Canyon De Chelly National Monument

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In the canyons are ruins of several hundred prehistoric Indian villages, most of them built between A.D. 350 and 1300. The earliest known Indian occupants constructed individual, circular pithouses, so called because the lower parts of the dwellings were pits dug into the ground. Their chief weapon was a spear-throwing device, now called an atlatl. Not until later did they use the bow and arrow. They grew crops of maize and squash and made excellent baskets, sandals, and other woven articles, but they did not make pottery. Because of their fine basketry, these earliest Indians are commonly referred to as Basketmakers.

In later centuries, the Basketmakers adopted many new ideas that were introduced into this area, such as the making of pottery, the bow and arrow, and bean cultivation. The style of their houses gradually changed through the years until finally they were no longer living in pithouses but were building rectangular houses of stone masonry above the ground, which were connected together in compact villages. These changes basically altered Basketmaker life, and, because of the new "apartment house" style of their homes, the canyon dwellers after 700 are called Pueblos. Pueblo is the Spanish word for village, and it refers to the compact village life of these later people. Most of the large cliff houses in these canyons were built between 1100 and 1300, in the Pueblo period.

During the 1200s, a prolonged drought parched what is now the Four Corners region of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. About 1300, the drought, and perhaps other causes, forced the people of Canyon de Chelly and other nearby Pueblo centers to abandon their homes and scatter to other parts of the Southwest. Some of the present-day Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico are descendants of these pre-Columbian people. The canyons continued to be occupied sporadically by the early Hopi Indians of Arizona, also related to the Pueblo people. The Hopi were probably here only during times when they were growing and harvesting crops.

About 1700, the Navajo Indians, who were then concentrated in northern New Mexico, began to occupy Canyon de Chelly. An aggressive people related culturally and linguistically to the various Apache Indians in the Southwest, they raided the Pueblo Indian villages and Spanish settlements along the Rio Grande Valley for 150 years. These attacks inspired the successive governments of New Mexico (Spanish, Mexican, and American) to make reprisals, and Canyon de Chelly became one of the chief Navajo strongholds.

In 1805, a Spanish punitive expedition under Lt. Antonio Narbona, who later became governor of the Province of New Mexico, fought an all-day battle with a band of Navajos fortified in a rock shelter in Canyon del Muerto. Narbona's official report to the governor stated that 115 Navajos were killed, including 90 warriors. Because of this, the rock shelter is called Massacre Cave.

Navajo raids continued into the American period. A military campaign began, and in 1864 a detachment of the United States Cavalry under Kit Carson engaged the Navajos in Canyon de Chelly. The raiding was brought to an end by the removal of more than 8,000 Navajos to new lands in eastern New Mexico. This first reservation experiment failed, and after four years the Navajos were permitted to return to their homeland.

Today, many Navajos are salaried employees. They still farm in a limited way, but sheep herding, which they acquired from the Spaniards in the 1700s, is declining among them. Their distinctive circular houses of logs and poles are called hogans.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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