to their return home. The government encouraged settlers to establish trading posts where the Navajo could come and trade their wares to help them get back on their feet. We visited one of the most famous of these sites that had been operating continuously for over 130 years and is now managed by the NPS, the Hubbell Trading Post.
One of the provisions of the treaty William mentioned to us was that the Navajo people would learn the ways of the white man, but preserve their Navajo culture. In the 1870s this part of the agreement was blatantly ignored as the government started boarding schools for young Navajo to “strip out the Indian” and force them to assimilate into white culture. Many Navajo struggled to retain their culture in private. One person who exemplifies this is the famous Muralist Fred Kabotie (of the Hopi tribe), who resisted through his Native American-themed art and ironically was later commissioned for murals that adorn the Painted Desert Inn now owned by the government (an NPS historic site). Today, the Navajo culture is not taught much in school after 3rd grade. The Navajo people are struggling against the attrition of their language and culture from within as the younger generations are surrounded by the dominant force of American culture.
Despite these and other dark periods of their past, William says his people persevere through their good humor and optimism. The Navajo say there is a time for everybody – wind, birds, thunder, etc. As we sat at Thunderbird Cafe in Canyon de Chelly and William sipped his coffee and told us the history and lore of the canyon and his people, we definitely felt the sense of peace, hope and mostly pride that he had in his people and his homeland.
Beyond what we’ve written above from our conversation with William he also shared several sacred stories of the Navajo people. But as honored as we were to hear and learn these stories, we think they should only be shared by the Navajo people themselves. However, we learned so much in our short 2-hour time with William that we do want to share a few more pieces of the Navajo way here:
- William says he always gets asked what Native Americans prefer to be called as a whole. He says “Native” is good and “Indian” is ok too (even though Columbus actually called the people he met “Indios” (Spanish for in God) and India didn’t even exist at the time). But he says the best choice would be what the people call themselves. Navajo refer to themselves as Diné.
- Instead of saying “my name is…” or “I am…”, the Navajo say “People call me…” This deemphasizes the self and places importance and recognition on others.
- Navajo mothers have whole book of proverbs they teach their kids from a young age including “don’t eat food lying down like snakes” and “don’t whistle at night or you’ll call evil spirits.”
- Navajo culture celebrates a baby’s first laugh. Whoever causes the baby’s first laugh has to provide the feast. So when the baby nears laughing age everyone is very careful trying not to do something funny around the baby.
- The Navajo have a maternal clan system. So when the man is old enough to marry, he will move to join his bride’s family.
- He Navajo place great importance on balance – nothing in life should become to positive or negative. When a person is balanced they are said to be walking in beauty.
William, we tell you how much we appreciate you sharing the culture and wisdom of the Diné people with us. May you continue to walk in beauty.