I Am Sorry.

Mike and our Navajo guide, Sylvia. In Canyon de Chelly.

My husband and I recently planned a road trip to Virginia to see family, and to attend the Washington D.C. Temple Open House.

We planned our route so that we could stop at Canyon de Chelly, among a few other places as we made our way there.

We learned that the only way we are allowed to explore in the Canyon is with a Navajo guide. Otherwise, we could drive around the rim, and look at it from the viewpoints.

Mike arranged for an all day jeep tour with a guide service.

We camped the night before at a site near the entrance, shaded by cottonwoods. The lodge nearby was run by the Navajo Nations Park service. We had a delicious breakfast of blue corn pancakes at the cafeteria there. While I ate I looked at a display that illustrated the clan structure of the Navajo. I loved learning that it is matriarchal.

We met our guide after breakfast. Sylvia is a Navajo woman who is close to my age, and who handles a 4 x 4 Jeep over rough canyon terrain like a pro.

Within minutes I knew we could not have a better person to lead us in exploring and experiencing this Canyon. It is a place that has been continuously occupied by indigenous peoples longer than any other. Thousands of years.

Sylvia and many generations of her ancestors were born here. She showed us the hogan where she was born, and spoke of how, at a young age, she learned to climb the ancient foot hole trails carved into the steep walls. She told us how the children were taught to run, and climb and hide not only for play and to know the Canyon as their ancestors had, but also for survival.

As we entered and made our way through, she showed us the ruins and rock art of the Anasazi, Hopi and Navajo that lined the towering walls around us. Some were from recent centuries, some were thousands of years old. She skirted the areas where many of her family and friends have their homes and gardens. The guides show great respect for the land, because this is their land and they live here.

This was an experience like no other. She shared knowledge of rocks, plants, structures, water, creatures, artwork in such an intimate way. She spoke of what had happened to her ancestors in specific places. She showed where her great grandmother was born, shortly after those who survived the Long Walk had returned to their homes. She showed where some had managed to escape and evade the army, and how they saved seeds and starts of their peach trees to replant after Kit Carson had destroyed all of them.

Every moment, every place we went in the Canyon revealed more connection to land and time and story. She taught us more about the tribal significance of pictograph and petroglyph images than anything else we had studied.

We learned of a number of assaults on the people of the Canyon. Sylvia shared many details about several that had devastated her family, which she had learned from them. The Spanish explorers had massacred many. Kit Carson had laid siege to their homes, their water, and destroyed their plants and animals. He killed many of her people, then forced those he could capture to walk hundreds of miles, and live in captivity for years. Many more died on that journey before the few survivors returned.

It was amazing to learn of this from her as she showed us the ruins where she played as a child, the place where she waters her cattle, the almost vertical trails where she has guided climbers, and taught her grandchildren about their ancestors who escaped capture on those trails. When we came upon her cattle in a shady area, she stopped and spoke to them in Navajo. They responded and there seemed a mystical connection between them.

She shared some information about ceremonies, and spiritual life, often mentioning prayer and praying as though this was as usual as breathing. It became clear how she felt about those who shared details about their sacred ceremonies and customs. She mentioned a cousin who had written about these details in a book, and how it would bring evil on him. It was one of the few times where I sensed real fury in her. It reminded me of the importance of honoring what is sacred to others.

This day was full of extraordinary experiences, but one really surprised me.

There is a place where Navajo artists have depicted the massacres that have occurred here over the centuries. There are long panels of pictographs in different sections of a large rock wall. Sylvia pointed out the Spaniards riding horses into the Canyon in the early 1800s, using their weapons to slaughter the people. Then she pointed out the various depictions of the atrocities wrought by Kit Carson in the 1860s. Then she described how the U.S. government came in the 1940s, claiming her people were letting their cattle overgraze. The government killed the cattle. She showed the images of her ancestors mourning, because they loved their animals. She spoke of the Elders who died of grief at this loss.

I stood there looking at the panels for a long time. I began to hear the sounds of screams, and guns, and horse hooves as I thought of Sylvia’s grandmother, great-grandmother, and on and on – running from their home where they had been born, where they had birthed life, where they had tended plants, where they had their ceremonies. I no longer wondered at the continuing need to teach their children to run and hide. I thought of my own home, and others where I had lived throughout my life. They were all on land where tribal peoples had lived.

Sylvia had started to walk back to the Jeep. I turned and called out to her.

“Sylvia, I’m sorry! I am so sorry for my ancestors. I am sorry.”

And I was suddenly weeping, standing there where so many had wept.

Sylvia turned back, and seemed a little surprised for a moment. Then she came and hugged me, letting me cry on her shoulder.

“It’s all right, Jody. It’s all right.”

I don’t know what it will take to make this a world where we will honor connection, and belonging. Where people do not have to train their children to run, or to hold up their hands, or to be ready to hide because they are not even safe at church, or school.

I don’t know how to make up for the past.

At the very, very least – we need to listen to the stories, we need to witness the loss. We need to acknowledge our connection to it.

At the very, very least – we need to say we are sorry.

That is only a beginning.

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10 Responses

  1. Heidi says:

    The Kit Carson episode in the 1860s is known as Hwéeldi (the Navajo Long Walk in English) and they ended up in Bosque Redondo, in New Mexico, a short distance from my hometown. I am 40 and I learned about this less than a year ago. It’s a significant part of the state’s history and it never came up in classes. Even when I went to Fort Sumner, the town where the camp is, there’s not much indicating that this horrible event happened here. There still isn’t a ton of research on Hwéeldi. It was a huge, nation-changing event for the Navajos, and barely a blip in white history. I’ve made it a bit of a mission to tell everyone I know about this now trying to make up for the guilt I feel upon realizing that I should have known about this and just didn’t.
    Thank you for sharing your experience. I’ve been meaning to visit Canyon de Chelly for a while and this is excellent motivation.

  2. Sean McKee says:

    Interesting article. Although, I think that until we recognize and value the importance of community in our own lives we will not understand the damage done to the Navajo and other first nations people.

  3. Bailey says:

    I don’t know what it will take to make the world a place that honors connection and belonging. I do know that storytelling is an important part of this work. Thank you for sharing your experience and allowing me to read this story. Perhaps it is naive, but I hope that witnessing such stories and changing myself will eventually ripple out into the world and that all of us doing this work will result in a world of connection and belonging.

  4. Nat Whilk says:

    For what it’s worth, nps.gov seems to place the Navajo settlement of Canyon de Chelly at around 1700, which would mean that your guide’s ancestors might have been living there for 150 years at the time of Kit Carson’s attack. Scholarly estimates as to when the Navajos arrived in the American Southwest seem to average out to about 1400, which would mean that they preceded Coronado by about 150 years (again). Prior to that, the theory is that the (proto-)Navajos lived in northwestern Canada.

  5. Katie Rich says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Jody. I often think about what it means to redeem our dead, and I think part of it is learning the atrocities and traumas inflicted by our ancestors. We cannot heal what they did, but we can learn from it.

  6. LHCA says:

    Thank you, Jody. Your post is quite moving. You asked what will it take to make this a world where we will honor connection, and belonging. You also hinted at an answer: matriarchal culture, which is based on connection and belonging.

  7. Chiaroscuro says:

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful experience. I wish we could repent of our ancestors sins

  8. TeresaHart says:

    There are so many stories we need to honor, thanks for sharing this one.

  9. Cheryl B Preston says:

    I would love to go there and use this guide. Can anyone tell me how to reach her to schedule?

  10. Rebecca says:

    Jody, I often appreciate your thoughtful words so I mean the following in the kindest but most direct way…I don’t think an indigenous woman should have to shoulder your fragility and guilt. It’s not right for her to be put into the position of having to take on your emotions regarding her and her people’s lived experiences. Yes, this woman’s response to you was kind but she is paid to provide tour service, not emotional labor. You have centered your own comfort. I recommend that you instead talk to your husband or find a supportive white friend who can help you process your grief around Native American mistreatment. Your love and sympathy for this community need to translate into solidarity and action for the marginalized. This can look like financially supporting Navajo nonprofits that are led by Navajo people, which would show that you trust that these people know best what they need and you trust them to make decisions with your money.

    Additionally, please consider how you are portraying indigenous people. You have used words and descriptions that exotify and stereotype indigenous people, which contributes to people not being able to see natives as having a reality existing in the here-and-now just as much as people of the dominant culture experience this reality. This portrayal keeps the dominant culture voyeuristically viewing native peoples’ lives as some romantic, historic artifact on display for said dominant culture. The best thing you could be doing in your post is to use your platform to draw attention to the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW) that includes an ask of your audience to take action by amplifying your message and monetarily supporting native-led work addressing MMIW.

    To those reading my comment, thank you for reading and please consider doing your own self education by googling about any of the following issues, which were understandably not all raised in or relevant to this post but are timely nonetheless:
    racism against native people,
    the ‘exotic’ native stereotype,
    lack of household water access experienced by many people of the Navajo Nation,
    ethical tourism/poverty porn,
    Native-led nonprofits,
    Indigenous activists,
    Traditional indigenous knowledge and climate change,
    the Land Back Movement,
    origins of land acknowledgements,
    White Supremacy in U.S. Conservation,
    Mormon settler colonialism,
    LDS Indian Placement Program as White assimilation,
    dark skin curse theology,
    and, of course,
    Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women #MMIW.

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