Brown Quarterly - Vol. 1, No. 2 (Winter 1996)

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

By Tara Travis

If you look at a map of Arizona, you will notice a vast reservation in the four corners area belonging to the Navajo Tribe. In the center of the reservation lies Canyon de Chelly National Monument . The park's establishment in 1931 signifies a shift in American Indian-U.S. Government relations, producing an unusual relationship within the National Park Service system.

The early years of the twentieth century saw a continued pattern of assimilation policies towards American Indians. This approach began to dissolve in the decades to follow, with more acceptance by the U.S. Government that American Indians were going to remain a distinct cultural and political entity. It was under this atmosphere that Canyon de Chelly began to be seriously discussed as having National Monument potential. When it became evident that Navajos were voicing concerns for the protection of the ruins along with established archaeologists such as Neil M. Judd, A.V. Kidder, Earl Morris, J.L. Nusbaum, and Clark Wissler, discussion became serious. Correspondence between then National Park Service Director, Stephen T. Mather and Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles H. Burke stressed a desire to see the Navajo remain in Canyon de Chelly. When the matter was brought before the Navajo Tribal Council in 1925, the council approved the establishment of the monument, "providing grazing and other rights of the Indians are in no way interfered with . . ." In 1931, Canyon de Chelly became a National Monument whose land is held in tribal trust.

Preserving Native Culture

In order to preserve native culture, the American Indian community is incorporated at the park in both formal and informal ways. First and foremost, the Park Service hopes that the impact on local Navajos has been lessened by their continued occupation of the canyons. Fundamentally, the canyon residents contribute daily to the preservation of their culture. The Navajo people who continue to farm and graze livestock in their traditional family use areas, are stewards of the past, watching over and protecting the abandoned prehistoric dwellings from harm. Organized into two Resident Associations (representing Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly "neighborhoods"), the canyon residents have found a means of working together to preserve and improve the canyon resources. Most recently, the Canyon del Muerto Residents' Association has worked with the National Park Service, the Navajo Nation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to explore restoring the canyon's fragile watershed.

The typical visitor to Canyon de Chelly National Monument is surrounded by native culture while experiencing the "traditional" interpretive services provided by the National Park Service (such as front desk assistance, scheduled talks and hikes). During the plant walks, visitors familiarize themselves with the flora of the area, yet they also explore the Navajo uses and meaning of the native plants. At the park's hogan, discussions about this traditional Navajo house include lessons in Navajo etiquette. Visitors learn which direction to turn when entering the eight sided structure and where men and women should sit. Occasionally, geology and rock art hikes are offered where the visitor can glimpse the stylistic expressions of the ancient people as well as view historic scenes from the Navajo's past. All of these activities, conducted by the all Navajo Visitor Services Team provide insight into what it means to be Dine (the Navajo name for themselves). Their perspectives and experience improve the quality of all the interpretive material presented at the park.

In addition, the park is actively increasing the scientific and cultural information about Canyon de Chelly. Over the last six year a systematic archeological survey has focused on reconstructing the complex occupational history of a portion of the canyon known as Canyon del Muerto. Guided by concepts of landscape archeology, the survey has identified an American Indian settlement continuum stretching from over 2500 years ago with the wanderings of archaic peoples to the present Navajo cultural landscape. The survey is guided by the desire to share information as quickly as possible with park managers and interpreters. Even before the project is completed, archaeologists have written a new Interpretive Manual that sheds light on the recent discoveries and demonstrates how the project is changing our knowledge of the canyon archeology and geography.

An Educational Resource

Over the last year, Canyon de Chelly National Monument has welcomed over one thousand Native American school children who come to experience the canyon. Most of the children are Navajo and Hopi Indians, many are local with about one-third of the teachers requesting the park provide "Native history." An audiovisual program, "Canyon Voices," is available for viewing in English or Navajo and provides an introduction to the canyon culture. Many school groups visit towards the end of the school year when thoughts of local children turn to playing in the canyon "wash" or beginning a game of "beach" volleyball in the shimmering sands of the canyon floor. The park will soon have available a new brochure that will bring together the story of the Navajo culture in addition to new archeological reconstructions. This brochure, along with a Junior Ranger Activities Sheet is available for free by writing the park. For further information, please contact: Superintendent, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, P.O. Box 588, Chinle, AZ 86503, (505) 988-5500.

FREE STUFF!: For Canyon de Chelly brochure and Junior Ranger Activities Sheet contact Superintendent, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, P.O. Box 588, Chinle, AZ 86503.