It was early spring, April 1 2007 in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona and I walked down nearly a thousand feet of a switch back trail through 250 million years of breathtaking beauty. The red sandstone cliffs carved over millennia by forces of nature had been home to humans for over 1500 of those years, stretching back to Pueblo cliff dwellers and to the present day Dinè (Navajo) settlers. Nearly 100 years ago on this same day, Canyon de Chelly was designated a National Monument. Many who come to this place do not know the tragedy and horror that was forced upon its people by the U.S. government led by Kit Carson. It wasn’t until years later that I visited the museum near Ft. Sumner, New Mexico that I learned more fully about the shameful history in which not only Dinè but also Ndè (Mescalero Apache) people were forcibly removed from their traditional homelands to a lonely, inhospitable outpost, walking in brutal winter conditions for hundreds of miles. (Visit this museum at https://nmhistoricsites.org/bosque-redondo ) It is a story of incredible hardship as well as resiliency and courage.
As I wound my way through the cliffs and crags, I was inspired to taste the sweet and bitter berries of the junipers that inhabit the area, their pungent flavor opening me a bit to other fragrances of the canyon: pungent pinon warming in the late afternoon sun, dry roots with twists like the weathered sandstone walls themselves and a subtle aroma of the earth.
On the way down, I encountered an elder Dinè woman, the deep lines in her face reflecting the ancient rock. She was surrounded by a flock of young children who try to keep up with her steady and sure-footed pace. No question that she was a part of this canyon and it a part of her. I imagined that her destination was the hogan and fields far below on the canyon floor. On they went and gradually I did too, eventually to a small stream at the bottom, finding a secluded spot away from other visitors. Light through the cottonwood trees dappled the spring snowmelt water. There were fresh green spring signs everywhere.
The poetry of Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz described my experience perfectly: (from “Canyon de Chelly” from A Good Journey, Turtle Island Press 1977).
Lie on your back on stone
the stone carved to fit
the shape of yourself.
Who made it like this,
knowing that I would be along
in a million years and look
at the sky being blue forever?
Time passed and the sun dipped down towards the western canyon wall. Shadows lengthened and it was time to leave. There were only a few of us left in the area, but I wanted to be the last one out. As I made my solitary way back up the trail, a young Dinè couple effortlessly foot raced past me like a breeze.
Still, I lingered longer, hidden on a high ledge and above what I thought was the hogan of the elder I had seen earlier on the trail. I wanted to give her and this place of beauty the gift of music with my flute, my way of saying thank you for being here. I was giving up something, though, to do that. Or so I thought. My original intention was to be high up on the rim and play the flute to the rising full moon. Offering this musical gift to the canyon on this lower ledge below, however, became the most important thing to do.
I walked to the edge of the ledge, played the flute, then returned to the trail to leave. But before I left, I did something I learned to do years ago on another high desert place of beauty in New Mexico.
As I stepped onto the trail and turned back to “return the gift,” an enormous full moon was rising on the eastern horizon in an opening between the canyon walls. Had I been there a little earlier or later–or had I been on the canyon rim–I would not have seen that spectacular sight.
Once atop the rim, I walked to the public viewpoint and discovered in a small pool of water on the cliff edge a reflection of the moon, now higher in the sky. This called for cornmeal and another flute offering. But before I could do so, far in the canyon below a chorus of coyotes began their own offering. Next it was my turn with my flute.
The story came full circle eight years later in 2015 when I took another walk down the same canyon trail. Huge winds and lightning struck the canyon and the bare sandstone walls became filled with waves and fountains of water, glassy and glistening. Trails became adobe super-slides. Eventually the rain lessened and as I made my way back up, I encountered a friendly local man and several of his family. As we all rested a bit we engaged in conversation I felt moved to tell him about my experience playing the flute for the elder on my last visit. Turned out this man was the nephew of the woman and her name was Marie. She had just passed away that morning at 1 a.m. and now here I was, gathered with her family members on the trail above her beloved home. Perhaps that made me an “honorary” relative. In any case, to my way of thinking, we are all “relatives,” all family.