Canyon de Chelley, Arizona

Encyclopedia Article


A deep canyon system located in northeastern Arizona, within the Navajo Nation. The red sandstone walls intermittently break into the ledged cliff-dwellings that give the canyon its name. These early sites were abandoned around 1400 CE as part of a mysterious mass disappearance of the peoples who had inhabited cliff dwellings throughout the Southwest. The Navajo began to settle in and around the canyon during the eighteenth century, pushed westward by Spanish settlements along the Rio Grande, and by rising antagonisms with the Comanche and Ute tribes to the north and east. Decades of altercations over control of the area culminated in Kit Carson's brutal pursuit of the United States' Navajo removal policy. In 1864, Carson and his troops brutally forced thousands of Navajos to march in the "Long Walk” from Canyon de Chelley to forced incarceration on a "reservation" at Bosque Redondo. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Navajo died due to starvation, exposure, and illness. In 1868, Canyon de Chelley, Many Ruins Canyon, and other portions of Navajo Country were returned to the Navajo. The canyon was designated a National Monument in 1931 and has remained vital to the Navajo spiritually, agriculturally, and culturally as their home. Many of the “yeiis,” or spiritual beings, are believed to reside within the canyon system.

Photo Credit: 

"Canyon de Chelly landscape, circa 1960," photograph by Josef Muench Cline Library, Northern Arizona University (NAU.PH.2003.11.12.2.L540).