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.

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”

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