- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

CHINLE, Ariz. — You can’t drive around on your own in the Canyon de Chelly National Park here or hike where you please, and you should ask permission before taking photographs of the Navajo Indians who still live and farm here.

These rules are worth observing in order to spend a few hours in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which occupies a unique place in the heritage of American Indians.

Canyon de Chelly is entirely within the Navajo Reservation. You can drive the park rims by yourself and hike one route, the White House Trail, but the canyon interior can be explored only in the company of a Navajo guide, whether on foot, on horseback or by Jeep.

The park is celebrating its 75th anniversary in the national park system this year. Yet its history goes much further back in time, from 1,000-year-old cliff dwellings to drawings etched on rocks, some from the 19th century and others much older.

Though summer is peak season for many destinations in the national park system, don’t hesitate to plan a fall visit here. “In October, the cottonwood trees turn golden,” says Dave Bia, a Navajo guide who leads Jeep tours from Thunderbird Lodge, the only hotel inside the park.

The park’s human history, rather than its natural beauty, is what draws most visitors. The Anasazis, who are believed to be the ancestors of modern Hopi and Pueblo Indians, built intricate homes here between 1100 and 1300, using bricks carved from the soft red sandstone. Some of the dwellings were up to five stories high and housed 30 to 40 families. Several sites include kivas — large round rooms dug into the ground that were used for ceremonies.

The tours also visit sites in the canyon where conflicts took place between Indians and whites — from 16th-century Spanish conquistadors to such 19th-century Americans as Kit Carson.

Carson led a detachment of the U.S. Cavalry here in 1864, forcing 8,000 Navajos on the Long Walk, a 300-mile march to Fort Sumner in New Mexico.

Mr. Bia points out a towering rock wall where Indians tried to hide but says they were forced to choose between starvation and coming out after white soldiers destroyed the crops on which they relied for subsistence. Four years later, they were allowed to return to their homeland.

About 80 Navajo families still live in the canyon, many in traditional hogans with six or eight sides. “From the 1800s on, there has been farming going on here — corn, squash, melons, beans, alfalfa, peaches, apples, pears and plums,” Mr. Bia says.

The tours also take visitors to several spots in the park where Indians sell jewelry, crafts and snacks.

The Navajo refer to the canyon’s original occupants as Anasazi, which means “ancient ones” in the Navajo language and also connotes ancient people from outside the tribe, according to Wilson Hunter, chief of interpretation for the National Park Service at Canyon de Chelly.

The term Anasazi is also sometimes translated as “ancient enemies.” Other parks with similar ruins, such as Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, use the term Ancestral Puebloans instead of Anasazi.

Less controversial is Canyon de Chelly’s name. According to Mr. Hunter, Chelly is derived from a Navajo term, “tseyi,” which means “within the rock.”

• • •

For more information on Canyon de Chelly National Park, visit www.nps.gov/cach or call 928/674-5500.

Thunderbird Lodge Tours offers half-day (31/2-hour) guided Jeep tours year-round, departing at 9 a.m. and 1 or 2 p.m., depending on the season (adults, $40.45; children, $31), and full-day guided Jeep tours from spring through late fall, depending on demand and the weather, departing at 9 a.m. and returning at 5 p.m. ($65.95 including lunch).

Other tours include De Chelly Tours (www.dechellytours.com or 928/674-3772); Canyon de Chelly Tours (www.canyondechellytours.com or 928/674-5433); and, for horseback tours, Justin’s Horse Rental (928/380-4617). You also can hire guides at the park visitors center for hikes.

The nearest major airports are Flagstaff, Ariz., about 215 miles away, and Albuquerque, N.M., about 230 miles away.

Thunderbird Lodge (and cafeteria) is within the park (www.tbirdlodge.com or 800/679-2473) and is open from April 1 to Nov. 15; $102 to $145. The Best Western Canyon De Chelly Inn (with adjoining restaurant) is in Chinle — 100 Main St.; (928/674-5288); rates, $90 to $100.

The Navajo Nation observes Daylight Saving Time; the rest of Arizona does not. Between April and October, local time will be an hour later than elsewhere in the state.

The Grand Canyon is 250 miles away. Petrified Forest National Park in Holbrook, Ariz., is 150 miles away. Mesa Verde National Park, Colo., is 150 miles away. Four Corners National Monument, where the borders of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet, is 100 miles away.

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