A Short History on Canyon de Chelly

author:  Meng Tay

As we begin our trip to Canyon de Chelly with Navajo photographer LeRoy DeJolie it is important to understand the archeological, historical and cultural signficance of this sacred canyon.  Here is a short history of Canyon de Chelly.

Following millions of years of land uplifts and rivers cutting through the area, Mother Nature has endowed on us today one of the most beautiful landmarks in Arizona.  When you visit a place as significant as Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d’SHAY), it helps to understand its history.  This is a place that has been inhabited by humans for almost 5,000 years but many visitors to this National Monument came only to admire its beauty, unaware of its contribution to mankind, the state of Arizona and native American history.


The first known settlers in Canyon de Chelly were the Archaic people about 5,000 years ago, from 2500 to 200 BC. They did not build permanent homes but lived in seasonal campsites.  They hunted and gathered for their food in the area.  Their stories were told through remains of their campsites and images they painted and etched on the canyon walls.

Then came the basket-makers who lived in the canyon from 200 BC to AD 750.  They were farmers instead of hunters and gatherers.  Over time they built a farming community complete with large granaries and public structures.  Life was good but that slowly changed.

From AD 750 to 1300, a new group of settlers called the Pueblos, started to build stone houses above ground. They connected the stone houses and built multi-story villages with household compounds and kivas with decorated walls.  They are often referred to as the Anasazis, or the “ancient ones.”  Most of the ruins that you see today are from these settlers, including the well-known White House.


The Anasazis left the area probably because of poor farming conditions.  Then the Hopis started using the area for seasonal farming and occasional lengthy stays until the early 1700s’.  The Hopis then encountered the Navajos, who were pushed from their homelands by their adversaries.  The Navajos brought with them domesticated farming that they have learned from the Spanish settlers.  However, this was not a peaceful time for the Navajos, as they continue to fight with other Indian tribes and the Spanish colonists.  In 1805, a Spanish military expedition fought with a group of Navajo people at the Canyon del Muerto.  At the end of the day-long battle, 115 Navajo warriors were killed.  The rock shelter where they took cover is today called Massacre Cave.

In the 1800s’ the United States military started pushing westward and claimed the area as its territory.  They tried to relocate the Navajos to eastern New Mexico.  Colonel Kit Carson forced 8,000 Navajos to walk 300 miles from the area to Fort Sumner, NM.  Many died and this is sadly remembered as “The Long Walk.”

After four years they were allowed to return to Canyon de Chelly.  Today, it’s a living community of the Navajo people.  A visit to this National Monument not only brings you back to 5,000 years of history but to see first-hand how our fellow citizens live today.  It’s a unique and special place, jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation.

Visiting Canyon de Chelly as part of an Arizona Highways Photo Workshops trip is even more special.  First, you are led by acclaimed Navajo photographer and author, LeRoy DeJolie.  LeRoy knows the people, speaks the language and knows where all the best places to capture the most memorable photographs.  Along the way, you will get lessons on Native American customs and culture, and showered with Navajo hospitality.  This workshop is usually offered only once a year, and it’s almost always fully-booked.

References:   https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/cultural_diversity/Canyon_de_Chelly_National_Monument.html