Ever since I arrived on the Navajo Reservation to teach at the boarding school, I roamed around Canyon de Chelly at every opportunity. Usually I went with my Navajo friends in a truck or on horseback.
One Sunday, in the pre-dawn hours of the morning, I went into the canyon alone, on foot. The air was clean and delicious with a hint of sage and juniper. I could never have guessed what awaited me.
The mouth of the canyon opened wide to a wet, sandy bottom. Imprints of horses’ hooves mingled with the tracks of truck tires and a faint set of ruts from wagon wheels, evidence of the comings and goings of life in the canyon. I couldn’t resist taking off my shoes and adding my own set of tracks to the others. The cool, wet sand and water seeped through my toes.
The canyon started to come alive with shapes and colors as the light of dawn crept over the bottomland. As I walked, I sang a simple Navajo prayer song, an expression of my gratitude to be alive and a witness to the timeless landscape of ancient red rock formations all around me.
A wooden, horse-drawn wagon with rubber tires silently rolled past, heading in the opposite direction toward town. Young children in the back of the wagon stared at me as they passed. They sat on stacks of large gunnysacks. I suspected that they were going to Garcia’s Trading Post at the mouth of the canyon to sell their hand woven Navajo rugs.
My Navajo friends taught me everything I knew about the canyon, including how it got its name. The Navajo word for canyon is tsegi (TSAY-ih), meaning “inside the rock.”
When Spanish soldiers intruded into this hidden Navajo enclave—the first non-Indians to enter the canyon—they asked the name of the place that they had discovered. The foreign sound of the word, tsegi, morphed in the mouths of the Spaniards into “chayee.” The eventual spelling became Canyon de Chelly, or “Canyon of Canyon.”
It is indeed the canyon of all canyons.
It was first inhabited over 2000 years ago by people who built their homes high in the cliffs by enclosing caves with stacked rocks, and leaving spaces for doorways and windows in the rock walls. The location of their dwellings high up the steep walls provided safety from enemies and predators. The fertile ground below gave them rich farmland. These people, known to the Navajo as Anasazi—the Ancient Ones—lived in this region for over 13 centuries.
And then they disappeared.
My Navajo friends told me that a prolonged drought drove the Anasazi to the Rio Grande River where they became the Pueblo people. Years later a few of them drifted back and taught the Navajo people—the new occupants of the canyon—how to grow corn, beans, melons and squash.
Navajo life in the canyon went uninterrupted for generations until a fateful day in 1863 when the people heard the thundering and pounding of horses splashing through the water, carrying U.S. Army soldiers led by Kit Carson. The mounted brigade burned down hogans, destroyed crops and peach orchards, killed the sheep, and left the people without a source of food.
Soon after the attack, the soldiers rounded up every Navajo they could find and marched them to Ft. Sumner, a desolate place in central New Mexico, now known as Bosque Redondo. Hundreds of captives died from cold and starvation on the forced death march. Soldiers shot the sick and raped the women. They kidnapped some of the younger captives and used them as slaves. Navajos refer to this tragedy as the Long Walk, a walk that took them far away from their beloved canyon.
It wasn’t until five years later, in 1868, that the Navajo and the U.S. government signed a treaty that allowed the survivors to return home and rebuild their shattered lives.
As I wandered aimlessly through the canyon, I saw countless flowering desert plants, beautiful antidotes to thoughts of the Navajo people’s painful past. A cluster of plants with bright yellow flowers caught my eye for their stunning contrast to the red earth around them. These shrubby evening primrose plants grew close to the ground. Each plant had four large petals that lay wide open, greeting the new day. As the sun climbed in the sky, the petals closed. Traditional Navajos used the evening primrose flowers as medicine in some of their ceremonies.
Not far away, bright yellow petals of the sego lily looked like a set of wide-opened mouths, singing the song of life with all their might. These foot-high plants grow from a bulb that the Navajos dug up and ate raw in former times.
At the bottom of a towering cliff in front of me, yucca plants with their circular array of tough, sword-shaped leaves looked like sentinels with bayonets standing guard over the beautiful, bulbous white blossoms that hung from the tall stalk in the center of each plant.
On field trips into the canyon, the kids in my class showed me how their people made soap from yucca root that they used for cleansing in traditional ceremonies. They told me that The Ancient Ones—the Anasazi—made sandals out of the yucca fibers.
My meanderings through the canyon brought me to a grove of cottonwood trees growing a few feet from the water. I felt an urge to lie in the shade of their branches. Although it was still early in the morning and I wasn’t yet in need of shade, I accepted the hospitality they offered.
As I lay on the ground, I felt the calming embrace of the earth and the stillness in the air. In the profound quiet, I heard a soft ringing in my head, a vibration—like the vibration of life itself.
I pulled out my diary from my backpack, but then put it on the ground next to me, not wanting to miss a second of the life flowing around me.
The envelopment of almost complete silence suddenly burst as the earth began to vibrate with the rhythmic thundering of horses’ hooves and sounds of splashing water. I wondered if this is what the people heard when Kit Carson and his soldiers swept through the canyon.
Canyon de Chelly is a favorite hangout for wild horses whose ancestors date back to the Spanish invaders. They have no brands on their hides and no riders on their backs. They roam freely and belong to no one.
The air filled with their smells, their snorts and whinnies. The canyon came alive with their wild energy and seemed to shout out in celebration. They ran in my direction along the edge of the water, coming ever closer. My heart raced as I imagined the horses galloping right over me, trampling me into the sand. But the horses stopped abruptly a few yards in front of where I lay motionless and barely breathing.
Although I had a full view of them, they appeared to neither see me nor smell me. As slowly and quietly as I could, I rose to a sitting position and marveled at the primordial scene before me, one that was both terrifying and magnificent.
A buckskin stallion with a black mane and tail began making a ruckus with his snorting. He stomped his hooves and scraped his right front hoof repeatedly in the sand while his head bobbed up and down.
He raised his massive male body into the air, his penis fully revealed outside its sheath. He fell onto the back of one of the mares. The white mare screamed out during the mating. Her screams reverberated throughout the canyon, bouncing off the steep sandstone walls.
The stallion dismounted the mare, and as quickly as it had arrived, the herd of horses galloped away, heading up the river.
Stunned, I replayed the scene over in my mind as I sat spellbound under the cottonwood trees.
I looked up at the massive red walls that towered over me and bore silent witness to the life that flowed “inside the rock.” Although I was a mere speck in this timeless tapestry, my spirit filled the canyon with awe and gratitude.
In the early 1970s when I lived in Chinle, non-Navajos like me could wander freely in Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto without a guide. On the weekends, I spent entire days exploring the many side canyons, either on foot or horseback. The red rocks exuded magic and mystery.
I couldn’t resist climbing up into the caves that were accessible by slopes of talus and partially eroded toeholds carved out of the rock hundreds of years ago.
One of the caves that I explored was located halfway up the canyon wall and difficult to reach, with only precarious Anasazi toeholds for support. I leaned into the sandstone wall as I inched my way up. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside the cave, I spotted a large pile of rocks that had obviously been placed there by someone. I had a strong feeling that something lay hidden under those rocks.
One by one, I removed the rocks from the pile. At the bottom of the pile I saw a small skeleton, probably an Anasazi woman from pre-Navajo times. Around her cervical spine lay a necklace made of small, irregularly shaped turquoise beads. Next to her stood a light-brown clay pot and a pair of disintegrating, grey-colored sandals woven out of yucca fibers.
My Navajo friends told me that the Anasazi abandoned Canyon de Chelly, Chaco Canyon, and other large settlements in the high desert by 1200 AD, due to a prolonged drought. The skeleton and the artifacts that I uncovered in the cave must have been around 800 years old.
After staring at the sacred objects, I said a quick prayer for the spirit of the Anasazi woman, and then carefully put the rocks back into a pile to cover the treasure and leave it as I had found it. I prepared for my descent to the floor of the canyon by squatting down on all fours and, turning to face the wall, I painstakingly lowered my body down from the edge of the cave. Images of Anasazi people climbing up and down the steep walls filled my mind.
The next day in the classroom, I proudly told the students about my find, describing in vivid detail what I saw. They responded with agitation and shock. They said that I had done a very bad thing by disturbing their ancestors. I protested that I had not taken anything. They advised me to have a purification ceremony so that bad luck would not strike me down.
Donna, my teacher aide, took me aside and explained that in Navajo religious belief, an evil spirit or ghost, called ch’indi, lingers around the dead person’s bones and possessions. The ghost represents everything that had been bad in the dead person. Traditional Navajos believe that contact with ch’indi can cause a severe, unexplained illness called “ghost sickness” that can lead to death if left untreated by the medicine man.
Seeing how upset the students became when I told them about finding the Anasazi skeleton in the cave, I agreed to consult with a medicine man if I developed any signs or symptoms of ghost sickness, like a serious illness or some exceptionally bad luck.
Given the amount of energy that the children had for the subject of ch’indi, I devoted the rest of the afternoon to letting the students teach me about werewolves, skin walkers, and shape shifters.
Ch’indi are shape shifters. They can inhabit any living thing. The kids told me that if I ever saw a wolf or coyote that walked upright like a human, then I could be sure it was a werewolf capable of great harm.
I asked how Navajos become werewolves. One of the boys explained that a man has to commit the worst crime possible in the Navajo culture—murder of a relative. After the murder, the man has the option of choosing a life dedicated to evil.
The students firmly believed in werewolves and witchcraft. Nearly everyone in class had a story about coming home and seeing a werewolf lurking around their hogan.
I was dubious, yet they spoke so convincingly of their own personal encounters with these entities that it made me take these paranormal accounts seriously. I asked the students if I needed to worry about werewolves coming around my ground-floor apartment in the government housing area. One of the students said that the skin walkers were not interested in Bilagáana (white people), but that I had better stay out of their way or else I could get hurt.
After I dismissed the class at the end of the day, a student came to my desk and whispered in my ear that a certain Mr. Begay, a school employee, was known to be a werewolf. From then on, I always felt slightly peculiar when I saw Mr. Begay, imagining him racing around at night with a skin on his back, half-naked, doing evil deeds.
A few weeks later, I had an experience in Canyon de Chelly that made me question my disbelief in werewolves and witchcraft.
One evening on a school night, three young white women came over to my apartment and asked if I would take them into the canyon. They were student teachers from Utah and had spent the last month visiting the public high school in Chinle. Although I had previously agreed to take them, no date had been set. I protested that their unanticipated visit was too late, especially on a school night.
I remembered that my students had earnestly warned me to never walk around the canyon at night because that’s when the skin walkers did bad deeds.
The young student teachers pleaded with me, saying it was their last day on the reservation and that it was a perfect night since the moon was full. I reluctantly agreed.
We piled into my 4-wheel drive and drove to one of the trailheads. The light of the moon fully illuminated the canyon. The night was very still, interrupted only by the noisy chatter of the young teachers as we walked down the long trail deep into the canyon.
Halfway down a flicker of light caught my eye. Across the canyon, I spotted a campfire burning in a cave near the top of a steep sandstone wall. I pointed out the fire to the student teachers. They were not impressed, saying that probably some hiker had camped up in the cave and made the fire to stay warm.
No, this was no camper, I countered. First of all, the Navajo people did not allow camping in the canyon by non-Navajos, I explained. Secondly, a hiker would need technical climbing gear in order to get up the nearly vertical sandstone wall. On that particular wall, the steps carved into the rock by the Anasazi People around one thousand years ago had eroded beyond use.
The sight puzzled me. The girls continued down the trail, oblivious of my concern. A few minutes later, I saw shadows projected onto the back wall of the cave. The elongated and distorted shadows moved rhythmically, the same way I had seen in ceremonial dancing.
The girls stopped and watched, finally beginning to sense that something strange and foreboding was taking place in the cave.
We sat on a rock, watching in silence across the canyon. At one point we heard a high-pitched whistle, identical to the sound that I had heard in certain ceremonies. I knew that the whistle was made from the bone of an eagle’s leg. The shrill sound pierced the night.
Immediately after we heard the sound of the whistle, the campfire went out. The canyon had an eerie stillness to it. Just as I was about to whisper that we should turn around and go home, a great clamor of barking dogs and stampeding sheep echoed in the night.
Up the canyon a short distance from the cave, an old woman lived with her sheep and goats. It sounded like an animal was attacking her livestock. The melee lasted for about ten minutes and then silence returned to the canyon.
While we sat watching the canyon below, I spotted a large animal loping along the floor of the canyon. It was smaller than a horse and larger than a dog. I thought it looked like a naked man bent over with a skin thrown over his body.
When I pointed out the figure to the young women, they jumped up and fled up the trail at full speed, finally realizing that something terribly bizarre and threatening was afoot below in the canyon.
As I sprinted up the trail, I reminded myself that I was a Bilagáana and, according to my students, werewolves weren’t interested in white people. But they also said that if white people get in the way of werewolves, they could be harmed.
I drove the student teachers to the dormitory and dropped them off. They got to have a truly paranormal Navajo experience, something for them to think about for a very long time.
When I arrived home, it was way past my bedtime, but I was too excited to fall sleep. I got back into my car and drove to the trailer compound that housed the public high school teachers, one of whom I had befriended. Seeing that Pat’s light was still on, I knocked on his door. He had been grading papers. I told him the story about the creature loping on the floor of the canyon. Pat laughed in disbelief and said that I had a good imagination.
I challenged him to come to the canyon and see for himself, even though it was late. He accepted. I felt afraid, but my need to prove the truth of my story won out over my fear.
We drove to the trailhead around midnight. The moon drifted in and out of the clouds, casting frightening shadows along the trail. My body stiffened with fear as we hiked down into the canyon. Neither of us said a word. At the bottom, we crossed the dried up cornfields and the arroyo, then more cornfields, until we reached the other side of the canyon.
We stood at the base of the sandstone wall, looking up at the cave, now dark and silent. A large talus slope made up of fallen rocks extended half way up to the cave. Pat announced that he was going to climb as far as he could get. I stood at the bottom, excited and fearful, constantly looking over my shoulder for anything or anybody that might be stalking us.
As Pat scrambled up the talus slope, the loose rocks slipped beneath his feet, making loud noises that bounced off the canyon walls, creating echoes that sounded like gunfire.
Halfway up, Pat heard a noise in the cave that startled him, nearly throwing him off balance. “Did you hear that? It must be a mountain lion,” he said breathlessly. “There are no mountain lions around here,” I said emphatically, as I positioned my body for flight in the opposite direction.
Just as Pat turned to continue scrambling up the talus slope, a snarling voice boomed out from the dark cave, “Get the fuck out of here, White Boy.”
Pat nearly flew off the talus slope, stumbling and falling on the way down. We both bolted out of there, propelled by terror. I ran with my back slightly arched, feeling as if someone was about to grab me from behind.
Once we had reached my car and were safely driving down the road toward home, I chuckled to myself. My credibility had been restored.