Canyon de Chelly

Although the field school is mainly focusing on the New Mexico foodshed, we did feel it necessary to make a foray into northeastern Arizona to learn more about indigenous lifeways. Just outside of Chinle, we met up with Navajo guides Adam Teller and Harris Hardy (from Antelope House Tours) at the Canyon de Chelly visitor center. They agreed to take us into Canyon del Muerto, down the Stacking Rock Trail, to learn about native dryland agriculture in the National Monument. We drove east on the North Rim Drive for a few miles, parked the vehicles at a lone stone hogan and headed down into the canyon  by scrambling over steep orange sandstone ledges that were once ancient sand dunes. Our guides pointed out Anasazi paths – zigzagging trails of hand- and toe-holds chipped into the sandstone walls – and small caves at the top of the cliffs where Navajo had sheltered (with seedling fruit trees) when Kit Carson and his troops invaded the area in the 1860s. As we descended, the wide flat canyon bottom came into view and we got our first glimpse of agriculture in the canyon – orchards of fruit trees, rectangular fields of grass hay and small gardens of corn, beans and squash.

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In the canyon we visited with Adam Teller’s aunt, who raises sheep and grows much of her own food. She no longer works and lives in Chinle, having decided to farm full time in the canyon and make a living by selling her weavings. We watched her weave part of a small rug of naturally-dyed fiber on an upright loom, and listened to the story of Spider Man and Spider Woman (the holy people who taught the Navajo how to weave). We also got to try our hand at turning carded wool into coarse yarn using a wooden spindle. Next, we viewed the verdant fruit orchards, the small vegetable garden and the corn fields. The water table is surprisingly high in the canyon – less than a few feet below the sandy wash. Even during periods with little rain, the high water table allows plants to grow relatively easily in the canyon. When more water is needed, large trenches are dug into the sand; the water that collects is then carried in buckets to the fields, and each plant is watered sparingly.

After our farm visit we continued walking in the sandy canyon wash, passing by Junction Ruin and First Ruin, ancient Anasazi cliff dwellings. After a few hours of hiking through the spiritual landscape we climbed triumphantly out of the canyon, emerging at the Tunnel Overlook on the South Rim Drive. Feeling refreshed after a rest and a number of iced teas, part of the group decided to make the most of the remainder of the day by taking in the viewpoints on the South Rim Road. The highlight, of course, was the last: the sacred spire of Spider Rock where Spider Woman is said to live.

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