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Should Canyon de Chelly Be Given to the Navajo Nation?


White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Photo by Marj K via flickr.

It's an interesting coincidence that not long after the Traveler revisited the national park units that have been decommissioned that it's come to our attention that there are talks about turning Canyon de Chelly National Monument over to the Navajo Nation.

Politics are likely to make this a short discussion, at least for now, as it would take an act of Congress to turn the monument over to the Navajo Nation and there are few likely congressional proponents of this deal in Arizona. After all, Arizona Congressman Rick Renzi has legal problems that will keep him sidelined for a while, and Senator John McCain, of course, is busy running for president. U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, meanwhile, has been described as being "hostile" to such a transfer. As a result, it's expected that any such transfer legislation would not surface at least until the next Congress is elected.

Such a transfer wouldn't be totally illogical. The Navajo Nation long has had historical and spiritual ties to the sandstone canyon, and there's even a living community of Navajo people there. And, as the National Park Service points out, "Canyon de Chelly is unique among National Park Service units, as it is comprised entirely of Navajo Tribal Trust Land that remains home to the canyon community. NPS works in partnership with the Navajo Nation to manage park resources and sustain the living Navajo community."


Tricky. Canyon de Chelly has two distinctive contexts. One is the prehistoric culture of the Anasazi. The ruins in the canyon, the petroglyphs at the walls are precolumbian and the Navajo are not directly related to these previous occupants of the canyon.

But Canyon de Chelly was later (in historic times) settled by the Navajo, and the canyon was twice their last stronghold. In 1804 against Spaniards and in 1864 when the army under Kit Carson rounded the whole nation up and tried to drive them to their designated reservation in the New Mexico. They fought. Kit Carson employed a tactic of scorched earth and used famine as weapon against the last warriors, who hid in the caves and other hideouts of the canyon. They finally gave up and next came the "Long Walk" to the reservation. Many didn't make it and died on the way. About four years later the Navajo got their new reservation where most still live, and that encompasses Canyon de Chelly.

The National Monument was dedicated primarily for the ruins. Handing it over to the Navajo would emphasize their history in the canyon.

Today visitors who are not of Native American ancestry may only visit the rim on their own and get down to one ruin on a designated trail. All other parts of the valley floor are accessible by tours only, led by native members of the staff. The canyon is spectacular. Wikipedia has this image of "Spider Rock", a solitaire sandstone spire about 800 feet tall:

Kurt, I'd hate to see Canyon de Chelly National Monument decommissioned (or delisted, or disestablished, or whatever you call it). Can't we continue to carry this cultural treasure on the national park rolls even if it's turned over to the Navajo Nation for administration? I have one other question: Has there ever been a national park with a name more likely to be mispronounced?

The Canyon and its archaeological significance is interesting and significant for all Americans: not only Navajos. The NPS can do a better job of managing it for accessibility to all Americans than the tribe can. Although the tribe certainly has important ties to the area, it does not have the mission to make it's tribal land available to the public as much as the NPS has the mandate to make its units available. That said, the involvement of tribal members in giving tours and managing the area is definitely appropriate and valuable to everyone. I took a night-time tour of the area a few years back. The Navajo guide did a very good job of guiding and narrating the tour. However, his level of administration and efficiency was well below the standards that the NPS brings to its duties.

I'm interested in the comment from the National Park Service that "Canyon de Chelly is unique among National Park Service units, as it is comprised entirely of Navajo Tribal Trust Land." I'm curious as to why Navajo National Manument and Hubbel Trading Post NHS don't also meet the same criteria? Additionally, Hohokam Pima National Monument is also located entirely on the Gila River Indian Reservation.

To me it seems that it would be a shame for Canyon de Chelly to lose the recognition of National Park Service. I can only hope that a suitable equitable arrangement is worked out between the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation to bother respect the rights and history of the Navajo Nation, as well embracing the significance of Canyon de Chelly that makes it part of the national patrimony for all Americans.

Removing Canyon de Chelly would be a tremendous shame.

I hate to say this, becuase it's not entirely PC, but the Navajo nation is part of America, and all native tribes (those still in existance and those who were wiped out by European migration) are part of American history. Understanding tribal cultures and native history is vital to an understanding of American history, you cannot divide the two. Canyon de Chelly and other sites wholly included in tribal lands provide a vital mechanism to demonstrate this link to all Americans (and all tourists from foreign countries as well).

If these sites are returned to wholly tribal control, I fear that this link will be lost. The only link between the two peoples (natives and "all others") will be through casinos, and that's a shame. Keeping Canyon de Chelly as part of the NPS will remind us all that there is a link between us that goes back not just hundreds but thousands of years.

Also, having the NPS involved in Canyon de Chelly through this special arrangement will also help keep development away from the beauty of the canyon & the immediate surrounding area.


My travels through the National Park System:

I find the word choice in the article's title interesting and revealing, especially the choice of "given". Given implies original ownership. I think "returned" would be a better word choice, especially in light of the history of America's original inhabitants their treatment by the federal government.

Sovereign nations, such as the Dine (what the Navajo call themselves), successfully manage magnificent landscapes such as Monument Valley. To state that "The Great Father" can better manage their sacred lands smacks of 19th century paternalism, racism, and greed, and I wonder if those who make such comments understand the history of how the federal government abused the Navajo (such as how school children were forced to learn English and were chained and beaten in school basements when they refused).

None of the land is owned by the National Park Service. The land is still owned by the Navajo Nation, while the monument is administered by the National Park Service. It's a very interesting arrangement for everyone involved!

Just to answer an earlier question about Hubbell Trading Post NM - the present unit is comprised of Lorenzo Hubbell's original homestead - a possibility back then. The trading post was the only private land holding for many miles around and is thus not under tribal jurisdiction then or now. I am not sure about Navajo NM. I think the Monument may have been established before the Reservation was extended to that region, but I am not sure.

I excavated at Canyon de Chelly during the 1970s, and I really enjoyed the situation - essentially joint administration of the monument - and I think there are advantages that imaginative and innovative administrators can use to everyone's benefit. Technically the NPS is administering only the "archaeology and objects of scientific interest" within the Monument. Nice and precise, isn't it?

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