Friday November 15 2014
Tségi lies at the heart of Dinétah - the traditional homeland of the Diné, surrounded by the four sacred mountains.
Tségi is sacred land to the Diné - The People. Tségi is home: family, culture, traditions, tranquility, harmony, land, seasons, sun, moon, earth.
Us white folks call the Diné the Navajo. We call Tségi Canyon De Chelly.
5000 years ago, long before the Navajo called this home, hunter gatherers lived in this canyon. Then came the ancient ones, the Anasazi, or the Ancestral Puebloans, who left their mark in their cliff dwellings and artwork, in petroglyphs and pictographs. Then came the Navajo, who lived here from 1700-1863, until the white man purged them from their homeland. The Long Walk is a miserable 4-year chapter in Navajo history, where one estimate says a third of The People died during their forced march to and exile on a reservation in New Mexico. When the government finally admitted this was an abject failure, the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland and Canyon de Chelly in 1868.
They still live here today, the farmlands in the canyon being passed down from generation to generation. Our Navajo guides in Canyon De Chelly were Justin Tso and his granddaughter Kristy. Justin’s grandmother was 7 years old when she was forced on The Long Walk. She survived, returning to her homeland when she was 11.
Canyon De Chelly became a National Monument in 1931, jointly administered by the Park Service and the Navajo Nation. Visitors in the canyon must be accompanied by licensed guides. Justin has been taking riders into Canyon De Chelly for 35 years. Most of them, it can be safely said, have been plodding tourists. He hasn’t seen too many of us endurance riders.
I hitched a ride with Sue and 2 of her horses from Utah, where we joined Christoph and Dian, and Howard and Kathy for a couple of days of guided riding. We lucked out at the park visitor center in getting to hear a Navajo tell the story of The Long Walk, from the Navajo perspective. It differs a bit from the white people version, and is more powerful - and painful for this white person to listen to how my predecessors behaved.
The first afternoon of riding, Kristy and her mustang Socks escorted Sue and Solstice, and me and Julio into the mystical canyon. In the spring and summer, water flows in the canyon bottom, which can be rife with quicksand. In the fall, it’s all sand, rich with magnesium that is evident in the darkly streaked and stained canyon walls.
Kristy was an excellent guide, showing us petroglyphs and pictographs, and the Anasazi ruins for which the southwest is so well known. While they live below and around the ruins, the Navajo will have nothing to do with the Anasazi sites and their spirits of the dead.
Passing First Ruin, and Junction Ruin, we took the northeast branch of the canyon, Canyon Del Muerto - Canyon of the Dead. We rode past the hogan and acreage where Kristy was raised; we passed Echo Ruins, Ledge Ruin, numerous storage ruins, and arrived at Antelope House Ruin, where the canyon walls rise some 800 feet, and where antelope pictographs painted by a Navajo join other pictographs from Anasazi times.
When we turned back for home, it was as if we were riding through an entirely new canyon, with completely different scenery. We rode into a sunset that darkened the canyon floor and burnished the canyon cliffs a fire-glow crimson.
The next day our entire group rode together, 18 miles up the southeast Canyon De Chelly branch, to Spider Rock. Justin figured we’d take 8 hours to get there and we’d want to climb out of the canyon there and be trailered back home, but we looked rather askance at him. Howard had joked with Justin that we were going to Ride Like the Indians, but now Justin was going to Ride Like Endurance Riders - 18 miles out, and 18 miles back!
An on-again, off-again two-track road braided with the sandy riverbed that we followed up the canyon, with the red cliffs rising ever higher the deeper we rode into the maze. We alternated walking, trotting, and galloping along, gabbing, gawking, laughing, while Justin and Kristy on their mustangs kept up their steady, all-day trot, catching us, passing us, leap-frogging through the canyon. Sometimes Justin grabbed his hat and held it in his hand, as his mustang galloped alongside us.
Spider Rock, an 800-foot sandstone pinnacle dominates the junction of Canyon De Chelly and Monument Canyon. It is the home of Spider Woman, who taught the Navajo people how to weave. Navajo children were warned that if they didn’t behave, Spider Woman would let down her web and snatch them up to the top of Spider Rock and devour them. It is said that the bleached white that can be seen on the top of Spider Rock are the bones of naughty children.
We tied up our horses and lunched beneath Spider Rock, with Christoph and Howard and Kathy concocting ideas with Justin about an endurance ride through here one day. I could recognize that peculiar Endurance Light in Justin’s eyes - he had caught a bit of the endurance bug.
We had a delightful romp back out of the canyon, galloping beneath sheer 1000-foot walls, trotting under golden cottonwoods, alongside young bear tracks (!), past the old ghosts of the Ancient Ones.
It was a thrill, and an honor, to ride through this sacred land of the Diné.