The Power of Story and Place among the Navajo in Canyon de Chelly
 ~ by Bonnie Bright

Canyon de Chelly
Canyon de Chelly

Hózhó. Under a turquoise sky dotted with cotton clouds, Pat, the patchwork mustang I ride feels his tentative way between large boulders and slippery sand. It has rained hard the night before, leaving everything bright and fresh, but the horses are paying for it with the sudden and drastic loss of the topsoil that normally cushions the trail. As we make our way past a final patch of juniper trees and crest a rise in the rich red earth, Canyon de Chelly, the sacred home of the Navajo for hundreds of years, suddenly reveals itself in all its stunning beauty. For the first time, I think perhaps I catch a glimpse of the meaning of the word the Navajo (Diné) use to describe a state of beauty and order, of being in harmony with the universe (Sandner, 1991).

The Navajo call themselves “Diné,” meaning “The People.” They are cultural and linguistic relatives of the Athapascans who inhabit Canada and the American Northwest, having migrated across the Bering Strait in ancient times and eventually southward to land in what is now Northern Arizona and New Mexico. In the mid-1700s, a small group of Diné made their way into Canyon de Chelly, once inhabited but later abandoned by the ancient Anasazi people centuries before, and settled there in the apparent safety and incredible beauty of the steep red canyon walls (Supplee, Anderson, & Anderson, 1981).

From nearly 7,000 feet of elevation, as we begin our descent of more than a thousand feet, Gabriel, my Navajo guide rides a few yards ahead, occasionally pointing out plants or features in the landscape as his own coffee-brown mustang confidently picks his way amidst the sagebrush and pinion trees whose nuts have provided sustenance to the people for hundreds of years. Elsewhere, juniper and cottonwood, indigenous to the southwest and to the canyon, dot the terrain. I ride in silence, the awesome wilderness echoing around me like a great chorus. Silence reigns, the only sound is that of our horses’ hooves as they grind against the rocks and sand. The big game—including the bears—are apparently all long gone.

Even the small animals that normally inhabit the region have fled the drought which dragged on for seven years. This year is the first year the rain has returned, and the people hold out hope that the rabbits, skunk, porcupine, birds, and squirrels—as well as the coyotes—will return in greater numbers with the re-establishment of the balance in the weather.

The people have suffered as well. Because there is no running water on the reservation, residents must bring in barrels of drinking water for which they pay a premium in nearby Gallup and other towns. I think guiltily about the long hot shower I indulged in that morning in my hotel before starting out, reminded once again of how lucky I am and how much I take such simple things for granted. Most of the Indians on the reservation use outhouses, and even electricity is a luxury in some parts. For all the advantage they have of owning the title to twenty-five thousand square miles of wilderness finally assigned to them after the tragedy they survived, (Waters & Fredericks, 1977), they have never been given much recourse to come up with the funding to invest in the infrastructure they need to live more comfortably as many of us do.

Indeed the desert can seem to be a harsh locale. Paul Shepard (2002) refers to it as “genetically and physiologically alien, sensorily austere, esthetically abstract, historically inimical”(p. 43). But it is also an environment of revelation. “To the desert go prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and exiles,” Shepard explains. “Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality” (p. 44). Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko (in Halpern, 1987) explains that the Hopi elders from neighboring Oraibi, the longest inhabited pueblo in North America, say they chose the barren landscape because it contributes to the Hopi Way, the sacred way of life the people lead. In this land of high barren sandstone, the people must live by their prayers in order to survive. The land allows them to embrace what is important, the unseen or abstract connections to land, family, and spirit, rather than being distracted by material abundance or wealth. In the desert, every plant, every creature, every lizard, snake, bird, or cricket is sacred simply because it survives there. Nothing is overlooked or taken for granted. In a place where life is so fragile, every ally is needed to endure another year. Thus, the people must speak to the animals that inhabit the land to get the teaching and help they need.

Shepard (2002) describes the desert as a unique sensorium, one in which silence and emptiness are the key elements. In Canyon de Chelly, with its vast blanket of sky and soaring cliffs that tower overhead like mythical native giants gathering round for a powwow, the negative space is almost more commanding than the features that are obvious to the naked eye. In art and photography, the use of negative space is a critical aspect, often creating a presence that becomes another character, another subject in a picture that may seemingly be about something else entirely. Shepard rightly suggests that the authoritarian, masculinist ideals of contemporary society have done their best to turn place into nothing more than a stage on which events take place. It is clear to me, however, that Canyon de Chelly is not simply a location, a stage upon which thousands of years of human drama have occurred, but is, instead, a place that cannot be separate from psyche.

Silko (in Halpern, 1987) corroborates this, writing  that the part of a given territory which the eye can take in in a single view does not begin to describe the relationship between a human being and his surroundings. There is no “inside” or “outside” to nature; a viewer is as much a part of the landscape as the boulder he stands on to view it. Consequently, it is impossible to peer into the canyon or begin the descent and somehow still remain separate. Indeed, humankind has a long history of intimate and reciprocal connection with nature, a memory still consciously retained by most indigenous tribes but which is mostly suppressed and buried in the western psyche. Jungian analyst Fred Gustafson (1997) claims we each have an indigenous soul, a “forgotten place within ourselves” (p. 79), an abandoned ancestral life that calls out to us to reconnect with a sense of close belonging and “to reclaim the earth as a living and soulful body” (p. 78). C.G. Jung wrote extensively about the loss of connection to nature and the powerful animate forces therein, saying “Every civilized human being, however high his conscious development, is still an archaic man at the deeper levels of his psyche”(in Sabini, 2005, p. 100). Poet/naturalist Gary Snyder (1990) suggests that the seed of the native mind myth rests within us, and that contact is contingent on connecting with place.

Even decades earlier, Carl Jung agreed. Based in part on his visit to the pueblo Indians of the southwest, Jung suggested that the collective psyche is often most deeply influenced by the culture that existed on the land before the dominant culture (Groesbeck, 1997), insinuating that the land has a memory and influence of its own. Snyder (1990) defines wilderness as a “place where the wild potential is fully expressed” (p. 12). For me, in spite of the brilliant sun on this beautiful August Arizona day, the further I descend into the deep canyon, the more I realize I am entering a different reality, another dimension that is not of everyday, ordinary experience. This place feels a part of me, as if I am descending into the depths of my own mysterious and unknowable nature. It whispers of song and story, and of vague memories that may never fully form themselves.

“The soul of a landscape, the spirits of the elements, the genius of every place will be revealed to a loving view of nature” philosopher Karl Jaspers states ( in Casey, 2009, p. 314). Thus, the waiting silence that envelops me as I offer my presence to the process is both the content and the container for a descent into the canyon. The millennia of stories held in memory by the land seem to welcome us like a soft blanket of fog as we begin to move downward. It pads the passing, offering whispers and sighs of events that have technically passed, but in a place where time is not linear, feel as though they are still taking place around us as we enter.

Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso says, “The land that may appear arid and forlorn to the newcomer is full of stories which hold the spirits of the people, those who live here today and those who lived centuries and other worlds ago” (in Fast, 2007, p. 203). Each cliff formation, each watering hole, every boulder or ancient tree had a story that rooted it in the landscape and in the people’s psyche. Indeed, Silko asserts that stories were often triggered as people passed by a specific landmark or exact place where a story took place (in Halpern, 1987). I can only imagine the stories that cried out to my guide, Gabriel, as we passed by each place, echoing and resounding with the voice of his mother, grandmother or great uncle telling the events that unfolded there, explaining how it came to be, keeping alive the legacy of his ancestors. In fact, as Tapahonso suggests, a place literally cries out with the pain and wailing of one’s ancestors.

As we approach the bottom of the canyon, one landmark dominates the scene, impossible to miss. The vertical face of Spider Rock towers 800 feet above the canyon floor, standing like a silo in the midst of the red rocks. According to the Navajo, Spider Woman, an important deity in Navajo mythology, lives on Spider Rock and fastens one end of her loom to the top. A benevolent grandmother figure, they say she once saved the life of a Navajo youth who was running away from enemy tribesman by dropping him a web-cord to help him climb up and hide. In the Navajo creation myth, the hero twins encounter Spider Woman as they set out on a quest to find their father. She helps them by telling them who their father is (the Sun) and equipping them with knowledge and tools that allow them to succeed through a series of obstacles and tests (Patterson-Rudolph, 1997). It is also she, they say, who taught the Navajo women to weave. Thus, in her many aspects, to the initiated, Spider Woman serves as a portal or bridge that allows knowledge to be passed between the sacred and the mundane. Those who have not earned the capacity to listen miss the voice of the spider when she talks.

Gabriel’s wife is a weaver, he tells me, and earns a meager income by turning out the intricate blankets and rugs that are sought after by many “westerners.” I think of my own childhood foray into the archetype of weaving as my grandmother taught me to crochet when I was seven, continuing a legacy that has existed in my own family for generations. Today, as the first woman in my family to pursue a doctoral degree, I weave stories as they come to me, carrying on the tradition in my own unique way.

Meanwhile, the horses we ride are a direct reminder of the impact of the arrival of the Europeans on the Navajo people. Horses, non-native to the Americas, were first brought by the Spanish in the sixteenth century (Wilson, 1999). Though Native Americans were forbidden to own either horses or guns—another boon from the newcomers—for decades, the Navajo adapted quickly to life on horseback and have managed to use them to their advantage for centuries. Certainly, my trip to the floor of Canyon de Chelly would not have been the same without the mustangs, nor would the images I discovered carved into the wall across from Spider Rock.

Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko explains that a pictograph can be powerful because of the fact that is an abstract rendering of the thing itself which is imbued with magic, amplified by prayers (in Halpern, 1987). Drawing the idea of the thing could accomplish something not possible with a lifelike rendering of one particular animal that was not, in fact, the real thing. The image had to encompass the entire meaning, the cosmos of it. As I squint at the faint figures on the outcropping that faces Spider Rock, most are inscrutable to me, but a few clearly depict men on horses and evoke some great unspeakable dread that arises in my core.

There, surrounded by the unspeakable beauty of incredible soaring red cliffs, I sit in silent dismay as my Navajo guide, Gabriel, shares the story of what is now known as “The Long Walk” (Supplee, et al., 1981), the tragic displacement of the Navajo during a forced march of the Navajo people after Kit Carson initiated a path of destruction in 1864, burning their homes and crops, stealing their livestock, and forcing them into a state of starvation and surrender. Many of the more than 8500 Navajo forced to march to Fort Sumner, several hundred miles away, died on the walk. Those that did not die from illness, freeze, starve, or get shot by U.S. soldiers, were likely drowned while forced at gunpoint to cross the raging Rio Grande river where they were washed away. The poetry of contemporary Navajo Luci Tapahonso speaks of the horrors of the forced march with the murder of pregnant women and the purposeful drowning of elders and children, or of those who were too tired or too sick to travel (Fast, 2007).

Even though the people were eventually allowed to return to their homeland in the canyon four years later, Gabriel related, they found some parts of it inhabited by “ghosts.” Those original residents that would not surrender for the walk to Fort Sumner had been shot as they hid in caves or rocks, their bodies left to rot. To this day, he insists, the Navajo refuse to drink the water or go to the places they believe to have been forever contaminated by this manner of death. I was caught by surprise when Gabriel began speaking frankly and, I thought, with deep grief, of the ghosts in the place. But perhaps the grief can be assuaged; the ambient and infinite pain made more bearable in the retelling if it can be held and witnessed in empathy and love.

Robin Riley Fast (2007) in her appraisal of Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso’s work, reports that the survival of a people is at stake in the telling and retelling of history. It reinforces the bond between the people, and gives them solidarity in community and continuity in their history. It is through stories and songs, that the individual is linked to the entire community. Blood and memory, she asserts, play a significant role in the ongoing spiritual relationship between the indigenous ancestors and their Native American descendants. But it is accompanied by a powerful and poignant need for reaffirmation when the stories are told, by a listener gently reminding the teller how the People discovered the flour now used in their fry bread at Bosque Redondo, the alien place at Fort Sumner near a stand of cottonwood trees where they were relocated and essentially held captive for four long years. The colorful clothing that so profoundly identifies the Navajo culture today, it is important to remember, also stems from the time at Bosque Redondo as the Indians were given cast-off skirts and clothing in outmoded styles from European and white women.

The stories and the grief they carry also speak to the contemporary threat to the Navajo community, to their vulnerability to the loss of home, culture, and community. One of the conditions for the Navajo being allowed to return was that they send their children to school, an act many families resisted. In fact, in Riley Fast’s work, she theorizes that the oral history of the Long Walk in Navajo culture serves to counteract the education the children received at the hands of the whites (2007). My Navajo guide in the canyon, Gabriel, also spoke mournfully of his own concern for the future, for the generation to which his children belong who may lose the land they live on once again because they do not have the necessary documents or the proper participation in government processes to retain the land when he and the other elders pass on.

Clearly Gabriel lives out a long history of betrayal which serves the alienation and fear that many Navajos feel. During our time in the canyon, Gabriel shared the story of his own father who, recruited by the U.S. Army in the 1940’s, served as a Navajo Code talker, a feat that stymied the Germans who could not crack the code, and which is given much credit as a central act in winning the war. However, for the Navajo men who were essentially drafted off the reservation in order to serve as code talkers, betrayal was quick to arrive. Gabriel’s father—along with many other Navajo soldiers—was never compensated for his time in service because he had not formally registered for the draft at age 18.

Further exploitation of the Navajo people occurred as uranium was discovered and mined on reservation land. Starting during World War II, the U.S. government became the sole purchaser of uranium from the Navajo with little protection offered to the Navajo miners they employed—and who typically earned minimum wage or even less (Brugge & Goble, 2001). Rampant cases of lung cancer and other maladies have wracked the population, and many of the people have continued to suffer as the government and their private interests have accumulated wealth at the expense of the People. Additionally, the natural landscape has borne the brunt of the mining operations—from destruction of the local environment to the toxic waste left behind to the estimated over 1,000 abandoned uranium mineshafts on Navajo land today like open wounds in the land. In light of such rampant exploitation, it comes as no surprise to learn the Navajo are fearful and sometimes question their place in this vastly unrecognizable world which seems drastically imbalanced.

Luci Tapahonso (2007) asks, “What good is memory if this place does not recognize me?” (p. 203). Indeed, loss of connection with the land would be a terrible symptom of something gone terribly awry and tied to loss of collective memory. Perhaps it is the lack of relationship with the new land and lack of mourning for their own loss of home among the newly-arrived Europeans that initiated a wave of destruction and despair amidst the first inhabitants of the New World. In her poetry, Tapahonso examines the sense of alienation wrought upon the Navajo which evokes a sense of homesickness for the reader, blossoming into a true feeling of emotional and literal exile. Through Tapahonso’s own perception, it is possible to recoup a shadow of the loss the Navajo have suffered. Yet, in her poem, “Starlore,” Tapahonso reassures us that healing ceremony can “restore the world for us” (p. 204). Terry Tempest Williams, an author and naturalist, reminds us that “we are healed by our stories” (1994, p. 57). Reconnection to land, land that holds stories and offers up memory, can provide us with a sense of home.

On the way back through the canyon, heading toward the steep upward trail that will raise us out of the sacred and back to the profane, I see it!—though only because Gabriel points it out. There in the soft red dirt that borders the muddy creek on draught-ridden floor of Canyon de Chelly, newly formed by the recent rain, are the impossible paw prints of a single bear, thought to be long gone from these parts. Since it had stormed the night before, the bear had walked this very path we rode just hours before, wandered to the creek to slake its thirst, and then gone on its way. For some reason, I am caught off guard; shaken to the center. Somehow, I am pierced to the core of my being by the lingering presence of this unexpected bear which occupied this very place so recently; its ephemeral apparition preparing the way for and encompassing our passage through this place—as if neither we nor the bear could exist without the other. In the presence of the bear print, this tangible and powerful mark that will just as surely be washed away by the next rain, I erupt into a torrent of tears without knowing why, their wet essence dripping onto the neck of my horse where their moisture mingles with sweat and dust.

Among the Navajo, bears are considered to be powerful medicine associated with mountains, fire, and healing herbs. They are referred to as ancestors, and as such, are rarely hunted and never eaten (Sandner, 1991). Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday (1999) refers to Bear as the embodied spirit of the wilderness, a radiant presence and a spiritual restorative, linked to storytelling—and prayer and to the print of a bear as the mark of the great whole of things. Tempest Williams (1994) reminds us how the Bear has long been linked to the sacred feminine, beginning with the Greek goddess, Artemis, whose name means “bear,”and who embodies the wisdom of the wild and intimate knowledge of nature. In the end, as Tempest Williams points out, the mother bear enters the womb of the earth before the first snow, dreams her way through winter, then emerges with spring with her young by her side—not simply surviving, but actually creating new life during the barren part of the year. Elsewhere, she speaks of pain triggered by immense beauty, by a remembering of “what we are connected to and the delicacy of our relations…of tenderness born out of a connection to place”(p. 57). That, I know now, was the pain for me—that vast mystery of existence and the exquisite grace of my own relationship to place—to being in that place at that moment in time.

Much has changed for the Navajo since their ancient ancestors made their way across the Bering Strait and migrated, as a people, over thousands of years. They have borne the weight of history and struggle since they first settled into ethereal Canyon de Chelly with its sacred red cliffs and powerful soul of place. But their rituals sustain them. The Navajo continue to survive as long as they hold the stories close and let the echoes of place reverberate within, remembering the ancestors and honoring the land which is so deeply a part of them, and calling home the power of the sacred spirits that inhabit the land to join them.

Gary Snyder (1990) asserts, “If people stay somewhere long enough, the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them” (p. 42). In Canyon de Chelly, I listened to the wind; I rode with wild abandon in a mad gallop as the solid sinews of the mustang rippled beneath me. I sat in sorrow as Gabriel, the Navajo man, told his stories of grief and pain. I stopped cold in the presence of the bear print and let the waves of history, story, and meaning wash over me. The place itself was speaking, and I, but a random passerby, breathed in the whole and listened. There is something bigger at work: something indefinable—something beautiful and balanced that will always reside within the spirit of place, and within the people there.

Hózhó. That something will not be broken by a single event or even by centuries of effort, oppression, or despair. Jung  wrote:
Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains. (in Sabini, 2005, p. 37)

Truly, the land holds the memory and the continuity of story, song, and prayer and offers a doorway to finding one’s place in the whole of things. In the words of poet Li-Young Lee:

Behind the sound
of trees is another
sound. Sometimes, lying
awake, or standing
like this in the yard, I hear it. It
ties our human telling
to its course
by momentum, and ours
is merely part
of its unbroken
stream, the human
and other simultaneously
told. The past
doesn’t fall away, the past
joins the greater telling, and is
(in Tapahonso, 1997, pp. 61-62).

Brugge, D., & Goble, R. (2001). The history of uranium mining and the Navajo people. American Journal of Public Health, 92(9), 1419.
Casey, E. S. (2009). Getting back into place: Toward a renewed understanding of the place-world (2nd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Fast, R. R. (2007). The land is full of stories: Navajo stories in the work of Luci Tapahonso. Boston, MA: Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.
Groesbeck, C. J. (1997). C.G. Jung and the Shaman’s Vision. In D. F. Sandner & S. H. Wong (Eds.), The sacred heritage: The influence of shamanism on analytical psychology (pp. 29-44). New York: Routledge.
Gustafson, F. (1997). Dancing between two worlds: Jung and the Native American soul. New York: Paulist Press.
Halpern, D. (Ed.). (1987). On Nature: Nature, landscape, and natural history. San Francisco, CA: North Point Press.
Momaday, N. S. (1999). In the bear’s house (1st ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Patterson-Rudolph, C. (1997). On the trail of spider woman: Petroglyphs, pictographs, and myths of the Southwest. Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press.
Sabini, M. (Ed.). (2005). The earth has a soul: The nature writings of C.G. Jung. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Sandner, D. (1991). Navaho symbols of healing:   Jungian exploration of ritual, image, and medicine. Rochester, Vt.: Healing Arts Press.
Shepard, P. (2002). Man in the landscape: A historic view of the esthetics of nature. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Snyder, G. (1990). The practice of the wild. Berkeley, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard.
Supplee, C., Anderson, D., & Anderson, B. (1981). Canyon de Chelly: The story behind the scenery (5th ed.). Las Vegas, NV: KC Publications.
Tapahonso, L. (1997). Blue horses rush in. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.
Tempest Williams, T. (1994). An unspoken hunger: Stories from the field. New York: Pantheon Books.
Waters, F., & Fredericks, O. W. B. (1977). Book of the Hopi. New York: Penguin Books.
Wilson, J. (1999). The earth shall weep: A history of Native America (1st American ed.). New York: Grove Press.

Bonnie Bright  is the Founder of Depth Psychology Alliance and the Executive Editor of the Depth Insights journal. She holds M.A.s in Psychology and Depth Psychology and is completing a Ph.D. at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She has trained extensively in the Enneagram, Holotropic Breathwork, and Dagara Medicine with Malidoma Some ´. Her work recently appeared in the anthology Rebearths: Conversations with a World Ensouled.


  1. My entire life changed dramatically after being in Canyon De Shelly. It was the beginning of mystical experiences and 6th chakra opening. I took a solo trip from Marin after my divorce in ’82. Had no idea it would be a vision quest. Quite remarkable.

    Our society suffers terribly because of the lack of vision quests and other ancient ways. I won’t go into a rant on the lacks of modern world b/c we all understand that on DPA. But many strengths can be gained by ritual. Kind of like in this time we throw away the banana and try to eat the banana skin…

  2. Bonnie, your beautiful narrative of Navajo world view evoked many memories of my fieldwork with The People in America’s Bi-Centennial year of 1976. . . the old medicine man who called me “cousin” when he learned of my Canadian ancestry . . . the night I realized my subconscious had grasped Navajo syntax when I asked “How much people spaghetti eat?” . . . the three-year-old girl dancing around us atop a sheer red rock cliff in the brutal desert heat, as her great-grandfather told us, “that one dropped out in the snow. Right into the snow!” Thank you so much for sharing your own Walk. MKZ

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