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Photographing the Southwest--Canyon de Chelly

Photographing the Southwest--Canyon de Chelly on Friday, 12 May 2017. I have had an interest in the early migrations into North America across the Bering land bridge for many years. The earliest migrants are not well known because of a scarce or absent archeologic record. Among the later migrants were the Anasazi and still later the Navajo. Therefore, Canyon de Chelly has been on my bucket list for many years and on our recent trip through the Southwest, I finally had an opportunity for a visit.

Canyon de Chelly, located in the Northeast corner of the 25,351 square mile Navajo Nation and close to Chinle, Arizona, has played a significant role in the history of the Navajo people as well as several other Native American peoples of the Southwest. For this is one of the better-known locations of the Ancestral Puebloans better known to non-archaeologists as the Anasazi and the ancestors of present day Hopi, Pima and other Pueblo cultures. Beginning in the period around 400 A.D., the Anasazi began to appear in the archaeological records initially in the form of pit houses and many years later began to build the cliff dwellings for which they are justifiably famous. For example, the White House made famous photographically by Ansel Adams and the Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde made famous by William Henry Jackson.

The early migrations across the Bering Strait connecting Alaska and Russia began at least 10,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene, the last great ice age. It’s worth pointing out that the current Navajo occupants of Canyon de Chelly are not the descendants of the Anasazi even though they now occupy their former lands, but rather are an Athabascan people related to the Eskimo population of Alaska and Canada as are the Apache. The exact date of the occupation by the Navajo of their present location is recorded only in their oral history as far as I’m aware, probably in the early 1600’s. Although the Navajo warriors do not have the fierce reputation of their Apache cousins in western history and myth, they conducted many raids on the Spanish and later American settlements. In return, many expeditions were mounted against the Navajo in Canyon de Chelly which developed a reputation as impregnable due to the fierce defense by the Navajo and their retreat into the easily defendable Anasazi cliff dwellings. This lasted until the scorched earth campaign led by Kit Carson in the early 1860’s that resulted in the Long Walk of thousands of Navajo to Fort Sumner 300 miles away in southern Arizona. An event still well remembered by present day Navajo. Eventually a treaty was signed between the two nations in 1868 and the Navajo were able to return to their homeland. While Canyon de Chelly is a National Monument and there is a National Park Service Visitor’s Center at the entrance, the land strictly belongs to the Navajo Nation and you can only enter it with a Navajo guide. I highly recommend contacting Beauty Way Jeep Tours owned and operated by Leander Staley. They have a very business-like operation, are very accommodating to photographers and will go out of their way to make your visit both productive and enjoyable.

Jeep in River

We were fortunate to tour with Leander’s uncle Bennie, a 50-year-old Navajo whose family has lived and farmed in the canyon for five generation. We spent 5+ hours exploring Canyon de Chelly and adjacent Canyon del Muerto with Bennie learning about Navajo history, agricultural practices and photographing the beautiful canyons, the Anasazi ruins and the Anasazi, Navajo and Hopi petroglyphs and pictographs. The meaning of the Anasazi petroglyphs chipped in the dark brown desert varnish with stone tools is open to debate. Some, like the Bighorn sheep are obvious, others much less so. Later Hopi and Navajo petroglyphs are more commonly clan totems. The Navajo are a tightly knit matriarchal society and each person belongs to four clans. Photographing the canyons is best done in the canyon itself to obtain a true sense of the history and geology of the place.

But if you’re pressed for time and money, then an appreciation for the canyons is possible by driving the North and South Rim trails which are free. The only free, unaccompanied route into the canyon is on the 2.5-mile-long White House trail. The trail is a steep, down-and-back hike from the canyon rim with no sight of the ruins until you reach the canyon floor.  Be sure to carry food and water and use the rim bathrooms, as there are no amenities along the trail. 

To my mind, the most beautiful site along the rim trails is from the last one on the South Rim Trail leading to Spider Rock the home of Spider Women. In the Navajo tradition, Spider Woman taught the Navajo how to weave their famous rugs.

Spider Women's Rock

During the jeep tour, you have the opportunity to photograph everything visible from the rim and much more. Plus, you can see the ruins up close as well as the present-day hogan's, farming operations and livestock as well as meet some of the current residents.

Because of the bitterly cold winter weather, most farmers in the canyon live there only seasonally. Traditional crops include squash, beans and corn. Livestock includes sheep for the wool in Navajo blankets among other things and horses for transportation. The stone structures of the Anasazi are amazing in their beauty, complexity, design and stonework.  That these structures were built and abandoned in a period of less than a century is equally amazing as is the fact that they are still standing over 700 years later. The reasons for their abandonment are poorly understood, but a prolonged drought is frequently mentioned as a probable cause. 

While there are several large structures in the two canyons, there are many more small or largely destroyed structures throughout the area.

Canon de Chelly Cliff House

A large amount of archeological work was done in the canyons during the early part of the twentieth century.  This work is well described by Campbell Grant in his book “Canyon de Chelly, It’s people and Rock Art”, available at my Amazon A-store at no extra cost to you.

What about photography in the canyon? A combination of a 24-70mm lens on a full-frame body and a 70-200mm lens on a crop sensor body will work well in most situations. The canyon floor is sandy and can be quite dusty, so changing lens should be avoided if possible or done very carefully. The greatest challenge as in any steep-walled canyon is the light. In early morning and late afternoon, part or all of the canyon is in deep shadow. In mid-day, the canyon is well-lit but in harsh, flat light. The secret, if there is one, is to shoot in RAW, expose carefully and compensate in post processing by increasing the color temperature, contrast and vibrance in Lightroom and using Nik Color Effects Pro 4 to increase Tonal Contrast and Detail Extractor for local contrast enhancement. I hope you have enjoyed this exploration of Canyon de Chelly as much as I did doing it and writing about it. Thanks for looking and commenting! Next time, Mesa Verde and other Anasazi sites.