Canyon de Chelly: Living in Two Cultures

Canyon de Chelly, AZ; September 30, 2010: Whereas the Grand Canyon overwhelms because of its immensity, the Canyon de Chelly invites participation because of its more human scale. The name itself is not an obscure French name but rather the effort by early explorers to spell a Navajo name—Tsegi or Tcegyi—which means our physical and spiritual home.

After three hard days of cycling, the PACTourists enjoyed a free day at Tsegi. More than half of the company chose to be shuttled to the White House trailhead on the north rim and, with Navajo guides, hike down to the canyon’s floor and back to the entrance and their lodge just inside the park gates. Eight of the company chose to tour the canyon by jeep. Because the sandy canyon floor is deeply rutted, with only the semblance of roadways, there were moments when passengers feared that they might have to push the four-wheeled vehicle through sand traps.

The Navajo guides had strong family connections with the Canyon. One man had been reared by grandparents on their farm deep in the Canyon. At sixteen years of age, he left home to work, first at Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon and later in cities including Las Vegas. Because of these years in the outside world, he had overcome the deep reserve that marks traditional Navajo culture and learned to communicate openly with strangers. He has returned to the Chinle community, is married to a Navajo woman, and they are seeking to rear their children with a full knowledge of their language, stories, and culture—all of this while living in a world of modern farm equipment, complicated school schedules, and cell phones.

His narrative was a quiet and informative accounting of crops grown in the Canyon, family history, and Navajo attitudes. He stopped at important sites, pointed out the ancient dwellings and explained why they were built the way they were. One of his explanations was that when each dwelling was built, it was only a little distance above the canyon floor. In intervening centuries, the floor has continued to wash a way. He showed the travelers the figures inscribed in canyon walls and interpreted their meanings.

His story frequently revealed the tensions experienced by people who seek to live by traditional wisdom while participating in the technological world of modern America. How can families keep their language and its stories alive when the surrounding world speaks English and scoffs at old stories? People remember that not long ago boarding schools and even public schools prohibited the use of the Navajo language and suppressed expressions of Navajo culture. Now public schools on the Reservation require that students take courses in Navajo language and culture. While children learn about their people’s ancient ways, the majority of them do not learn to speak the language.

He described tensions between visions of the meaning of life and principles of how to live. Half of the Navajo people, the guide reported, are in families converted to Christianity. Because of their new faith, they have little interest in the traditional language and culture or in a way of life centered upon respect for the world and all its creatures.

During his narrative, he revealed another point of tension—between history as remembered by the people in their stories and history as told by archaeologists and written in their books. One narrative says that the Navajo have been in this region from the time of emergence into this level of the world while the other describes their coming in historic times. “The archaeologists are wrong,” the travelers were told.

The proper care of the Canyon itself is another point of tension. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps set up its operations in the Canyon, planting Russian olives and other non-native species to control erosion of the sandy soil by the periodic flooding that occurred year after year. The unexpected consequences, however, were rapid takeover of native plants by these exotics, the channeling of water runoffs, and serious lowering of the water table. Now, under Navajo management, the exotic trees, shrubs, and grasses are being removed and plantings native to the area are being restored. Maybe the natural rhythms can be restored.

Cycling into Chinle, the PACTour travelers had been aware of intense commuter traffic and the frenetic character of modernity. Inside the Canyon, everything was quiet. Motorized vehicles crept along. There was a sense of peace and, if we might use the word, respect.

For one day of the tour, this company of PACTour travelers found their athleticism melding into something different—a poignant aestheticism.

For many of them, it will be the finest day of the journey.

Note: Images are courtesy of Scott Park.

One Response to Canyon de Chelly: Living in Two Cultures

  1. Rodney Allen Reeves says:

    Canyon de Chelly National Monument has escaped my travels thus far. Your comments have further motivated to include a visit to Tsegi on one of our (Shirley) trips to son Stan, Jeanie & grand-daughters in Phoenix.

    I’ve little doubt your blog last line (as a less physically demanding journey into aestheticism) would include me if one of your traveling companions.

    Visited some with Billie last night at sanctuary choir practice. Understand you return this Sunday. Look forward to discussing in person more about your cycling ‘down under’ Grand Canyon 2010 PACTour.

    PS: Tomorrow (Sat Oct 2) will be interesting at Pdx 1st Xian Church as we host an All Day Singing School (9am to 3pm) facilitated by the Portland Sacred Harp Society.

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