Canyon de Chelly: How Not to See a Native American Reservation

Canyon de Chelly: How Not to See a Native American Reservation

I had a wake-up call after my visit to Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Native American reservation in Arizona.

I realized that I was a tourist there, even though I was traveling in my home country. I have always resonated with Native American cultures, and I wanted to learn about the Navajo culture on my trip there, but my preconceptions as a tourist led me to miss the boat.

On the early spring day when I headed for Canyon de Chelly, a cloudless cerulean sky greeted me. Stolid cacti had taken on an air of revelry, sporting brilliant blossoms of pink, yellow, and red. The air was cool, but my skin soaked up the warm sun.

Stolid Cacti, Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “shay,” from the Navajo word tsegi, meaning “rock canyon”) was made a part of the National Park Service in 1931, although the land is within the Navajo Nation.

It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas of North America, and many Navajo still live there today.

The peaceful beauty of the Canyon, when I first viewed it, belied its violent history. It was a site of many horrors for the Navajo people, including a massacre by the Spanish in 1805 and later a scorched earth policy led by Colonel Kit Carson of the U.S. government, which ended with the Long Walk of 8,000 Navajos to Ft. Sumner.

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

I hiked into the valley on the White House Ruins trail, the only trail that allows visitors to descend into the Canyon. At the end of the trail were vendors selling Navajo jewelry. I found much of the jewelry pretty but noted that it was not made from silver or precious gems. The vendors said nothing as I perused their wares.

A Navajo man of about 19 or 20 walked over and talked to me at length about the history of the ruins and the pictographs above them.

I had read that Navajos tend to be reticent about talking to white people, especially about their culture (which is understandable, given that we have tried to exploit or destroy it).

This man, however, could not have been more friendly. As we were finishing our conversation, I unzipped my fleece to show him the Navajo necklace, made of turquoise and silver, which I inherited from my mother.

He admired the necklace and exclaimed, “Oh, so much silver! Very few of our craftsmen can afford silver; it’s so expensive.” We said good-bye, and I headed back up the trail to the top of the canyon.

Canyon de Chelly

Near the parking lot was a vendor selling pieces of sandstone painted with Navajo symbols. As I walked by, she picked up one of the rocks and started to tell me about the meaning of the symbols. It was interesting, but I didn’t want to acquire any more things. I already have too many.

I listened politely but walked away when she paused.

I tend to avoid people who are trying to sell me things (although I noted that she hadn’t actually said anything about selling or named any prices).

On my way out of town I stopped at a gas station. A boy of about ten knocked on the window of my car. I put down the window, and he held up some earrings, asking if I would like to buy them. I said no, and he retreated without a word to a nearby pickup truck where a man and woman, who appeared to be his parents, sat in the front seat.

I figured they had sent him out to sell to tourists because they would be less likely to turn down a child than an adult.

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

Upon returning home, I reflected on my trip to Canyon de Chelly. The Navajos had given me access to their beautiful land and shared their culture openly with me. I had been enriched and enlivened by my experience.

When I thought about the vendors in the canyon, the woman selling the painted stones, and the boy selling earrings, however, I was filled with regret and remorse.

Granted, I didn’t want any more material things, but why didn’t I realize at the time that those people were most likely selling their wares in order to survive?

What if someone didn’t eat that night because I refused to buy something? I should have bought something even if I didn’t want it, just to help those people out.

I had gained so much from my trip to Navajo country, but what had I given back? I had looked but I hadn’t seen. I had been blind to their need.

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

I did some research and learned that approximately 60% of Navajos live below the poverty level—one of the highest rates in the U.S., even among Native American communities.

The Navajos live in substandard housing in harsh desert conditions and account for 75% of U.S. households without electricity.

They suffer from hunger and poor medical care; some live in isolation in remote areas where they have no access to medical care. Employment opportunities are limited.

The fact is that Navajos are living in third world conditions in this first world country of ours.

One Navajo leader has described the plight of the Navajos as an unending cycle of despair as they struggle to survive on a daily basis.

Canyon de Chelly

I realize now that even the few dollars I might have paid for goods the Navajos were selling might have made a difference in their ability to survive for one more day. So why did I not see this at the time?

As an American tourist, I have been conditioned to resist being hustled when traveling in other cultures.

Cruise and tour directors admonish their charges not to buy anything from the locals, who often swarm around them in droves. It has become a stereotype that everyone from another culture who tries to sell something to a tourist who happens by is trying to take advantage of that person.

Unknowingly I carried that stereotype with me on my visit to the Navajo Native American reservation. It influenced me, even though the Navajos who tried to sell me things were respectful; they were not pushy and did not hound me.

Because of the cultural preconceptions I carried with me, I had not looked below the surface to see those people as they really are.

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

Even though I felt I missed the boat at the time, I discovered that it’s not too late to make a difference. I made donations to a couple of charities that work to improve life on the Navajo reservation, which salved my guilt and remorse for the time being.

I am left, however, with the realization that suffering is a daily reality for the Navajo people.

They have been forced to live in broken down housing on barren land under conditions that have been compared to the slums of India and Mexico City.

It is easy to ignore the suffering of people who, although they live in the same country, are hidden away from us on reservations.

I didn’t even see the suffering when it was right in front of me on the reservation.

Canyon de Chelly

Hopefully some justice will be brought to a culture that has been forgotten about so that these once proud and independent First Americans can be lifted out of their third world existence and freed from the despair that haunts them every day.

Remember what you have seen, because everything forgotten returns to the circling winds.

Lines from a Navajo Wind Chant

If you’d like to make a donation, there are a couple of charities that work to improve life on the Navajo reservation: Navajo Relief Fund ( and Adopt-A-Native-Elder ( Please consider helping.

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  1. It’s not surprising to see this kind of thing in developing nations in Asia or South America, but it’s strange to think about it in the USA. Surely the real issue here is not whether you bought the souvenirs or not, but why the country lets so many people live below the poverty line.

    1. Yes, it’s shocking to realize that such living conditions exist in the US. It is a travesty of justice and a tragedy for those who must endure such conditions.

  2. Thank you for raising the important issue of children being exploited for selling purposes. It’s something I will be more aware of in my travels.

  3. You see a lot of this happening in Latin America too, as well as South East Asia. You cannot buy from children because it reinforces the fact that they are more valuable selling than in school. It`s tough because it would be easy to satisfy our own guilt and just buy from them but in the long run it is not healthy for the community.

    1. That’s a really good point, Ayngelina! And as long as you’re buying from them, their “value” is apparent. Didn’t even think about that.

  4. Wow, great post Susan. I wasn’t aware that the suffering was so bad for the Navajo- and I wouldn’t feel bad about not buying more things, making a donation is probably more beneficial for the Navajos anyway.

    By the way the photos you took are beyond gorgeous.

    1. The condition of the Navajos is far worse than I ever imagined. Their situation is made especially bleak by an unemployment rate higher than 50%. They, like other Native Americans, have had their rights consistently violated. There is not a single treaty the U.S. government signed with Native Americans that was not abrogated.

      The canyon itself is beyond gorgeous, a truly beautiful place to visit.

  5. It is hard but I understand why you did it. If you buy something from all the locals while traveling, you can soon end up with a whole suitcase full of stuff that you don’t want. You made the donation to charity so I would not feel so bad about it.

    1. Thanks for your validating comment about my not buying souvenirs. You make an excellent point about a suitcase full of unwanted things. There’s a certain satisfaction, however, in the 1:1 interaction with a person you’re buying something from, knowing that you’re helping that person, but I know that a donation to charity helps more people in the long run.

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