In the land of Four Corners, where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet, geological extravaganzas are the norm – hence many national parks and monuments dot the map. Even among these, the Canyon de Chelly (pronounced ‘de Shay’) is special because of its serenity, its seclusion and the profound effect it has had on the lives and beliefs of the people who lived there.
The Canyon is not a single valley but a labyrinth of canyons, which were carved by slow-moving rivers deep into the red sandstone of the Defiance Plateau. The canyon walls, varying in depth anywhere between 30ft (9m) and 1000ft (300m), are not only sheer but incredibly smooth.
They look exactly as though a confectioner, working with red velvet icing, had finished off a job with a single expert sweep of a palette knife. The dark streaks resembling paint runs that mark the canyon walls are known as ‘desert varnish’. They have been left by centuries of mineral-laden water flowing down the rock face.
Although frost erodes the canyon rims, sending boulders crashing to the bottom, there is little debris – after a while, the boulders disintegrate into their component sand, which simply blows away. So the broad canyon floors have spruce and well-kempt appearance, especially in spring when silver streams wind in and out among their sandbanks, and the small orchards of the Navajo people who live here are bright with apple and peach blossoms.
Despite its chilly winters, the Canyon de Chelly has always invited settlement. At the foot of the towering cliffs, there are often deep recesses. In a few of them stand the ruined stone buildings of an ancient race that vanished around AD 1300. They are known only as the Anasazi – a name given to them, which means ‘the Ancient Ones’.
It was the Spanish who came in the 1500s who gave the tough, resourceful local people the name Navajo. They call themselves Dineh, simply ‘The People’. Their sacred homeland is all of the country roundabout, bounded by the four holy peaks of San Francisco, Hesperus, Blanca and Mount Taylor.
The canyon’s odd name is a corruption of a Navajo word meaning rock valley. Here, besides the Anasazi inscriptions, the Navajo have recorded their own version of Creation, tales of the Yei – holy beings who inhabited Earth before First Woman and First Man emerged from the wonderland. The stories are painted or incised in pictures on the walls of caves and on walls above rock ledges.