HomeArizonaCanyon de Chelly: The Long Walk

No, I did not take a long walk. The Long Walk is the seminal event in Navajo history and refers to Kit Carson’s forced death march from the Canyon de Chelly to the Bosque Redondo reservation in 1864. Having failed to starve the Navajo out of the canyon, the US Army came up with another plan.

Soon, 8,500 men, women and children were marched almost 300 miles from northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico to Bosque Redondo, a desolate tract on the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico. Traveling in harsh winter conditions for almost two months, about 200 Navajo died of cold and starvation. More died after they arrived at the barren reservation. http://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-navajolongwalk.html

For me, it was a relatively short drive from Monument Valley to Spider Rock Campground on the canyon’s south rim.The light was beautiful when I arrived in late afternoon.

Canyon de Chelle

The campground is named after the striking Spider Rock, a sacred place for the Navajo.

Canyon de Chelly

As in Monument Valley, it wasn’t easy to find fully Navajo-owned accommodation in the Canyon de Chelly which is why I chose the Spider Rock Campground. Fortunately, the campground also offered typically Navajo structures, called hogans, used for ceremonies and to house guests. Mine had a kerosene lamp and a wood-burning stove for warmth, plus a mattress on a platform, little wood tables and ample bedding.

Hogan in the Canyon de Chelly

The campground also had flush toilets, a sink and a “sweat lodge”. I learned later that the owner is in contact with a local medicine man who will occasionally treat ailing guests in this traditional sweat lodge.

The owner had set out my bedding, lit the lamp and got my log fire ready to me ignited with one match. (If you can’t count on a Navajo to build a good fire, what can you count on?) I was snug and cozy as night fell, watching the fire, listening to music and dashing outside from time to time to gaze at the incredible, starry sky.

In the morning, I arranged for a jeep tour of the canyon with the owner’s nephew, Benjamin. Like many Navajo, he had a dwelling on the rim and one on the floor of the canyon which he used mainly in the summer when it offered a respite from the heat.

The cottonwood trees were in full autumn color which created little spots of brilliant yellow light.

Floor of the Canyon de Chelly

Benjamin was not impressed by the cottonwood trees. In fact, he was irritated. It turns out that the government planted the trees decades ago to curb erosion. The problem is that cottonwood trees are thirsty and absorbed the groundwater, leaving nothing for the residents. Water had to be brought in by tank as there was no connection to city water mains. What should have been done about the erosion? “We would have taken care of it” he answered.

Undoubtedly they would have as the canyon has been inhabited for around 2000 years. The Navajo drifted in during the 15th century. Before them were the Pueblo who lived there from the 8th to 15th century.

One of the highlights of the canyon are the ruins of the Pueblo, visible in several places.

Ruins in the Canyon de Chelly

They also drew on the canyon walls, mostly pictures of antelopes.

Drawings in the Canyon de Chelly

There were no animals in the canyon at this particular time but Benjamin assured me that in winter the animals return from the further reaches of the canyon (not all of it is accessible to the public). Mountain lions, coyotes and even bears can be glimpsed. “Bears? Wow. Scary”. “Not to us,” said Benjamin. “They’re like our pets. They never attack us. They understand our language.”

I wish I had more time to spend in the canyon but I was shocked to learn that I was a full 3 1/2-hour drive to Flagstaff. Time for the long trip home by car, bus and plane.

October 26, 2016




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