Home in Canyon de Chelly: Te Aitanga a Pōkai Whenua 5

 

White house ruins, Canyon de Chelly, near Chinle, Navajo reservation
White house ruins, Canyon de Chelly, near Chinle, Navajo reservation

The Diné tell of a little people who occupied the floors of canyons before them. As with all myth and story, the pieces are complicated, however there is a plethora of archaeological evidence onto which these stories read. For example, macau feathers have been found in desert areas, and the Diné explain that these little people traded with South Americans. The importance of the feathers is that they come from an area replete with rain, so were used in ceremonies in the hope they would bring that blessing to the canyons. In any case, the little people built amazing houses and structures, such as the white house above, and have left rock art (in the left of the picture above). Canyon de Chelly is one such location.

The slow descent to the base of Canyon de Chelly.
The slow descent to the base of Canyon de Chelly.

We were led to the base of the canyon by Alex Mitchell, our guide, and LaFrenda Frank, our firm friend. The canyon is as deep as Mauao is high. The rich, deep red, black, ochre and yellow of the canyon walls guided us down mutiple switchbacks to a lush floor of trees, grasses and cultivated gardens. The river bed is bare, but damp, and the river runs with snow melt later in summer. Climate change is changing all of this: there is less snow, so there is less growth. Truly a lifestyle under threat.

We reach the ruins, fenced off, and gaze at stone brick building, held together with a slurry of the floor’s soil and water. Small wimdows and doors stare blankly back. Our every word and action echoes off the canyon walls. I am reminded of Koro Hauata’s words that what Pākehā call an echo is your tūpuna joining you in reply. I hear sounds, voices, the tapping of rocks from the ruins. Others are not so sure.

The ruins above ground level are probably five metres up in a crack in the canyon; Alex explains that in some of the other sites in the canyon, their are ruins halfway up the sheer face. Over a hundred metres from the canyon floor. With no discernable method to reach them. As best explanation, the higher ruins are considered food storage. It seems a poor, rationalist explanation for what I see here.

During the war with Spanish, the Diné used the canyon as a place of retreat. Alex tells us of Massacre Cave. A group of Spanish soldiers came up the canyon on patrol whilst many of the braves were away. A group of elders, women and children had hidden themselves in a cave. However, the soldiers came on and discovered them. A young female stood, abusing and challenging them. The soldiers sent one of their number up the cliff face. When he reached the top, he attacked the young woman, and they fought, falling together to their death. The soldiers sent half their number out of the canyon to approach from the top, whilst the others fired upwards from below. The refuge turned into a deadly trap, bullets from below ricoccheting inside the cave, massacring the people inside. The cave is known as Adah Aho’doo’nili, the Place Where Two Fell Off, to remember the bravery of the young woman.

Canyon de Chelly’s river flows deep and wide now with stories of loss and of hope. It has flowed into my heart; it is there with Mauao, with Te Awanui, the Waikaraka and the Wairere Track. As indigenous people, we are proud, but we are not foolish. We have lost so much. Our story is less the triumph of Pukehinahina, and more that of Adah Aho’doo’nili. Our one moment of bravery and honour amidst colonisation’s treachery and cruelty.

And in years since then, time and again our oppressor, our coloniser, our enemy, our master, in a pique of conscience, asks what it will take for us to forget? Nothing on this earth or in the next world. So then, in exasperation, they ask what do we want? Alex’s words will suffice here: we want to go home.

 

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