Canyon de Chelly – Ancient Home of the Navajo

Canyon de Chelley, Arizona by the National Park Service

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona by the National Park Service

Ancestral Puebloans, courtesy National Park Service

Ancestral Puebloans, courtesy National Park Service.

Canyon de Chelly, pronounced “canyon d’shay,” is one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes in North America, preserving the ruins of the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) to the Navajo. The name “Chelly” is a Spanish borrowing of the Navajo word Tséyiʼ, which means “canyon.” Located in northeastern Arizona, within the Navajo Nation’s boundaries, the area, covering almost 84,000 acres, was established as a National Monument in April 1931.

For nearly 5,000 years, people have used the towering sandstone walls of Canyon de Chelly as a place for campsites, shelters, and permanent homes.

The original inhabitants were the Archaic people (2500-200 B.C.), who lived in seasonal campsites, conducted hunting and gathering expeditions, and did not build permanent homes. Their stories are understood through their campsites’ remains and the images they etched and painted on the canyon walls.

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona by Mark Kuhanek

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona by Mark Kuhanek

By about 200 B.C., a fundamental shift occurred in the way people lived within the canyon. The Basketmakers started to sustain their community through farming instead of by hunting and gathering. As their agricultural skills improved, their lives became more sedentary, and they built communities of dispersed households with large granaries and rudimentary public structures.

As time passed, the Basketmakers’ style of home gradually changed. From about 750 to 1300, they abandoned their pithouses in dispersed hamlets and built connected rectangular stone houses above ground. The inhabitants eventually formed multi-storied villages that contained small household compounds and kivas with decorated walls from these connected dwellings. The people of this time are called the Puebloans; a pueblo is the Spanish word for village and refers to these people’s compact village life. These Ancient Puebloan people are the predecessors of today’s Pueblo and Hopi Indians, and they are often referred to as Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning “ancient ones.”

White House- Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

White House, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona by Mark Kuhanek

Canyon de Chelly National Monument contains the remains of these ancient  Puebloan villages. Built into a sheer 500-foot sandstone cliff, the White House was constructed and occupied between 1060 A.D. and 1275 A.D. The White House takes its name from the white plaster used to coat the long back wall in the upper dwelling. Visitors can view the White House Ruins either from the “White House Overlook” on the South Rim Drive or by taking a 2.5-mile round-trip trail to the ruins (this is the only trail by which visitors may enter the canyon without a permit or an authorized Navajo guide). The largest ancient Puebloan village preserved in Canyon de Chelly is Mummy Cave. Situated 300 feet above the canyon floor, this village has close to 70 rooms. The east and west alcoves contain living and ceremonial rooms, and the walls are decorated with white and pale green plaster. Mummy Cave was occupied until about 1300. Visitors can view the ruins from the “Mummy Cave Overlook” on North Rim Drive.

Navajo in a Canyon, 1904

Navajo in a Canyon, 1904

By 1300, the Puebloan life in Canyon de Chelly abruptly ended. A prolonged drought in the 1200s dried out what is now the Four Corners region of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and  New Mexico; disease; conflict; and the allure of new religious ideas to the south prompted the Puebloan people to disperse. They left the canyon searching for a constant water supply and eventually established villages along the Little Colorado River and at the southern tip of Black Mesa. The people of these villages, known as the Hopi, continued to occupy the canyon sporadically. The Hopi used the canyon for seasonal farming, ritual pilgrimages, and occasional lengthy stays. The Hopi’s life pattern continued from 1300 until the late 1600s or the early 1700s when they encountered the Navajo in Canyon de Chelly.

Around 1700, adversaries pushed the Navajo people south and west into the Canyon de Chelly region. They brought domesticated animals acquired from the Spanish and a culture modified by years of migration and adaptation. By the late 1700s, lengthy warfare erupted between the Navajo, other American Indians, and the Rio Grande Valley’s Spanish colonists. Canyon de Chelly National Monument preserves and interprets the site of a battle that occurred during this time. On a winter day in 1805, a Spanish military expedition, which Lieutenant Antonio Narbona led, fought an all-day battle with a group of Navajo people fortified in a rock shelter in Canyon del Muerto (another canyon located within the Canyon de Chelly National Monument). By the end of the day, Narbona reported that 115 Navajo were killed. The rock shelter where this occurred is called Massacre Cave. Visitors may view Massacre Cave at the “Massacre Cave Overlook” on North Rim Drive.

Navajo Prisoners taking the "Long Walk"

Navajo Prisoners taking the “Long Walk.”

By 1846, the Spanish and subsequent Mexican control of Arizona and New Mexico came to an end with a short military campaign that concluded with the United States claiming the territory. By 1863, the United States military was conducting a brutal campaign against the Navajo. Under the territorial commander’s orders, Colonel Kit Carson led a campaign against the Navajo, which ultimately resulted in the removal of 8,000 Navajo to new lands in eastern New Mexico. The Navajo people were forced to walk the 300 miles from Canyon de Chelly to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. They called this The Long Walk. Many died along the Long Walk, and the conditions at the fort were not much better. After four years, this first reservation experiment failed, and the Navajo were permitted to return to their land.

Today, Canyon de Chelly sits in the middle of the Navajo Indian Reservation and continues to sustain a living community of Navajo people. The monument is managed through a partnership between the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation.

Notable sites are White House Ruin, one of the best known and most dramatic of the Anasazi cliff dwellings; Mummy Cave, a large cliff dwelling with a three-story tower occupied from 300 to 1300 A.D.; and Antelope House, named for its many colorful paintings of antelope.

The monument is located three miles east of Chinle, Arizona, off US 191 on Arizona Route 7. Except for a self-guiding trail from the White House Overlook to the White House Ruin, all visitors must be accompanied by a park ranger or an authorized guide. The Visitor Center is open daily.

More Information:

Canyon de Chelly
P.O. Box 588
Chinle, Arizona 86503

White House, Canyon de Chelly, 1922

White House, Canyon de Chelly, 1922

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June 2021.

Also See:

Ancient & Modern Pueblos – Oldest Cities in the U.S.

Arizona Main Page

National Parks, Monuments & Historic Sites

Pueblo Indians

Source: National Park Service