They dot the landscape of the American Southwest, an ancient testament to the long history of a people who preserve their culture still today. Pit houses, cliff dwellings and adobe buildings reveal the Ancestral Pueblo people’s ability to adapt to the harsh environment of the desert. Archaeologists and historians have documented the changes and catalogued the artifacts, but it is the descendants of the people themselves who continue their traditions. These longstanding homes blend with the modern dwellings of today’s Pueblo people to create some of the longest continually inhabited communities in the US.
One such place is Canyon de Chelly. The earliest dwellers in the canyon lived there from 2500 to 200 BC. Known as the Archaic People, they were hunters and gatherers, their homes temporary campsites rather than permanent structures. Archaeologists have uncovered what we know about them from the images they left behind on the walls of the canyon.
They were followed by those called the Basketmakers. Their initial dwellings were pit houses, half above and half below the ground. As they settled into a more agricultural lifestyle, they adapted to the landscape by building stone houses above the ground. Some of these connected to form multi-story villages that allowed for larger communities. With amazing ingenuity, they adapted farming techniques to the harsh climate. As they built their cities and farmed the land, they formed the cultural foundations of a people who would come to be known by a Spanish word, Pueblo. They are the ancestors of today’s Hopi and Pueblo people and their homes are a modern reminder of how long their history in this land truly is.
The Ancestral Puebloans continued to build their communities and remain in the canyon until around 1300 AD. Drought and disease forced some to leave to find better surroundings. In spite of their exodus, the area of Canyon de Chelly remained a place they returned to, albeit in temporary settlements, using it for seasonal farming and sacred ceremonies.
This usage continued until the late 1600s or early 1700s. It was then that Spanish colonists and others forced the Navajo into the area. The Navajo brought with them domesticated animals and their own adapted traditions, adding the care of livestock to the agricultural ways of the Pueblo people.
As time passed, the Spanish, then the Mexicans and finally the United States would all claim the territory, bringing suffering to the Navajo and the Pueblo who had long inhabited the canyon. But their attachment to the place would not change. Despite the forced removal of the Navajo during the Long Walk, the Dine would return to Canyon de Chelly, where a community still exists today.
With time has hopefully come greater understanding and respect. Today, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is operated through a partnership between the Navajo Nation and the National Park Service. Together they preserve these ancient dwellings and help a modern world understand the story of the people who first came there along with all who came after them.