Chaco Ruins at Navajo Nation, Arizona

Navajo Nation and the Canyon de Chelly National Monument

By Jennifer Vandenberg

Navajo Nation
Canyon de Chelly, Navaho Nation Arizona. photos by Jennifer Vandenberg.

“I didn’t fall. I was pushed out of those ruins,” Calvin Watchman said. He pushed my shoulders for emphasis, but I didn’t mind.

He’d just spend fifteen minutes pulling our car out of canyon floor mud, so he could push me all he wanted to. Besides, we were on the ground, not climbing up cliffs. Yet.

In 1982 the Anasazi ruins of Canyon de Chelly were deemed off-limits for historical preservation purposes, but a much younger Calvin would routinely climb up several stories worth of rock face to hang out in the ancient homes.

Calvin’s grandmother warned him to stay away, fearing bad spirits, but it took being pushed out for him to get the message. He hasn’t ventured near the ruins since. Calvin has been everywhere else though. There isn’t a part of this canyon he doesn’t know intimately.

He’s been sent out in the night to find lost park rangers. He’s been called on to smooth over disagreements between the Navajos living in the canyon and the National Parks Service who maintain it. He’s grabbed hikers moments before they were swept up in flash floods. Calvin interspersed these tales with more historical accounts of infamous conquistadors and Navajo reluctance a westernized lifestyle.

Chuck Watchman, Navaho Guide
Chuck Watchman, Navaho Guide

For the stories alone, a hike with Calvin through Canyon de Chelly is worth it. But the scenery is gorgeous as well. As we climbed up the sandstone path of natural footholds, we heard about Kit Carson’s “scorched earth campaign,” in which all Navajo property in the canyon was burned.

When we got to the top and took in the spectacular vistas of the orange canyon walls, Calvin told us about the people of his great-grandmother’s generation who were forced to walk four hundred miles to Fort Sumner after their surrender.

And as we hiked back down to the valley of traditional hogans and farms, we heard about the Navajo leaders who went to Washington to represent their people, finally securing the right to go back home.

After Canyon de Chelly, Amanda Tucker of the Blue Desert Guide Company took the wheels of her white-turned-brown-specked 4×4 and we headed east. She had just gotten word that the dirt road leading to Chaco was passable, so we made a break for it.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park: New Mexico

Chaco preserves what was once assumed to be the largest gathering place for southwest tribes. With multiple ceremonial chambers, a large percentage of kivas, and buildings that were obviously planned to look impressive, Chaco wasn’t a typical farming village. One thousand years ago, it was a destination. And it still is.

“This is one of my favorite places,” Amanda whispered to me. Something about these walls instilled a need to be quiet, reverent, maybe a bit intimidated. I could see why Amanda, the anthropology major, turned Navajo teacher, turned tour guide lists this as one of her favorites places. Chaco was fun interesting to visit because unlike the ruins at Canyon de Chelly, you can walk through the ruins.

You can pass through doorways. You can peek through the windows. You can leave your hat on an ancient stone ledge. Luckily the ruins are just a short jaunt from the parking lot, so if you realize you’ve forgotten your hat somewhere, it’s not too far away. Chaco is quiet and not crowded; the dirt road deterred most visitors.

After a couple of hours at Chaco, Amanda and I could have headed north. We could have checked out the Aztec ruins north of Farmington. We could have crossed the state line and gone to Colorado’s famous cliff dwellings. But I’d already been to Mesa Verde, so we turned south instead. After marveling at 1,000-year-old abandoned pueblos, I wanted to see some current ones.

Acoma Pueblo and Sky City: Acoma Indian Reservation, New Mexico

Tahama the Navaho Guide at the Acoma Pueblo
Tahama the Navaho Guide at the Acoma Pueblo

The oldest continually inhabited pueblo is between Grants and Albuquerque at Acoma Sky City. Sitting atop a mesa, there are over 80 pueblo homes and about a third as many Porta-Potties. There is no running water or electricity for the Acoma People who live up here, hence the not-so-traditional plastic latrines.

The energetic and fast-talking Tahama was our guide through Acoma. Her mother has a residence up in the mesa which Tahama returns to for celebrations and feast days. During tour season she splits her time between Albuquerque (about an hour east) and a home closer to the Acoma pueblo.

She conducted her hour-long tours with ease and humor. I especially like the mischievous twinkle in her eye when she talked about how the city of Española, New Mexico has to replace the foot on the statue of Don Juan de Oñate every so often.

According to Tahama, the 16th-century conquistador attempted to raid the Acoma pueblo on one of his many quests through the area. As the Acoma defended their supplies and selves, several Spaniards were killed, including Oñate’s nephew.

In retaliation, Oñate returned to conquer and enslave the Acoma people. As extra punishment, he cut off the left foot of the surviving Acoma men. While our tour group was gasping in horror, Amanda leaned towards me. “They say that Oñate fed the severed legs to his dogs,” she whispered.

It should be noted here that Tahama’s bitterness towards Oñate was not the detached realization that he was one of many historical bad guys. Her bitterness was palpable. We decided not to ask her if there was any truth to the dog part of the story.

Chaco ruins, Navaho Nation Arizona.

A few days later at El Morro’s Inscription Rock, Amanda pointed out Oñate’s signature. Translated, it reads “Passed by here the Governor Don Juan De Oñate from the discovery of the Seat of the South on the 16th of April, 1605.”

Governor Oñate was later tried and convicted of cruelty not only towards Native American Indians but to colonists as well.

He was later cleared of all charges and his statue stands today (sometimes sans foot) outside of Española. There is also an Oñate High School in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

“But,” Tahama said: “We survived. We are still here.” Her anger faded as the story ended and she continued her tour, pointing out that kivas (ceremonial and storage spaces) are now hidden in between homes so conquistadors won’t have easy access anymore. In addition to the pueblos, kivas, and gorgeous views of surrounding mesas, the main sight to see in the Acoma pueblo is the mission. The alter features two red and white pillars.

The contrasting colors symbolize how many Acoma today believe in the Catholicism taught by the Spanish friars while also holding onto their traditional beliefs. When asked why the Acoma people accepted the Spanish religion even after such cruelty, Tahama just shook her head and announced that she wasn’t Catholic.

Zuni Pueblo: Zuni Indian Reservation, New Mexico

Neither are the Zuni people down the road. The traditional language and religion have been grasped much more tightly here, and Christianity is mainly rejected. Our Zuni guide chewed on a lollipop while explaining that she continually reminds her daughter to “use your own language!”

The Zuni Middle Village pueblo was closed when we visited, as men were preparing for Shalako. Amanda and I hung out at the mission on the reservation instead and she told me about the feast. In early December Zuni men dress as enormously tall figures who bless new homes in the Zuni pueblo. Each family prepares a feast (which is also blessed) and friends are welcomed into the homes after the blessing. Fasting during the days leading up to Shalako is common.

Since Zuni religious traditions are tightly kept secrets among men, the details of Shalako are not often talked about, photographed, or documented. Amanda had attended the celebration before, which was why she was able to give me the aforementioned description of the event. If you want to see Shalako paintings in person, the Zuni mission is one of your very few options.

Canyon de Chelly's well worn steps
Canyon de Chelly’s well-worn steps

The mission walls feature several paintings of figures from Zuni religious lore. Knowing that this mural would be contested among members if the tribe, the artist made sure to copyright each painting before embarking on his project.

Our Zuni guide didn’t speak much about those paintings. Neither did she didn’t say anything about Shalako. Similarly, up in Canyon de Chelly, Calvin noted that many Navajo were reluctant to mention Kit Carson’s campaign and The Long Walk that followed. Many don’t want to return to that time of sorrow and suffering.

Some Native secrets are kept by choice, closing off ceremonies to outsiders. Some Native mysteries remain so due to occult circumstances, like the lack of clues as to why the Anasazi abandoned their massive cliff homes, and whether or not it was spirited who pushed Calvin out of those ruins so long ago.

But some Native puzzles can be solved, if you just find the right people to talk to. I was lucky that I had found Calvin, Tahama, and Amanda.

Destination Information

  • The Blue Desert Guide Company runs custom-built tours and tour packages centered in Northwestern New Mexico. Find them online at
  • Calvin Watchman runs guided tours through Canyon de Chelly through his company, Tseyi Trails. Contact him at 928-349-8528. Visitors are not permitted into the Canyon without a guide, with the exception of White House Trail. Check out Canyon de Chelly’s website.
  • Chaco Canyon is open year-round. Visit their website.
  • To arrange a tour of Zuni, stop by the Zuni Visitor Center at 1239 State Highway 53, Zuni, NM or call 505-782-7238.
  • The Acoma Pueblo runs daily tours from mid-February through mid-November. Check their website before planning a trip as many tour dates are canceled due to tribal events.

jenna-vandenbergJennifer Vandenberg is a Las Vegas and Seattle teacher/writer who has enjoyed writing for The Travel Belles, PinPoint Publications, Faces, and Odyssey and Matador. Visit her website She also blogs at,

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