Sylvia, a Navajo would take us into the canyon. Visitors to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced as canyon dee shay) are required to be escorted by a member of the tribe. The Diné (the people) occupy a vast expanse of land that includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado— it is the Navajo Nation.
Travel into the canyon because of deep sand and creek crossings requires all wheel drive. Decades ago, when Sylvia was a child, her family traveled by horse drawn wagon from their home in the canyon to Chinle for supplies. Today she lives on a nearby plateau overlooking Cottonwood Campground. A neighbor warned me to not go near, that there was a pack of mean dogs up there. This gentleman had a silly smirk on his face, the Diné prefer their privacy and are inclined to be mistrustful of strangers. Let’s just call it for what it was, a harmless fib.
Over the decades since the 1970’s I have traveled and performed across the Navajo Nation working at their schools and libraries. I had not had time being so busy with shows to enter the canyon, to see the cliff dwellings, rock art and petroglyphs.
Sylvia would pull back the curtain, the elder woman wanted to tell the story of the Diné, how in 1864 the United States Calvary had hunted her people, killing members of her tribe, removing them from their land, imprisoning them to make way for the immigrants coming to steal their land and settle here.
Sylvia telling us of this suffering is based upon the stories she was told as child by her great grandmother who had survived the long walk from the canyon to where her people were interned and imprisoned in Bosque Redondo, New Mexico.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine came up in our conversation, for the Diné this current madness is all too familiar with the invasion they endured 154 years ago. Humans are dangerous, unpredictable and capable of unimaginable cruelty. This is one of humanity’s sad truth’s, forged by historic fact. Canyon de Chelly would be taken from the Navajo, livestock seized, farmland destroyed, their hogans set fire to— the United States Army was under orders from Washington to destroy everything.
There is every reason to believe that today, that a runaway and lawless United States government could attack again, that there still is a mania running rampant among the minds of too many men.
Sylvia erased any distance I had conceived between the past and the present. Abandoned cliff dwellings set perched upon ledges in the canyon, the occupants who had made this place home had gone missing. Three thousand years before present— Homer was alive and writing in Greece, here in this unknown world one theory estimates that as many as 100 million people lived in prehistoric America unaware there were such powerful civilizations expanding halfway around the world, even the notion of thinking our world to be spherical was yet to be understood.
European settlers needed to tell another story, theirs was a narrative of savages and ignorance, of superstition, the first people according to this wave of European immigrants were unfit to be part of this new country.
In 1864 Kit Carson marched 8000 Diné from Northern Arizona to internment camps in Eastern New Mexico. Two thousand Diné were killed while in the custody of the United States Army. This is the history of Sylvia’s people, stories told by her elders, eyewitnesses, those who had endured the long walk, the internment camps and by 1868 were freed after the signing of the Navajo Peace Treaty.
Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is a haunting echo of a history any right minded person believes should remain in the past, not forgotten but never repeated. The Russian dictator instead has rekindled the brutish conduct of Stalin complete with Ukrainian prisoners being sent to internment camps in Siberia where they will face torture, hard labor, little food and in all too many instances underserved death. Sylvia knows of such evil, her people have felt the sharp sting of such madness.
The ruins of Chaco Canyon tell a different story— here are located the remains of an advanced civilization. Here you can find evidence of a vibrant people who had developed a distinct new way of living. Charting time, speed and distance the ruins of Chaco Canyon suggest this was a place inhabited by many thousands and thousands of people— many thousands and it seems a home to many different tribes.
The oldest existing buildings were first constructed about 1200 years before present, but many thousands of years earlier, long before the first people built these great homes our earliest ancestors lived here in the canyon too. It is likely that earlier attempts to construct rock walls have vanished with time. Artifacts are fragile, time is unkind to what evidence we might find. Wind, rain and ice have destroyed much of what science would expect to find here. The best we can do is guess, posit theories, try to fit what few facts we do know into a plausible explanation of when was Chaco Canyon first occupied, who were these first people, where did they come from, where did they go, why would they leave—
Above the canyon on the plateau vast herds of bison, elk and antelope thrived. Here it is hard to imagine now but the native grasses and bushes were adapted to this climate and soil. Invasive species brought over from the Old World would choke out the native plants, not adapted to the dry climate the new plants starved the native plants of moisture forever altering this habitat. Twelve centuries ago, this region of New Mexico was a more verdant and greener landscape.
Corn, beans and squash were cultivated in Chaco Canyon. Irrigation was by now common to the first people. Farming added resilience to the Chacoan people’s lives. Further east of Chaco Canyon there is evidence of the first people entering this region 23,000 years before present. North in Nevada rock art near Pyramid Lake is dated back to 14,700 years before present. What route the first people traveled to settle this region is unknown. Did they travel down the coast on rafts— perhaps they’d come up the Sea of Cortez and entered the Southwest by working their way north and east hunting and gathering as they opened up new territory.
The first people’s architecture, pictographs and petroglyphs give us a glimpse into their hearts and minds. The kivas tell us of their spirituality, that the Chaco people aligned their structures using the stars, and that they understood the complexity of the Metonic cycle, this is a 19-year chronology in which there are 235 lunations after which the Moon’s phases recur on the same days of the solar year.
The Supernova of 1054 is memorialized on the canyon’s walls of Chaco. Navajo are a matrilineal people, children are born into their mother’s family, whatever is inherited comes from her side. Sylvia has land in Canyon de Chelly that will be passed to her daughters when she dies. In Chaco Canyon were discovered fourteen women buried. Jewelry, pottery and clothing were found with the remains. Likely these were important Chacoan leaders, the members of the tribe with the highest status. Remember hunting bison, mastodon or wild cats was a hazardous endeavor and likely many brave hunters were lost trying to help feed members of this vast complex multi-tribal community.
In World War II members of the Navajo worked with the allies as code talkers, the Nazi’s never were able to crack the Diné’s language— it was the skilled language of the great first people of the America’s that helped to defeat the madness of Germany, Italy and Japan. Anthropologists theorize that it is the advances in language that allow people to organize in larger and larger groups. Smaller groups of hunters and gatherers cannot verbally organize as efficiently, there are no words sufficient for communicating more and more complex tasks. The Chacoan people spoke many different languages, no two alike but all by now were evolved and capable of supporting a larger more complex community.
There was no elder like Sylvia to walk us through Chaco Canyon. Because the 20-mile-long dirt road into the park is so rough many visitors forgo the effort to come see this place. We would not be discouraged— a rough road becomes a smooth road if you are willing to go slow enough. We toured the largest ruins first. After a few hours at Pueblo Bonito, we returned to camp for food and rest. That same late afternoon we struck out on foot and went east along Chaco Wash on Wijiji Trail. We hiked out two miles to see the ruins, they are only centuries old, the Navajo built them, there are no kiva’s, the walls are thinner, other details are also distinct to these ruins. Most of all we walked alone on the trail. The late afternoon was clear and warm, the wind had stopped, there was a welcomed stillness. Our encounter was direct, there were no other people to distract our being with these structures, we had them to ourselves, this is not common in our ever more crowded world.
I could conjure up voices of people from the past. With nothing to interfere with my imagination, no distractions the voice of the ruins was more direct, there was a sense of intimacy, I could sense the ghost like spirit of the Chaco Canyon people.
It is perplexing why this site was abandoned. Scientists theorize that after three centuries of continuous building the Chaco people had exhausted the nearby tree’s they used to build the roofs for their rock walled buildings.
Hauling big logs in from afar may have not been possible. The plateau above the canyon may have had large herds of bison, water may have been scarce, without wheels dragging logs may have not been practical. Perhaps other people from other tribes might have posed a threat, the trees may have belonged to another tribe. Maybe none of this is true, perhaps all of it is fact, there remain questions with no sure answers.
Looking at the world we are born into now with the courage to not look away— this is the world with nuclear weapons, we are a people that have altered our climate by burning fossil fuels. Among our various systems of organization there are miscreants running amok that would prefer to rule by dictate, that believe an authoritarian form of governance would serve their social, political and economic interests best. Our potential for barbarism is no less as potent as a vengeful Genghis Khan.
Our weakness is built in, altering our behavior is far from hopeless but neither is it so far proven to be such an easy task to master. It is in some portion of our nature to behave with aggression— another nation’s sovereignty and their people’s freedom can be viewed as unnecessary and expendable— a desperate rapacious invader can rationalize away their reason for plundering. The Buddhist’s of Tibet errored in trusting that Mao Zedung would not take advantage, the spiritually advanced Buddhist Tibet had no means of defending its own borders— their pacifism betrayed their people and its future. The world is complicated and our evolving circumstances challenge.
Into this moment with Putin invading Ukraine, Republicans actively plotting to topple America’s democracy, an apprehensive citizen dares to go politically naked into the ruins of America’s first people— we bow and welcome the Diné to warn us of a very uncertain tomorrow. Go soon and decide for yourself— there is a story to tell, we are the world’s elders now. We’ve crossed over beyond what we might do to help a fragile world along— we are beyond recycling, saving water, tutoring a grammar school student in learning how to read and write. There is this profound sense of our fragile government coming apart, that a dangerous authoritarian faction is ready to pounce. Humankind needs all of us to resist this well-organized ruthless minority, we are the authors of our own better path, the solutions to our problems will come by our willingness to do the work, get out the vote, bring new solutions to some of our most nettlesome problems. Most of all we must resist the temptation to deny this might well devolve into a fight.
The Diné know all of this and more, they know of the long walk, they tell unvarnished stories to their offspring, they speak of matters all too brutal, all too recent, all too painful. We owe a debt to these great people who have forgiven us even if they remain wary and forewarned. We should listen if our world is to survive the scars of their truth, these stubborn immutable traits of human behavior are set down on rock in an abandoned desert canyon.