Four Corners #02 - Navajo, Canyon de Chelly

January 17, 2024  •  3 Comments

October 2023 Trip

Four corners October 2023 - #02 Canyon de Chelly and Chinle

This Four Corners series of articles is for a one week driving trip we took to the four corners area of the USA.  The main destinations on this trip were Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley with some other stops along the way. 

Entire Trip map
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In this article I’ll talk about the Navajo Nation, the Navajo people , the Navajo WWII Code Talkers, Canyon de Chelly, the Anasazi as well as some other tribes that call the four corners area home, and Indian trading posts..

Three Days in Chinle Area
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Navajo Nation

This trip took us into the heart of the Navajo Nation which is mostly in the northeast corner of Arizona, in the Four Corners region where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado meet.  The reservation covers over 27,000 square miles and is the largest tribal land in the country.  If it were a state, its area would put it half way between West Virginia and South Carolina making it bigger than 10 other states (RI, DE, CT, HI, NJ, MA, NH, VT, MD, WV).  It is estimated that over 300,000 people call it home. 

Navajo Nation (with the Hopi Reservation insdie it)
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Like other tribal reservations in the US, the Navajo Nation operates as a sovereign nation with its own government which includes an elected president, vice president, and a legislative branch.  And like other sovereign nations, including the US, politics are messy.  As it turns out, the Navajo are one of the few tribes with no casinos.  According to our guide, it seems that an ex president of the Navajo Nation was publicly opposed to gambling in the tribal area  due to gambling’s negative impact on society, while at the same time embezzling the cash the tribe had been accumulating – much of it ear marked for economic development such as building casinos.  I wonder of those two things are related?  Nothing much was ever proven but much of the money that could have been used to build a Navajo casino was gone.  Now though they have new leadership and the discussion of casino building is back on the table.

The Navajo Nation is home to remarkable landscapes and cultural sites including Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, and the Painted Desert. These areas attract visitors from around the world and contribute to the local economy.  But not nearly enough to lift it out of poverty.

The tribal government owns all the land and leases it to residents for different purposes.  Let’s say you lease a dozen acres for a home.  You pay an annual Homestead fee (tax).  Then, if you want to raise a few sheep, you need a “livestock” permit which is an additional annual fee.  And, if you want to sell jewelry out of your front yard, yep another fee for that.  But, to prevent speculation or hoarding of land, all leased land must be in use for its leased purpose or the lease is forfeited.

Young Navajo relative of our tour guide.
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But, even so, homesteads of Navajo have stayed in the same clan for dozens of generations being handed down from generation to generation.  In the Navajo culture, land “ownership” follows the woman’s side of the family.  According to custom, Navajo rarely sell or otherwise give up their rights to their land as that is considered stealing the land from their descendents (current and future). 

Navajo Code Talkers

One thing that has fascinated me ever since I heard about it are the World War II Navajo Code Talkers.  While conducting wars being able to communicate with and between all of your far flung battle fronts is critical to success.  And keeping the enemy from intercepting and understanding those communications is equally important.  In the days before “data” over the air capability this was limited to either voice (telephone or radio) or a binary code such as the dot-dash Morris Code system.  Of course now days it’s all satellite encrypted telecommunication.  But before that what was one to do? 

Well, the answer was to use some sort of code in those communications.  This is so important that all militaries put a great deal of effort into creating “unbreakable” codes while at the same time employing hundreds of people and technology to break the codes of the enemy.  But developing a good code is not simple.  First of all someone in every platoon, ship and air force squadron needs to be able to translate messages, and that’s a lot of people that have to know how the code works.  Another factor is that the process of encoding and decoding messages must be speedy.  It doesn’t do much good to tell a gun battery where an enemy ship is if it takes so long to code and de-code the message that the ship is no longer there once the message is decoded.  And coding and de-coding must be error free and should not require any sort of machine or written keys or instructions that can find their way into enemy hands.  That’s a pretty tall order for a good code.

Navajo WWII Code Talkers
National WWII Museum, New Orleans, WWII Museum, New Orleans,
National WWII Museum, New Orleans

Due to these requirements, the best (pre computer) codes were based on a spoken language that was not generally known outside of a small area owned by your side.  It is also true that no matter what you devise, it will eventually be broken.  If it’s good it will last the entire war but all codes tend to be compromised either during or shortly after the end of each war and can’t be used again. 

During World War I, the Choctaw language was used in the transmission of secret tactical messages. It was instrumental in a successful surprise attack against the Germans.  Due to this, after the war Germany and Japan sent students to the United States to study Native American languages including Cherokee, Choctaw, and Comanche in preparation for the next war.  So, understandably the U.S. military was uneasy about using Indian based languages as a base for codes when World War II came along. They were afraid the code would be easily cracked, but that was before they learned about the complexity of Navajo. 

In 1942, Philip Johnston read an article about an armored division in Louisiana that was attempting to come up with another code. Johnston grew up learning the Navajo language and customs as he spent most of his childhood on a Navajo reservation while his parents served there as missionaries.  He became so fluent in the language that at age 9 he was asked to serve as an interpreter for a Navajo delegation sent to Washington, D.C., to lobby for Indian rights. He thought that Navajo would be perfect for a new unbreakable code.

Johnston pitched his idea to the Marine Corps and in spite of concerns about using a code based on a Native American language, they decided to give it a go.. They approved a pilot project to develop a code based on the Navajo language and Johnston recruited 29 volunteers to get it going.  The code was based on word association, where they would substitute bird names for different classes of aircraft and then the Navajo word for that bird was used in the message.   For example, a dive bomber was a chicken hawk which exhibited a similar behavior so was easy to remember.  The Navajo word for chicken hawk is “gini” which is what was put in the message.  A bomber became a buzzard or in Navajo “Jay-Sho” and so on.  They used other word substitutes for other words or phrases common in military communications.  A battleship was a whale, a destroyer a shark, Etc.  The initial code consisted of 211 words which during the course of the war expanded to 411.  For everything else each English letter of the alphabet was assigned a Navajo word for an animal.  For example and an ant was the letter “a” and a bear was the letter “b”.  A string of the Navajo words for these animals spelled out the text of the message.

During testing of the idea, Johnston’s group of “Code Talkers” could translate 3 lines of English in 20 seconds without error rather than the 30 minutes it had taken with the current codes in use by the Marines – and it did not require the use of machines or code books (which could be captured).  This coding system was only used in the Pacific campaign and eventually there were over 400 native Navajo Code Talkers throughout the course of WWII.  The code was never broken during the war.

WWII Code talkers Preston Toledo and Frank Toledo
Navajo Indian Code Talkers Preston Toledo and Frank Toledo (National Archives, The Unwritten Record, Indian Code Talkers Preston Toledo and Frank Toledo (National Archives, The Unwritten Record,
(National Archives, The Unwritten Record,

The Code Talkers were used in every major operation involving the Marines in the Pacific Theater. Their primary job was to transmit tactical information over telephone and radio.  During the invasion of Iwo Jima, six Navajo Code Talkers were operating continuously.  They sent more than 800 messages. All of the messages were transmitted without error.  The Navajo Code Talkers were treated with the utmost respect by their fellow marines. Major Howard Connor, who was the signal officer of the Navajos at Iwo Jima, said, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”

Canyon de Chelly Overview

Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "de-shay") is next to the town of Chinle in northeast Arizona.  It is jointly administered by the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation oversees the land area and activities within the canyon, and the National Park Service manages the visitor center as well as protecting the ancient ruins, petroglyphs and pictographs.

Unlike parks such as Yellowstone or Yosemite, there is no real entrance station or marked borders and there is no entrance fee to drive to various scenic view spots along the canyon rim.  However, you are only allowed to enter the canyon itself with a Navajo Guide.  In the past you could hike down into the canyon from the White House Overlook to the canyon floor at the White House ruins, but that overlook was closed in March of 2020 and due to COVID-19 and other circumstances has not re-opened (more on this later). 

Chinle is at the downstream (western) end of the canyon where it is hardly a canyon at all as the walls are only 25 to 30 feet ft tall.  As you head east up into the canyon you are in a section called “Chinle Wash”.  As you proceed the walls get higher and higher.  Along the way there are several side canyons on both sides.  After a few miles the main canyon splits into two separate canyons.  The south one (to the right) is Canyon de Chelly and the north one (to the left) is Canyon del Muerto.  Canyon del Muerto eventually becomes Tsaile Creek Canyon and Canyon de Chelly goes into Whisky Creek.

Most of the canyon (especially the downstream end) is a wide sandy riverbed festooned with countless tire tracks from passing tour vehicles and jeeps owned by residents of the canyon.   The sand in the river bottom is quite fine and powdery and forms quicksand when wet.  And it gets into everything.  According to our guide it really messes up their cars and trucks getting into the transmission, brakes, and steering box and everything else that moves.  It also gets into the electronics of the vehicles and shorts things out.  In the Chinle Wash section where it is quite wide the annual floods deposit sand gradually raising the valley floor.  But upstream where it is narrower the floods scour sand out sending it downstream making the valley floor lower than it had been in the past.  After each set of floods they always find newly exposed things in the riverbed like old vehicles and from time to time new archeological sites.

Chinle Wash section with wide sandy river bottom
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On tour the going is mostly on the sandy river bottom.  But where there are islands or shoreline with firm ground where we tended to drive when possible as the driving is easier and a bit faster.  These raised areas are covered with Cottonwood, Willow, Juniper, Pinyon Pine and the invasive Tamarisk (Salt Cedar) trees along with various grasses and shrubs.  Most of the vegetation is native but the Tamarisk was foolishly planted by the CCC in the 1930’s for erosion control and quickly became a problematic invasive species crowding out the native plants and causing more erosion by constricting the flow of the river.  They keep trying to get rid of it but it keeps coming back.

The climate here is called “semi-arid”.  The winters are not too cold with the days in the 40-60 degree range and nights many times below freezing.  However the summers can be quite hot (and dry).  Last year (2022) they clocked 112f on several days.  It doesn’t rain much but when it does it can be a doozy, especially in the late summer when a monsoon or two can come through causing flooding in many areas.  But, generally if you go in spring or fall the weather is ideal.

The canyon boasts 2,600 known ruins spread between the Anasazi, Hopi and Navajo.  Some are cliff dwellings and some - known as pict dwellings - are on the canyon floor but it is pretty certain that most of these Pict dwellings have washed away in floods.

Seeing the Park

There are two ways to see the park.  One way to see it is to drive the two Rim drives.  There is one along the north side of Canyon Del Muerto appropriately call “North Side Drive” which is also Route 64.  Similarly there is a rim drive along the south side of Canyon de Chelly which is Route 7 and turns into an unmaintained dirt road after the last Canyon de Chelly overlook. While you can’t actually see the canyon from either of these roads, they each have a multitude of paved side roads that lead to scenic overlooks.  Some of these overlooks have a short path from the parking lot to the rim while at others the parking lot is right at the rim.

Canyon de Chelly Scenic Overlooks
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The views from the overlooks are definitely worth going to and offer dramatic views of the canyons.  These can be photographed quite well with lenses in the 17-200mm range (full frame equivalent) but to really zoom in on some feature which are on the opposite side of the canyon you may want a 400mm (FF equivalent). 

However, if you want to get up close and personal to some of the ruins and be able to closely examine the petroglyphs and pictographs you’ll want to book a guided tour along the canyon floor which brings us to the other way to see the park. 

There are several dozen companies that provide group and private tours in the canyons.  Most of these tours range from 2 to 4 hours but longer ones can be arranged.  Some offer specialty tours such as star photography tours at night.   Most of the group tours put you on benches bolted to the back of a truck.  While this provides for great viewing in all directions it does have its drawbacks.  For one thing there are no roads in the valley only vehicle tracks in the dirt or sandy river bottom which throw up a lot of dust as you go along.  Another thing to consider is that the weather can be EXTREMELY HOT in the summer and VERY COLD in the shade of the canyon walls (which happens quite early in the bottom of the canyon).  Some tour outfits offer enclosed vehicles such as Jeep’s or SUV’s – at least for the private tours. 

On our trip we booked a 4 hour tour with Beauty Way Jeep Tours.  We opted for a private tour in an SUV rather than a group tour which would typically be in an open vehicle.  We did this as I wanted to spend as much time as I wanted to at each stop for photographing rather than having to adhere to the group schedule.  And, we wanted to have more control over when and where to stop and for how long which you can’t do in a group tour.  If you are looking for a tour, most all of them tout using only Navajo guides, but a couple, like the one we choose, only use guides that still live inside the canyon itself (other than in winter).  By growing up and living in the canyon itself they have more insight (and information) about the things in the canyon that they take you to see.

After meeting our guide at our hotel he drove us to the Navajo back country permit office where we paid our per person backcountry fee ($8.00 each) and filled out a permit form which then allowed us to enter the canyon, but still only with a Navajo guide. We then drove through a small picnic area, stopped to put the SUV into 4 wheel drive mode and bounced into the wash itself. 

Canyon de Chelly Visitor Center

As with most parks, a good place to start is the visitor center where you can pick up some maps, and ask about what’s worth seeing given the amount of time you have.  Many visitor centers also have a modest museum and perhaps a short film.  

As our guided tour was scheduled for 2:30 on our first full day in Chinle, we decided to do the North Rim Drive that morning, drive back to town for lunch and then meet our tour guide at 2:30 at our hotel.  Our first stop on the way to the North Rim Drive was at the visitor center to see what was there and to get a more detailed map and find out more about the canyon.  The visitor center is only a couple of miles from our hotel, the Best Western. 

Canyon de Chelly Visitor Center
(Halloween is not really a Navajo thing but I guess the rangers decided to go with the flow)
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At the information desk we picked up a “Motoring guide” which detailed the rim drive scenic overlooks.  There was no real museum but we watched a short video about the Navajo people and the canyon.  However outside there was a traditional Navajo hogan.

The term "hogan" is a Navajo word that can refer to any kind of dwelling, but when used without qualifiers, it usually means a traditional Navajo home.  The traditional ones are typically constructed with a framework of logs or poles and covered with a variety of materials, such as logs, bark, and mud. The traditional structure is round or octagonal, with a conical or dome-shaped roof.  Although most Navajo now live in modern homes which we’d typically call “tract style ranch homes”, some still live in the traditional hand made Hogan’s.  Many families living in modern homes have also built a traditional Hogan near their home or someplace they like to go for ceremonies, reflection or spiritual renewal.  In some places, Hogan’s are now used for cultural demonstrations of native craft making or for the selling of native crafts.

The entrance to most Hogan’s traditionally facing east. This is because east is associated with the rising sun, which holds spiritual importance in Navajo culture. The east is often considered a sacred direction.

Hogan at the visitor center
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Inside of Hogan at visitor center
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Geologic Features of Canyon de Chelly Monument

The lower end of the canyon complex is called Chinle Wash which is named after the stream that flows through it (Chinle Stream).  Eventually this stream joins the San Juan River near Mexican Hat Utah 75 miles to the north (near Monument Valley).  The geology of the canyons, which is mostly weathered sandstone, can be seen quite well from the various scenic overlooks on both rim drives as well as from the valley floor.

400’ tall Junction Rock at confluence of Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto
Junction RockJunction Rock

Canyon del Muerto from Antelope House Overlook looking east (North Rim Drive)
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Canyon del Muerto from Antelope House Overlook looking west (North Rim Drive)
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Many of the canyon walls have what is called “Desert Varnish” which is a dark staining of the red walls where years of water flow have left mineral deposits (mostly iron and manganese oxides) on the walls.

The Navajo call this portion of Desert Varnish in Chinle Wash on a 600 ft tall wall “Mother Earth Hair”
600 ft tall
Desert Varnish
Mother Earth Hair600 ft tall Desert Varnish Mother Earth Hair

Sometimes the desert varnish forms strange designs.  In this case it resembles a walking woman with a fancy hair doo
Water Stained wall looks like walking woman with fancy hair dooWater Stained wall looks like walking woman with fancy hair doo

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Spider Rock (South Rim Drive)
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The Anasazi

In order to appreciate the features in the park it is good to get a sense of the history of the place.  The first people to inhabit the area are commonly referred to as the Anasazi even though there is a movement to change this to the more politically correct term of “Ancestral Pueblo” or “Ancestral Puebloan.”  The word Anasazi translates in Navajo to “people that moved on or migrated on”.  But, the Navajo and Hopi people don’t like the term Anasazi and prefer names like ‘The Ancient ones”, “Enemy Ancestors”, “basket makers” or “Pueblo people”. 

Whatever you call them, they were here from about 1AD to around 1300AD.  To put this in perspective, this was from the time of the Roman Empire through near the end of the Middle Ages marked by The Black Death plague, the Hundred Years War between England and France, the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and the establishment of the Ming Dynasty in China.  Over here on this side of the pond, The Aztec Empire was ascending and the Inca Empire was expanding.

The Anasazi were the only people who have wintered in the canyon.  They liked building houses in alcoves or caves in the cliffs, typically on the north side of the canyons.  These cliff dwellings were easier to defend and also helped with warmth in the winter and keeping cooler in the summers.  In the winters, the low angle of the sun would hit the buildings and warm them up,  In the summer when the sun was higher, the overhang of the alcoves would keep the buildings in shade.  The lifespan of a typical Anasazi was thought to be about 50 or 60 years and they were only around 4’ tall.  As they were not too tall they didn’t need very high alcoves to build in. 

No one is quite sure what happened to the Anasazi, not withstanding that almost everyone who has studied this has their pet theory.  The current majority theory is that a 26 year drought with extremely high temperatures dried up their sources of water and made summer unbearable.  But there are also theories of a plague or pandemic and just plain old political strife. 

An equal mystery is where they went.  Of course if they died off due to disease, we know where they went but most scientists believe that they just dispersed in all directions looking for viable living conditions.  Depending on where various groups went, some assimilated into other groups in surrounding areas, some were probably killed off by those other groups and even others found themselves in even less hospitable environments and just plain couldn’t survive.

First Ruin

The image below is called “First Ruin” which doesn’t refer to it being the oldest but rather because it was the first one excavated.  It is thought there were 18 to 20 buildings here with several being 2 stories with walls going all the way to the top of the cave.  The round structure in the middle is a Kiva.  Inside some of the storage rooms they found pinyon nuts, wild sunflower seeds, maize and beans.  They also found sea shells in the area so they must have either traded with coastal tribes or traveled to coastal areas.  These buildings did not have roof openings or a chimney as the later tribes used.  The smoke from the fire inside just had to escape through doors and windows which must have made it pretty rough inside when a fire was going. 

“First Ruin”.  Typical Anasazi Cliff Dwelling
First RuinFirst Ruin

During the time of the Anasazi, the valley floor was much higher.  For example in the photo above it is thought to have been where that line of grass is less than 100 feet below the dwellings. 

Getting up to these cave sites is pretty rough as they are several hundred feet above the valley floor.  In order to get up there they carved toe hold depressions in the cliff face, used ladders and sometimes a rope.  Even though there’s been erosion since that time, it’s hard to imagine a young woman with a baby on her back and a container of water balanced on her head or in one hand scaling a vertical wall just using those little toe holds.

As many of the cliff dwellings were built on the edge of the drop off, they placed the bottom of their doors high in the wall to keep kids from falling out of the room and down the cliff.

Rock Art

The Anasazi are responsible for most of the rock art one finds in this part of the country even though later inhabitants added their own art to rock faces and canyon walls.

Pictographs are painted on while petroglyphs or carved in.  The “ink” they used in pictographs was made from sand, water and tree sap to make it sticky.

Anasazi Pictographs
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From time to time they used “brushes” made from grass bundled together.  For example the negative hand prints above were made by placing their hand on the wall and dabbing it with a grass brush that had been dipped in the ink.

Antelope House

Antelope House is named for pictographs nearby of running antelope.  Some buildings were 4 stories high and there were at least 6 kiva’s underground.

Antelope House (from North Rim Drive)
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Antelope house from canyon floor
Antelope houseAntelope house

On the canyon wall above Antelope House is a backwards swastika.  It’s not certain what it means but is thought to represent either 4 clans or 4 seasons.

White House ruin

Another popular Anasazi ruin is White House.  The scenic overlook from on the South Rim Drive, which had been the most popular of all the scenic overlooks has been indefinitely closed and barricaded since March of 2020.  The official reason is “safety and law enforcement”.  The assumption was that this had to do with COVID-19 but many people in the area have other ideas – especially now since the Pandemic is largely a thing of the past and yet it remains closed.

Our guide told us that in 2020 a ranger shot a Navajo teenager in or near the parking lot as the teenager was suspected of breaking into and stealing things from vehicles.  And, theoretically the investigation is still going on – 3 years later.

The buildings here were built by the Anasazi in two sections.  The lower section on the valley floor was built first and the upper section was added later.  There had been two ladders extending from the roof of the 4 story lower section to the upper section. 

Two buildings coated with white plaster in the upper section give this ruin its name
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There is some evidence that the upper section was built as a residence for the chief and expanded to include ceremonial facilities as well.  The ruin gets its name from a pair of buildings in the upper section that are coated with a white plaster, making them stand out.  This special, and unusual, treatment reinforces the idea that these were very important buildings; probably the chief’s residence and perhaps the main medicine man lived there as well.

White House sit near the bottom of a 600 ft. cliff. 
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The Hopi

After the Anasazi came the Hopi (who are still around but no longer in this particular area).  The Hopi used Canyon de Chelly for farming in the summers but went up on the mesa tops (to 1st, 2nd and 3rd mesa) in the winter when the sun hardly hits the canyon floor at all.  The Hopi as well as the Navajo consider the Anasazi ruins as having sacred and mystical powers, or as just being bad medicine, and have for the most part just let them be.  For these reasons, it is rare that the Hopi or Navajo occupied or made use of the Anasazi ruins at all and (except for some adventurous teenagers) rarely even visited them.

Although not as prolific with their rock art as the Anasazi, the Hopi added their symbols and stories to the canyon walls.  Sometimes in the same areas as Anasazi rock art.

Hopi Petroplyphs
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In the image above, the “lollipop” at the far left is a symbol for “hand”.  The Circle with 3 spikes on top is the Badger and Bear Clan symbol and below that is the symbol for diamond back rattle snake.  The Hopi are the only tribe that danced with Diamond Back Rattlesnakes.  Eight to ten men would do the dancing holding and waving the snakes around (which I’m sure the snakes did not enjoy).  On the right side of the photo is a Hopi Rain or Snake dancer holding a snake.  The wavy legs show that the figure was dancing.

Navajo History

The third group to occupy the canyon were the Navajo who pushed out the Hopi.  The Hopi now occupy a section of Arizona just to the west in a separate reservation inside the Navajo Nation Reservation.

The Navajo are not related to the Anasazi or Hopi.  The history of the Navajo people - who call themselves “Diné” (Din-eeh) which means “people that move around”  - dates back thousands of years. 

The word "Navajo" is a Spanish adaptation of the Tewa Pueblo word navahu’u, meaning "farm fields in the valley."  Early Spanish chroniclers referred to the Navajo as Apaches de Nabajó ("Apaches who farm in the valley"), which was eventually shortened to "Navajo." What is clear from the history of this word is that the early Spanish settlers recognized the close historical and cultural connections between the Apache and Navajo peoples.

But before that they seem to have migrated across the Bearing Land Bridge from northeastern Asia during the last ice age 15 to 20 thousand years ago and settled in northwestern Canada.  They then migrated to what is now the four corners area of southwestern US around 1400 AD.  They had typically been nomadic in nature following food supplies from season to season.  However at some camps along the way they farmed some crops such as corn, beans and squash.  Why they left the northwest is not really known but it is pretty certain that they did.  Maybe this was just a continuation of the migration across the Aleutian land bridge from Asia to the Americas.

When they first got to the 4 Corners area they settled on the mesa tops but it was too hot there in the summers.  So, some split off and found their way into the Canyon where it was cooler.  But they also found that there were Hopi living there.  Now, based on our western programming we’d assume that a big battle between the Navajo and Hopi ensued with one side driving the other out.  But that did not happen.  The Hopi and Navajo lived side by side for 300 years and got along just fine.  Well, that is, until the 1700’s.  By that time the Navajo greatly outnumbered the Hopi and decided that things in the canyon were getting too crowded and after a number of battles the Navajo drove the Hopi out and things settled down for another hundred years until the Spanish showed up.

After watching many “wild west” movies and TV shows over the years, it is hard to imagine SW American Indians not riding horses, but horses did not exist in this part of the world until the Spanish came along with their horse mounted soldiers.  The Navajo had never seen such a thing before and once they figured out that horse and rider were two separate things, they became quite intrigued by the idea of easier transportation over longer distances so, of course, they stole a lot of the horses as well as other things the Spanish brought along like sheep.

Navajo Petroglyph hunting deer or antelope from horseback
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In the rock art above, you may notice that the riders have no weapons.  Here’s the story behind that.  When someone needed the medicine man, he would come and perform the necessary ceremony, but as the Navajo did not use money the medicine man was paid with jewelry, livestock, or hides.  But, a medicine man was a pretty important figure in the society (2nd only to the chief) so the buckskins used to pay the medicine man had to be the best quality – and this meant no arrow or bullet holes.  To get such a thing, they’d chase a buck from horseback along the sandy river bottom where the narrow hooves of the deer made it hard to run.  When it finally fell down due to exhaustion they’d jump off their horses, and one of them would hold the antlers down while the other would put a bag full of pollen over the nose and mouth of the heavily breathing deer.  This pollen would get into the lungs of the deer and it would suffocate.  The skin would be used for barter or for paying the medicine man but the meat and bone would be shared

In addition to introducing horses to the native people the Spanish also brought sheep and more advanced technology – including new weapons.  The Navajo readily adopted these new things into their culture and day to day life.  The Navajo also incorporated Spanish clothing into their wardrobe and inserted some Spanish words into their language but never really assimilated into the Spanish society. 

During this time, most of the Navajo became less and less nomadic and moved from a hunter-gatherer life style to more of a farmer-rancher life style.  Once they started staying in one place for longer and longer periods of time to farm or raise livestock they started building more permanent homes.  Many settled into having a winter house in one place and a summer house in another place (no not the Hamptons). 

During this time the Spanish were after gold, not territory, and once they figured out there was no gold in the area they pretty much left the SW Indians alone.

And of course, we also can’t forget another important thing the Spanish, and later Americans, brought to the native populations of North America.  And, that would be European disease which killed large numbers of the native people who had no built in resistance or immunity to these imported plagues.

Like many cultures at that time (Aztec, Inca, etc.) the Navajo also found it useful to have some sort of written calendar even though they had no written language.  Although nowhere near as elaborate as the Aztec calendar, the figure 8 dots in the Navajo petroglyph below represents the annual cycles of the moon

Navajo: Skinny horse and annual cycles of the moon
Skinny horse from Navajo
Figure 8 on end has 24 dots.  Representing the moon over the course of a yearSkinny horse from Navajo Figure 8 on end has 24 dots. Representing the moon over the course of a year

Throughout the 16th and much of the 17th centuries, Spain claimed the territories in what is now the SW US.  During that time, the Spanish were fixated on finding lost cities of gold throughout the area and in pursuit of that gold sent a parade of military expeditions into the area looking for the gold.  Many times though these expeditions left settlements behind and then of course forts followed to protect the settlements.  What ensued were decades of minor skirmishes between the Native Americans and the Spanish army. 

One such event happened in 1848 when a contingent of Spanish Cavalry chased some Navajo men up to the end of the North Canyon where they killed a bunch of them and took others as slaves for the Catholic Church.  During this the Navajo women and children hid out in some old Anasazi ruins (which archeologists later named “Mummy Cave”) high up on the cliffs where they were out of sight.  As the Spanish came back down the canyon with their prisoners, an old woman hiding in the cave got so angry that she shouted an insult at the Spanish, thus revealing their hiding place.  This caused the Spanish army to attack the hiding place where they killed over 100 women and children.

Mummy Cave (from North Rim Drive)
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Then in the mid to late 1800’s settlers started invading from the east.  Some were just passing through on their way to the west coast but some decided to stay and start farms and ranches.  Of course small conflicts erupted here and there and as time went on, and more and more Anglos showed up these conflicts escalated into larger and larger events.  All of this prompted the U.S. government to build forts along the wagon trails and to deploy the military to the area to protect the settlers and travelers. 

The Long Walk

But the situation continued to deteriorate until 1863 or 1864 when these tensions got so bad that the U.S. government under General Kit Carson initiated a brutal campaign to subdue the Navajo people and evict them from their land. They rounded up thousands of men, women, and children, forcing them to leave their homes and embark on a grueling walk of approximately 300 miles to Bosque Redondo, a barren reservation in eastern New Mexico.  This event is known as the “Long Walk”. 

The Long Walk took place in the freezing temperatures and blizzards of winter.  The military didn’t really supply food or water and being the dead of winter and being confined to a single trail it was nearly impossible to find food or water.  Add in outbreaks of smallpox brought in by the soldiers and it is no wonder 300 to 500 (and possibly as many as 2,000) Navajo men, women and children died in this forced march. 

Once they arrived at Bosque Redondo, they were treated as prisoners.  But despite all of this they demonstrated remarkable resilience. They maintained their cultural identity and traditions through storytelling, singing, and ceremonies. Their strong spirit and determination helped them survive this ordeal.

But not all the Navajo took the long walk.  Some escaped into the wilderness and others went northwest and were taken in and hidden by the Hopi tribe which was quite nice of them considering the Navajo had thrown them out of Canyon de Chelly. 

Those that went on the Long Walk were imprisoned in New Mexico for 4 years.  In 1865 a treaty between the Navajo and the US was signed.  This treaty created a reservation in what is now the 4 Corners area where they were before being forced to leave.  After the signing of the treaty, the Navajo were allowed to leave the area where they had been confined.  Most came back to the 4 corners area and reoccupied their prior homesteads.  Of course this meant that they had to walk the same 300 miles back to their historic area and rejoin those that had been in hiding.  

During their confinement, not being able to rely on the US for food, they started growing crops in the small area they were allowed to be in.  So, when they returned to the 4 Corners area they just continued with farming and pretty much abandoned the nomadic hunter gatherer life style.

The Navajo Today

Recent climate change has not spared this area.  The hot summers are getting hotter and the area is in a prolonged drought.  As a result there has been a significant increase in the number of mountain lion attacks on livestock and people.  In fact the problem has gotten so bad that local rangers advise the Navajo to just shoot any mountain lion they see.  But this has also prompted residents of areas like Canyon de Chelley to improve their alarm systems.  By this, they mean getting more dogs to sound the alarm if a mountain lion comes near the farm.

While some Navajo live in towns, many live in small communities of a dozen modern government built houses and others consist of more make shift hand built homes loosely clustered together, and still others live in single family compounds in the backcountry – such as in the upper reaches of the Canyon de Chelly complex.

Cluster of more recently constructed houses
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An older community consisting of a mix of individually built homes, mobile homes, and a few more recent style homes
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Individual family cluster of houses, including a modern style Hogan (back right)…
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… along with traditionally constructed buildings used for various purposes
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Demonstrating native weaving in traditional Hogan
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Hubble Trading Post

Navajo trading posts were quite popular in the area from around 1866 until 1970.  During the roughly 200 years prior to their defeat by Kit Carson in 1864 the Navajo were both raiding and trading with the settlers who had been moving in throughout that time.  But then came the Long Walk which decimated the Navajo economy and made them almost totally reliant on army provided rations and manufactured products.  So, in 1868 when they were allowed to return, the US government pledged to provide them with the means to make a living by farming and ranching in return for the Navajo pledging to halt the raiding.  To facilitate the new agreement, a couple of dozen or so trading posts sprang up throughout the reservation.  After WWII there were over 100 of them.  These were almost exclusively owned and operated by non-Navajos and soon became the center of commerce, as well as cultural and social life for the Navajo.

As the name implies, much of the commerce was conducted through trading (or barter) with the Navajo trading wool, sheep, goat skins, and woven textiles.  In exchange the trading post provided flour, sugar, coffee, tobacco, cloth, and canned goods.  This isn’t to say that cash wasn’t also used.  However, in the 19th century cash itself was in short supply so cash substitutes were used.  Many trading posts issued their own metal tokens to use instead of cash.  Mexican silver dollars were also quite popular with the Navajo, but they didn’t use them for buying and selling.  Rather they melted them down in order to use the silver to make jewelry.

By the 1960’s with more motor vehicles and paved roads along with increasing wages, the trading posts went into decline.  They were more and more replaced with Navajo owned businesses, shopping centers and convenience stores. 

The Hubble trading post is one of the last trading posts remaining in operation today.  However, now most of the sales are of Indian made art work (blankets, jewelry and the like) to tourists..  John Hubble purchased the trading post 10 years after the Navajo were allowed to return after the Long Walk.  In 1960 it was declared a National Historic Landmark and in 1967 the Hubble family sold it to the Western National Parks Association who run it today.

Hubble Trading Post
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Hubble Trading Post
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Hubble Trading Post
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In addition to the actual trading post store, there is a modern Hogan set up as a rental for overnight guests (yes it has a bathroom and little kitchen as well as a heater).  The site also has a garden where they grow vegetables and they do some ranching.  In one of the buildings, the Tribal Park Service has a ranger station with a small museum and a place for the demonstration of native craft making.

Some more Pictographs

The “wipti-line”, according to our guide, represents either water or a snake.  Below the wipti-line are depictions of bear, antelope, mountain lion and coyote.  On the right are several figures that are probably a medicine man
Below Wiptiline are animlas:  Bear, Antelope, Mountain Lions, CoyoteBelow Wiptiline are animlas: Bear, Antelope, Mountain Lions, Coyote

Wild turkey’s and Kokopali (medicine man)
wild turkey’s and Kokopaliwild turkey’s and Kokopali



This blog is posted at:

Or, the whole 2023 Four Corners series I posted here (as they are created)

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Thanks for reading – Dan


(Images by Dan Hartford.--Info from Wikipedia, ChatGPT, other web sources, pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way guidebooks and commentary by the local guides)






Ciao Dan, a great insight of something close to your backyard! :-) Great
A. Michelson(non-registered)
Excellent as always. Seems that over time you have more and more text, but that’s not a bad thing. If it weren’t that I hate long car trips, you’d inspire me to do some road trips.
Bruce McGurk & Jan Cushman(non-registered)
Hi Dan, thanks for the tour and the history! Marvelous photos, as usual! I've toured some Anasazi areas, and many associate their departure with a change in climate that brought extended drought. They just left.
Love the trading post photos - they just look to custom and real, and sort of like the old country town stores that every small village used to have. Loved those as a kid on my bicycle - a popsicle was heaven on a hot day in the East!
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