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If these walls could talk...

Deborah Stone | May 26, 2014, 6 a.m.
Canyon de Chelly is an 84,000-acre archeological sanctuary administered jointly by the National Park Service and the Navajo people. Photo by Deborah Stone

Those who make the trip down into Canyon de Chelly in Chinle, AZ will often tell you it is one of the most memorable experiences in their lives. This natural wonder with its mesmerizing scenery and rich history creates a magical milieu that defies description.

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Spider Rocks Overlook is distinguished by its twin towers of sandstone guarding the confluence of Canyon de Chelly with Bat and Monument canyons to the south. Photo by Deborah Stone

Located in northeastern Arizona within the boundaries of the vast Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly is an 84,000-acre archeological sanctuary administered jointly by the National Park Service and the Navajo people. It was designated a national monument in 1931 to protect and preserve the numerous archeological resources long known to exist on the canyon rims, walls and bottomlands. The name was derived from the misspelling and mispronunciation of the Navajo word for the canyon, “Tseyi,” which is pronounced “say-ee.” Over time, the word became “de Chelly,” which is pronounced as “de-shay.”

The canyon, which is actually a labyrinth of several canyons, is composed of sandstone, and was created millions of years ago. Land uplifts and stream cutting formed the colorful sheer cliff walls that give the place its unique beauty. They rise dramatically, standing in some places over 1,000 feet above the canyon floor, overshadowing streams, cottonwoods, and small farms below. These spectacular vertical walls make access to the canyon bottom difficult, though this has long been viewed as an advantage as it has provided protection for both ancient and modern Native Americans throughout the centuries.

Natural water sources and an ideal soil composition provided a hospitable environment for flora and fauna to exist within the canyon, which eventually attracted the first human inhabitants to the area. The Ancient Pueblo people, or Anasazi as they are often referred to, found the canyons an ideal place to plant crops and raise families. They built multi-storied villages, small household compounds and kivas that dot the canyon alcoves and talus slopes. Their cliff dwellings took advantage of the sunlight and allowed for a natural system of heating and cooling. They also provided a natural form of protection, which was enhanced by the addition of accessible ladders that could be lifted during enemy attacks. Thanks to an arid climate and the shelter of the overhangs and caves, a number of the structures, along with other artifacts and organic remains, have been preserved. Of the total 2,700 ruins discovered in the canyon, 700 are still in some form of existence today.

The Anasazi thrived in the canyon until the mid-1300s when it is believed they left the area to seek better farmlands. This paved the way for the Hopi, descendants of the Anasazi, to migrate into the area. Though they had their fields of corn and fruit orchards within the canyon, the Hopi did not winter there, preferring to settle instead on the mesa tops.

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You can get spectacular views of the canyon from its numerous overlooks on the North and South Rim Drives. Photo by Deborah Stone

In the 1700s, the Navajo settled in the Southwest and became residents of the canyon, where they continue to remain today. The canyon is the epicenter of Navajo culture. It is both the physical and spiritual home of the people. The Navajo, or Dine’ as they often call themselves, are related to the Athabaskan people of Northern Canada and Alaska. Like the “Ancient Ones,” they still plant their crops and fruit trees, raise livestock and build their hogans on the canyon floor. Roughly forty to fifty families currently live within the park borders.

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