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Friday, July 11, 2014

Canyon de Chelly and the Navajo Nation (Part I)

For years we've been circling Canyon de Chelly, visiting virtually every other park and wilderness area surrounding it in the Four Corners region. This year we finally made the trip and I'm glad we did.

Canyon de Chelly* National Monument is in northeastern Arizona just outside the town of Chinle. The park is fully within the Navajo Nation; they run the park, campground and concessions. In fact, Navajo descendants still live in the canyon planting corn, squash, beans and other crops as their ancestors have been doing for 5,000 years. (Well, except for the timespan after they were run out of the canyon in 1863 by Kit Carson, driven off their own land and banished to live on a reservation in New Mexico: an old and shameful story that has been repeated too many times in history.)

*pronounced "deh shay," it's a Spanish word borrowed from the Navajo "tseyi" (meaning canyon) using a bastardized French spelling, which makes the park name, when translated to English, "Canyon Canyon." Don't ask...

The road to Canyon de Chelly is paved with dust.

We drove in from the North Rim area of the Grand Canyon and quickly realized why we hadn't done it before; Canyon de Chelly is a long way from most anywhere. It's 135 miles from Flagstaff AZ, 179 miles from Albuquerque NM, 351 miles from Denver, and 342 miles from Salt Lake City UT; in other words pretty remote. The day we drove in happened to be one of the windiest days of the year; according to our friend Peter (who has lived in the area for years) the wind really kicks up like that about once a year.

A huge rock monolith is surrounded by swirling dust along the road to Canyon de Chelly

Peter said the winds usually come in spring, huge gusty windstorms blow in just to disappear as quickly as they came. Our impeccable timing had us on the road during the worst of it, buffeted by flying tumbleweeds and dust--huge clouds of dust--blowing into every crevice of the truck and obscuring visibility to just a couple feet in places. It was white knuckle driving, increased by a weird shimmy the truck seemed to have when taking a corner. We wrote it off to the wind, but when we finally arrived in Chinle we discovered we had a seriously low tire.

The screw was in there GOOD.
Pit Crew Mark
Mark had the tire replaced in no time and found the culprit: a hefty screw buried up to it's head in the thick tread. We laughed (nervously) and couldn't believe we had driven 130 miles of rough gravel road in the last few days only to be caught by a screw that had probably fallen off the back of a truck on the highway. Just one of the many reasons we carry two spare tires on these long trips.

There are two choices for camping in Canyon de Chelly: Cottonwood Campground just inside the entrance to the park and Spider Rock, a privately owned campground on South Rim drive. We chose to stay at Cottonwood, a nice campground located under a canopy of cottonwood trees convenient to both the Visitor's Center and the Thunderbird Lodge and store.

Cottonwood Campground, Canyon de Chelly National Monument
After changing the tire, we met Peter and walked over to the Thunderbird Lodge Cafe for some dinner. The cafe serves up traditional Navajo dishes, like mutton stew and posole (hominy stew), cafeteria style. I had the posole, which was delicious, but even better was the Indian fry bread. We've had it before and it was good, but this was great: the traditional flat bread dough is fried until it puffs up and when done right, it's dense and chewy but not dripping with grease. Perfect for sopping up the last of the posole stew, which was just spicy enough to make my nose run but not so hot that my lips burned. Perfect.

It takes a little getting used to being on tribal land. The first thing that tripped us up was the time: the state of Arizona, in it's rebel independence, does not observe daylight savings time like the rest of it's neighboring states. But the Navajo Nation does, meaning every time you cross the nation's border the time leaps forward an hour even though you are still within Arizona state lines. Trying to determine the actual time to meet up with our friend was a bit of a challenge; my phone must have been alternately picking up Arizona towers, then Navajo (or possibly New Mexico) ones, bouncing back and forth between five and six o'clock.

The Navajo Nation is huge--27,000 square miles--and covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Most of it is open range land, grazed mostly by sheep. Fences are an afterthought, so if you can avoid it at all, don't drive at night. We saw horses, cattle, dogs, goats and even chickens running around on the roads during our few days there. Nothing like a head-on collision with a horse to ruin your vacation.

We saw this guy browsing right on the side of the road. Looked like he wasn't enjoying the wind much more than we were.
Don't expect things to be like home when you go; the Nation is not Phoenix. There is a 50% unemployment rate there, thus lots of poverty. There aren't sparkling malls and spiffy restaurants, but there are lots of vendors selling handcrafted jewelry and rock art. Interactions with the people might be a little tense at first; the first time I visited I thought I was being treated like "one of those stupid white people whose ancestors were responsible" for so much of their grief. But then I actually read the handout we received at the Visitor's Center at the park. Turns out there are some basic cultural differences that account for my European/American-centric misunderstanding, and it was a real "ah ha!" moment when I found this out:

  • Eye contact is considered impolite. If you are speaking to a traditional Navajo person, they will look down or away even though you may have their full attention. The first time it happened I'll admit to feeling kind of pissed. "How rude!" I thought, "She won't even look at me!"
  • The Navajo are taught from childhood to not talk too much, be loud, or be forward with strangers. Trying to strike up a conversation was a little frustrating; we were lucky to get more than one word answers at times. It reminded me of a comedy skit about the world's worst radio interview.
  • Physical contact is reserved for close family members. The only contact that's usually made with a stranger might be a handshake, and a firm grip is considered overbearing. Mark noticed this in our interactions with the vendors at the overlooks. He really wished he had this information before he played the "overbearing American" by using his usual grip.
  • Photography: it's important to ask permission to photograph anyone, or their house and land. I think this should carry through no matter where you go, but it's especially important here.

Mark and Richard, the artist who made the rock art piece we purchased.
(Yes, we got his permission for the photo--he actually volunteered.)
So let's see: Navajo are traditionally quiet, reserved, non-physical-contact people. Americans are stereotypically loud, look-you-square-in-the-eye-and-tell-you-what-I-think, slap you on the back, "how're ya doin'?" people. Not always a good mix.

It helped that we had our friend Peter prep us a bit for our visit. He has worked in the Nation for years in social services and had a lot of helpful information that explained some of what we were seeing.  It really is like crossing into another country; once you let go of your biases and try to see things from their cultural perspective, it really starts to make sense. It also helps that their land, while sparse and dry, is hauntingly beautiful.

Sunset after a thunderstorm, Cottonwood Campground, Canyon de Chelly

(Part II will continue with our tour of the canyon and the hike down to the White House Ruins.)