Portrait of a Navajo Guide

a window in time

On November 3, 2004 my son, Sean, and I made our way to Chinle, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly.

The next day, driving a rented 4 wheel drive, we arrived at the visitor center, at dawn, and there met Peter Tsosie who worked as a guide. This is how you do it, if learning about the Canyon is your goal. It is possible to walk, unaccompanied, into the canyon to view the “White House” and this I highly recommend. Tourists can also drive around the rim to various overlooks. This is what most people do.

The canyon is still farmed and the tribe only allows visitors when accompanied by a guide. Only Navajos are certified as guides. They know the rights of way and the preferences of the landowners.

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We negotiated with Peter to take us for half a day for our interest in petroglyphs and ruins. It is important to start early when the sun is low in the sky, when directly overhead the details of ruins and petroglyphs are washed out by the light. Catching the late afternoon/evening sun is also an approach that requires detailed knowledge of the route, taking into account the time of year.

Peter was an excellent choice, though he was our only option on that day. He was fluent in Navajo beliefs, the lore of the canyon and generous in sharing what he knew.

Here is Peter, approximately 6.2 miles into the canyon with the “Ledge Ruin” behind. We arrived at the junction just in time, before the sun was high enough to wash out the ruin. It is slow going into the canyon what with the deep sand and water that must be negotiated. Peter did the driving and was expert. We passed other parties bogged down in the wet sand. I do not believe it was luck that kept us moving . We stopped many times to talk and admire the petroglyphs and pictographs.

Peter Tsosie,

Petroglyphs are symbols incised, or cut, into the surface (the name means petro, “rock”, glyph, “symbol”). In the desert climate of the southwestern USA a thin, dark pigment forms on rock surfaces of overhanging cliffs. The pigment forms from infrequent precipitation, in the form of water, flowing downward over the surface or even dew. The high heat of the desert drives a chemical reaction between water, clays, iron and manganese oxide to form a coating on the rock surface. The dark coating, called “desert varnish”, contrasts with the underlying rock. When it is scraped away a line forms. Many of the petroglyphs were of this form. Others were carved into the rock itself, more time consuming and durable. No one knows when the petroglyphs were made, they were always there are respected. People have inhabited Canyon de Chelly for over a thousand years.
The word pictograph has a different meaning when used to describe prehistoric art. The earliest writing were symbols incised in wet clay, then allowed to harden. The pictographs we viewed was prehistoric art, mostly white pigment on the red rock, outlines of hands. There were also kokopelli, the outline of a flute player and jagged lines, symbolizing, Peter told us, lightening.

In November the cottonwoods were in fall foliage, a brilliant yellow under a cloudless sky. The sun is lower in the south and rises later. The Navajo Reservation follows daylight savings time, unlike Arizona. This November morning the sun rose around 7:45 am, so if you are not an early riser this time of year is an excellent choice for a Canyon de Chelly tour.

Click for the next posting in this series, “Junction Ruin Musings”

Copyright 2017 Michael Stephen Wills Photography


31 thoughts on “Portrait of a Navajo Guide

  1. I am captivated by petroglyphs, and enjoyed your explanation of the rock surfaces, Michael Stephen. Also really liked the petroglyph photo of the big horn sheep. Enjoyable post.

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    1. Thanks for looking around, Jet. It is helpful to know what you took away. The big horn sheep is from the backcountry of Monument Valley from the same trip. We hired a Navajo guide to take us in there, as well. Highly recommend it over the usual tourist route, although that is wonderful also.

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  2. Very interesting, Michael; I hadn’t heard the term ‘Petroglyphs’ before. We have a number of Aboriginal sacred sites within NSW (my home state) two of which I’ve visited. They certainly do have a ‘timelessness’ about them; it’s quite a surreal experience; at least is has proven so for me.
    The ‘ruin’ you’ve highlighted is fascinating. It certainly must have taken some time to hew it out of the rock.

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  3. I began at “Moon Fin,” but came here to gain more context. The photos are quite wonderful. I found myself caught by the consonance between this portrait of your guide and the landscape behind him: as though some of the solidity and silence of the surrounding land had become a part of him.

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    1. Exactly what I intended to communicate. The Navajo Reservation is unique in that…the people have a bond to the land and cultural artifacts. Peter was absorbed in this role as cultural representative, more more than the typical guide.


  4. Where I’m from, we don’t have a lot of pictographs, but there WERE some up above a small town called La Garita. I remember seeing them as a 10th grader when our wrestling coach, how incidentally wrote a book about the area, took us on a field trip to the area. I really wish I’d taken pictures of them then. They were a well-known attraction up there, apparently a little too well known.

    A few years ago, my son and I hiked up there. I wanted to show them to him. Well, they were gone, replaced by some obscene, spray painted graffiti. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those inconsiderate individuals (and that is the nicest thing I’ll say about them) for robbing us and future generations of a link to the past.

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      1. Am so sorry.. that I forgot to post the questions. Plz wait for my updated blog. I will inform you shortly


  5. Wow! You do have such a wonderful place to go. I really love how you took the picture of the guide. I had gone to a similar place in Utah with my family where they had huge pictographs, etc. It about blew my mind out. Hope you have a great day! Ryan

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