Canyon de Chelly is a silent and mysterious place. It lies in northeastern Arizona, close to where the four corners of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet. More importantly, the canyon constitutes the heartland of the Navajo Nation, an area approximately the size of New England (more than 17 million acres) and home to the largest population of Native Americans—the Diné or “the People”—within the United States.
The Canyon has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years. In 1931, it was designated a National Monument and since then, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Canyon de SHAY) has become one of our most visited national monuments. The Canyon is owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust and it is the only privately owned and cooperatively managed unit in the National Park Service. Tourists may visit the Canyon by driving along its north and south rims, stopping at one of the many overlooks; visits to the Canyon floor may be arranged by contacting a park ranger or a local Navajo guide. (About forty Navajo families still live on the Canyon floor, farming and tending flocks of sheep.)
Despite its stunning physical beauty, the Canyon has a sad and haunted history. In 1863, Colonel Kit Carson led federal troops into the Canyon, rooting out and killing many inhabitants while destroying homes, orchards, and livestock. Soon after, the demoralized Diné surrendered to the federal government and were relocated by a forced march (known in tribal lore as “the long walk”) to the Bosque Redondo, a desolate government encampment in southern New Mexico. (More than 2,000 Navajo died of disease and starvation on their tragic long walk.) The surviving members of the Diné remained at the Bosque Redondo in inhospitable and squalid conditions for five years before being allowed to return to their sacred Canyon and the surrounding tribal homelands.
The legacy of that bitter time remains palpably close to the surface today. It is exacerbated by high unemployment, alcoholism, and serious health problems caused in part by the extensive uranium mining that has occurred on tribal lands over the last fifty years. And yet the Navajo endure. In their own sacred creation story called the Nihalgai, the Diné passed through a time of darkness into three separate worlds of color—a black, a blue, and then a yellow world—before emerging into this fifth world, the one they call “this glittering world.” It is a verdant place, glittering because of the play of light and water, a timeless world that still exists on the floor of Canyon de Chelly today.
So why am I telling you all this? Maybe because we are fortunate enough to live in a glittering world of our own here in Chestertown. Or maybe because I feel that for the last two years and particularly for the last two weeks, I’ve been on a “long walk” of my own. I don’t know about you but I feel as though my world has not been glittering much of late, that I’m living in a polarized and inhospitable country devoid of much, if any, good common ground. But I think it’s time to go home. I’ll take my first steps back in a couple of weeks when I walk over to the firehouse and cast my vote in the midterm election. I hope you will, too. Maybe then, our world will start to glitter again.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” will be released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com