- Historic Sites
Southwestward The Great American Space
A journey through a wide and spellbinding land, and a look at the civilization along its edges.
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
There is no place so central and even sacred to the Navajo people as the Canyon de Chelly. No other place in the Southwest so haunts me. It is wild and beautiful yet, unlike the Grand Canyon, it is habitable, farmable. You are not surprised by the cliff dwellings here, the Mummy Cave with its three-story house, the pictographs in the rock shelters and on cliff faces showing the Spaniards making their way in here. The bottom of the canyon is always before you from the cliffs above. I have never forgotten my first sight of a Navajo leading a wagon along the bottom, making his way in the most casual manner between the hogans, the round Navajo huts. Everything that day was so basic, primordial, rugged, and clear that I knew I would descend to the bottom someday.
And now I am there, on the top of an open truck, being jerked along the sands and through puddles and streams left from spring runoffs. I am more in touch with the Indians here and how they live than I had ever expected to be. The cliff dwellings seem nearer the ground than they were in Mesa Verde, and close up they astonish more than ever: tiny villages preserved through the centuries, the guide tells us in his spiel. His rugged, weathered face breaks into smiles over the responses to the canyon of the “click-click people,” the “blue eyes and yellow hair people.” He explains that the hogan is so built that the sun can enter it first thing in the morning, whereupon the Navajo blesses the sunlight; then he breaks off to laugh that “my blue-eyed uncle put me in the Army.” He earnestly complains that the Navajos are losing their native culture, and adds with bitterness that the tribe’s medicine men, the repositories of tradition, are no help. He resents the way they keep the sacred practices and mysteries. “They are tight with their history.” Isn’t it our history too? This is repeated several times in an intense tone and with a frowning face.
Kit Carson comes up repeatedly—his expulsion of the Navajos during the Civil War and the cruelty of the three-hundred-mile walk to New Mexico. Our guide has nothing to say about the Navajo plundering that led to their expulsion and the fact that they did come back, compensated with millions of acres. The resentful Hopis would not agree that the Navajos have given up their predatory ways, but a Navajo poem printed up for the visitor on one overlook reads, “We are one with the earth.” Looking at one stolidly inexpressive Navajo face after another on the back of a pickup trundling through the water lining the bottom, you feel that they are the earth become human and alive. The onlooker looks and looks but in these tribal faces cannot discern the individual story. Navajos call themselves Dine, the “people.” A Navajo waitress, told that Dartmouth was a college supposed to have a special interest in recruiting Indian youth, smiled. “I don’t think any one of us has gone that far.” This reminded me of the waitress back in Cortez who said that she had studied business administration at the University of Arizona but had quit: “I missed the people.”
The great photographer of Navajos Laura Gilpin caught them getting up in the dawn, when they feel closer to the earth, more in the presence of their forefathers. Gilpin got closer to Navajo life than any other white artist, producing the most wonderfully direct, loving pictures of their life all day long. She showed the hogans outside and in—their purplebluish roofs, the earth as a daily witness and participant, a brooding presence in and of itself. The Indian faces, even indoors, are stoic, yet all look as if they were faintly surprised to be photographed at all. The women wear the sateen blouse and flowing flowered skirt borrowed from the “blue eyes” women when they first came into this country; their necks and wrists are heavy with necklaces and bracelets. But they all are working in the earth, and they are as poor as the earth itself in these mostly barren acres.
After the monumental ity of the Grand Canyon, much too massive and crowded with peaks for us to see the river below, we are rewarded on the road above Lees Ferry with our first sight of the green, rushing Colorado. And how it rushes! The red rocks on every side make me remember the young T. S. Eliot in London, writing in The Waste Land, “Come in under the shadow of this red rock.” These enormous blocks of sandstone bring me back to the American Nature God, always “too big for man in the picture,” leaving him alone on the rim, taking its picture.
But how can one forget the absurdities that go along with so much “looking”? As we wait for our laundry to dry in the Indian trading post at Cameron, Arizona, we are presented with Pentecostal evangelical literature. On the way to Flagstaff and the famous pawnshops across from the railroad station, recommended for the best Indian jewelry at moderate prices, we are knocked for a loop by mounds and valleys of blackened rock, lava spewed up between 1065 and 1260 but looking as freshly dead as the day the volcano erupted.