Chris Corden takes his family to the US where they come face to face with people of the Navajo tribe, all while travelling in a mini camper van
“The Navajo people know that white society is pretty much falling apart now. They say in the prophecies the red nations will rise, and you see that today.” Roy Tracy, programme director of KTNN, the Navajo Nation’s radio station, was talking in KTNN’s headquarters in Window Rock. It was the end of our visit to the Navajo, and with his words, much that we had seen and felt fell into place. We, being my wife Gill, and our two children, Tob and Zoe.
We’d arrived in Los Angeles, collected our mini motor home, and headed for the hills. It’s called a mini motor home because it’s only twenty-five feet long. They can be getting on for forty, and sometimes tow a car as well.
Having survived our first drive along an interstate on the wrong side of the road, in a vehicle the size of small lorry, we quickly settled into the usual camping routine. We marvelled at the Grand Canyon, the Petrified Forest and Meteor Crater, but then turned north-east and headed for a brown bit of our map labelled ‘Navajo’.
That particular day we had made an early start, but as we went up Highway 191, there was nothing. Just mile upon mile of reservation, dotted with the occasional group of houses encircled with cars and lorries of various vintages. We discovered later that many of these groups of houses weren’t villages, but extended family groups. Being a nomadic people, the Navajo aren’t natural urban dwellers, even though there is now an attempt to settle them in townships. The concept of a backyard must be strange for someone who’s traditionally treated the entire countryside as theirs to roam in.
So, with increasing hunger, we journeyed across a lot of the map’s ‘brown bit’ until we reached Chinle. There, like an oasis in a barren landscape, we found a Best Western Hotel, and felt we’d crossed some kind of frontier.
Chinle lies at the point of the Canyon de Chelly (pronounced ‘shay’) National Monument, which is actually two Canyons shaped like an arrowhead pointing west. It’s a sacred place to the Navajo, and while roads go round the rim and have regular ‘overlooks’, the best way to see it is from below with one of the many Navajo guides and organised tours. The main operator is Thunderbird Lodge, and it was they who took us on an unforgettable 3-hour trip in an ex-US Army six-wheeler.
As we bumped away from the lodge, Timothy, our Navajo guide and driver, explained we would be venturing into the Canyon Del Muerto, and the Canyon De Chelly. It was late April, and after poor winter rains the rivers were already drying up – our six-wheeler drove straight through them. Zoe kept count, and told us her face had been splashed 116 times.
At the entrance to the canyon the walls are only about three feet high, and give no hint of what is to come. It’s a large flat area, and when we drove through it was dotted with Navajo children playing. Something we were to see throughout the journey. Timothy told us that when he was a child the canyons were his playground, and it was obvious nothing had changed. The Navajo families who owned and farmed the canyon floor were just beginning to move down there for the summer.
Soon, the three-foot walls soon began to rise, first to a few hundred feet, but eventually to over a thousand. They were sheer walls of rock that overhung as they get higher. Overhangs sculpted out by the torrents of water that had once flooded through. Only it isn’t just the sheer rock faces streaked with mineral deposits that we had come to see. We had come to see the cliff houses, built by the Anasazi between 1100 and 1500 AD.
Anasazi means ‘Alien People’ in Navajo, and the Navajo now claim the area as theirs by right. Indeed they call their land Dine’ Bi Keyah, Navajoland, and it is no longer a reservation, but the ‘Navajo Nation’. A Nation they hope will one day be independent with its own borders and frontier posts. But though it is their Nation now, they are relative newcomers to the land, as were the Anasazi during their tenure. Nomadic hunter gatherer tribes roamed parts of northern Arizona around 2,000 BC.
The Anasazi were a small people, around five feet tall, who began to populate the canyon in about 1AD. At first they spent their winters in the many caves, and their summers in brush shelters. But by 500AD they had begun to cultivate permanent fields, were making pottery, and living all the year round in pit houses roofed with sticks and mud. It was 200 years later that they began to build cliff houses, though those remaining today date from some 400 years after that. In around 1100-1300AD, approximately 1,000 Anasazi lived in the canyon. Then they vanished.
It may have been floods, drought, or any number of reasons that caused an entire people to disappear. Some may even have been absorbed into other tribes, and there are those who claim both the Hopi and the Navajo are direct descendants of the Anasazi.
The Navajo arrived around 1700, finding the canyon an ideal base for raiding nearby Indian and Spanish settlements. And from then until now it has been their land to fight over, be driven out of, return to, and protect.
For a while we bumped, lurched, and splashed our way along the canyon’s floor as the sheer rock walls got higher, until we stopped for our first sight of the cliff dwellings. They were small single-storey houses, that snuggled in a long slit in the rock face. Going into ‘tour guide mode’, Timothy began to explain how the Anasazi used rope ladders, foot and hand holds, to get to their houses. He told us of present day life in the canyon, how it is farmed, how the families who own the land have houses outside the canyon in winter, but come into the canyon in the summer. He bemoaned the fact that the land passed down the female line, making the apron strings the purse strings, and the strings of power as well. And, as we looked up at the small houses in their shallow crevice, he told us that the Navajo never ventured there, as the ruins were the last resting place of the Anasazi.
At one stop, Timothy explained how, in the winter, the rivers could be several feet deep, and only passable with care. Gesturing to the dry terrain he told us, “many four wheeled drive vehicles venture into the canyon every winter, and many remain here, buried.” Then, with a laugh added, “most of them with California licence plates.”
There were many such stops, and at two o’clock we got out to take a closer look at some of the ancient houses. We also had the chance to buy souvenirs from people who seemed pleased to see us. But it wasn’t until we were leaving the canyon that it became clear we were not universally welcome, even if our money was. Several Navajo had barely looked at us as we passed, and one or two seemed less than friendly. The obscene gesture and angry glare from one young Navajo left nothing to the imagination.
The following day, sitting in Roy Tracy’s office at KTNN as he speculated that the “red nations shall rise”, these impressions grew flesh on their bones. KTNN is the radio station of the Navajo Nation. A medium wave station that uses a 50,000 watt transmitter to beam its message across the 26,000 square miles of the ‘Nation’. Roy is a Navajo, and his views on nationhood are, as he was at pains to explain, his own.
The Navajo live between the four sacred mountains in a land where the spiritual beliefs of the Dine’ (‘the people’) form the bond that keeps them together. In their creation stories the Navajo tell of the Dine’ passing through three underworlds to finally emerge in today’s fourth world. Their passage was helped by the Holy People, invisible spiritual beings who taught the Dine’ to live in harmony with the natural world.
One such Holy person was Spider Woman, who taught the Navajo the art of weaving. She is said to live on the 800 foot Spider Rock in the Canyon de Chelly. A canyon sometimes referred to as the centre of the Navajo Universe where the web of life interconnects all things in creation.
The Navajo’s oral culture is filled with tales of heroism, and though Dine’s battles through the underworld may be in the mythical past, the Navajo’s defeat by Kit Carson in the Canyon de Chelly in 1864 is real enough. A defeat that preceded the 350 mile ‘long walk’ into exile, during which over 3,000 are said to have died of sickness, starvation, or simply frozen to death.
Yet as Roy Tracy said, “we know what happened in the past, let’s get over that, become sovereign, and move on.” Though he knows temptation lies outside the Navajo Nation. The cars, the designer shoes, and the trappings of a ‘white’ world. But he wants his children to have a sense of identity. As far as he is concerned “they can go off the Navajo Nation, learn what the white people have out there, bring it back, and develop our nation to overcome those outsiders.”
And he speaks from personal experience, “I’ve lived both on and off the reservation. I know what white society is like. I know how it feels to be surrounded by steel glass structures and miles and miles of concrete and pavement. Spiritually, I don’t belong there. I belong between the four sacred mountains, in the vastness and openness, where I can see beauty all around me.”
If what you’ve just read makes you doubtful about venturing into that 260,000 square mile ‘brown bit’ on your map, don’t let it. We’ll never forget our visit to Dine’ Bi Keyah, much of it was magical, and the scenery was breathtaking. It, like all the trip, was unforgettable, only it wasn’t ‘America’. It was Roy Tracy’s land “between the four sacred mountains”, and long may it stay just that.
Chris Corden is a broadcaster and journalist
You can drive along the north rim and the south rim of the canyon to view from above. Access to most of the canyon floor is limited unless you are with a guide.
There is a visitor centre near Chinle which is open daily. Tours can be arranged and free half-day hikes led by park rangers are available in the summer. You can hire a guide at any time of year for different or longer hikes, or to go in your own 4WD vehicle. Most guides are Navajos. Horseback trips are available from two local stables and longer trail rides are available.