By John Ellis
The sound of a single flute echos throughout the canyon. One lone crow screeches high overhead as if in answer to the breathy instrument below. The mid-morning sun still casts long shadows across the sandy clearing bordered by towering cottonwoods.
Our workshop group is gathered to listen to Travis Terry and absorb the sounds and sights and craftsmanship of The Diné, The People. We are joined only by the ancient carved figures looking down from their permanent perches above us on the monolithic walls.
Having come to Canyon de Chelly on several occasions I knew this trip would be special as this Arizona Highways Photo Scapes, lead by photographer and Photo Editor of Arizona Highways Magazine, Jeff Kida, was designed as an immersive adventure concentrating on not only capturing the iconic images of the canyons views but spending time with artisans and guides who call this area home. Listening to the stories told and watching the weavers and potters create, using methods that have not changed since first introduced here centuries ago.
Near Chinle Arizona, Canyon de Chelly National Monument has two renowned rifts. The first is Canyon de Chelly, spreading almost due east. This canyon is the home to two iconic scenes. White House Ruins, constructed by the early Anasazi with more recent lower additions by the Hopi people.
And the second, an impressive natural feature, is Spider Rock, arguably the most famous landmark in de Chelly. This monolith is just the mid-point for this massive miles long canyon.
The second rift, Canyon del Muerto off-shoots to the north-east, and is home to Antelope House Ruins, Mummy Cave, Massacre Cave and more.
From these two spread many smaller canyons to form what looks like, from far above, the roots of a giant tree. Formed over eons from the rains and headwaters flowing from the Chaska Mountains and Defiance Plateau in the East, the breathtaking canyons have as many offshoots as there are stories told of the heroes and villains that lived and died here for generations. Many stories told are somber reversals of what we were taught in school or watched in movies and on television.
The weather reports predicted 80% chance of rain for our first day into Canyon del Muerto but after consulting our guide and storyteller, Adam Teller, we chose to make the attempt, and we came away with the unexpected and rare bonus of capturing several 500-600 foot waterfalls as the rains to the East bled over the varnished rock walls.
The canyon is constantly in flux as rains come and eventually wash the sandy soil away, slowly deepening the canyon. When looking at the many ruins constructed in the sides of seemingly every canyon, the first question many uninitiated ask is “How did the people get up there?” When the simple answer is when those ruins were originally constructed they were much closer to ground level. Over two thousand years of erosion has deepened the canyons.
Over the next few days we visited a silversmith and his eighty-nine year old mother-in-law weaver in their family Hogan; a potter/weaver along the edge of a canyon with an apple orchard below; a young Diné girl riding a pony and visited with our guide Adam in front of his family’s ancestral landmark, Antelope House Ruins, and listened to his stories and drum and chants. Our imagination was sparked with tales of the creation, monster hunters, chipmunks and more.
I for one couldn’t help but be touched by the words and music so beautifully and readily shared during our time here.
There are many sacred places and phrases in the Navajo Nation, but one Diné saying often heard here, ‘Walk in Beauty’ seems to have been created with Canyon de Chelly in mind.
The history of the canyon is written on the walls and heard in the storytellers words. It is molded with the silversmiths hammer and on the potters wheel. The history flows from the weavers loom and is heard in the pounding drum and throaty vocals sung beneath blue cloudless skies.
If you haven’t been to Canyon de Chelly or even if you have, take a look at ahps.org and join us on our next remarkable trip there or any other workshop in the breathtaking beauty of the Navajo Nation. Immerse yourself.
Check out our next workshop to Canyon de Chelly scheduled for October, 2023, Colors of Canyon de Chelly
John Ellis is a Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes