Canyon de Chelly the Origin of Navajo Culture

Canyon de Chelly offers visitors the opportunity to learn about Navajo history from the earliest Anaszai basketmakers to the Navajo Weavers who live here today. The Canyon’s primary attractions are ruins of Navajo villages built between 350 and 1300 AD at the base of sheer red cliffs and in canyon wall caves.

East of the town of Chinle, Arizona, seasonal Chinle Wash enters the beginning of the Canyon. The walls are only a few feet high but rise sharply after a short distance so that there is only one possible entrance for vehicles, next to the river.

A sandy track leads alongside the Wash to the scattered settlements and ancient ruins, but all visiting vehicles must be accompanied by a guide.

The canyon floor remains green and fertile all year round; this, together with the protection offered by the rocky walls and the beauty of the landscape explain why the valley has been inhabited for so long – from primitive peoples 2000 years ago, through the Anasazi civilisation of the twelfth century which occupied a large area of the Southwest before suddenly disappearing, to the Navajo who have lived here for the last 300 years. They still keep sheep and goats in the canyon, and plant crops.

Within this setting, the canyon’s prehistoric inhabitants experimented with a variety of subsistence techniques, architectural forms, and community design, the result being a long tradition of settlement continuity tempered by periodic change.

Decidedly different from their prehistoric antecedents, the later Navajo occupants blended strategies of a hunting/gathering society with those of agriculture and pastoralism to create an alternative landscape reflecting unique ecological and organizational relationships. This landscape has continued to evolve throughout the last century and, despite being established as a national monument in 1931, remains a viable, living community composed of numerous Navajo families and weavers. In short, Canyon de Chelly represents a material record of one of the most enduring and complex cultural landscapes of the American Southwest.

Over the past few years, a portion of the Canyon, Canyon del Muerto, has been intensively examined by the Canyon de Chelly Archeological Preservation Project. Guided by concepts of landscape archeology, and designed to document both character and preservational condition of archeological remains, this project has expanded upon earlier investigations of prehistoric and historic settlement by clarifying the relationships between architectural form, settlement type, and community design, in effect, not only identifying the building blocks of the cultural landscape, but also examining how they are put together.