Preserving Navajo History In Canyon De Chelly Every spring and summer, after the winter thaw allows, about a dozen Navajo families still return to their old homesteads at the bottom of Arizona's Canyon de Chelly. The canyon has cradled human civilization for thousands of years.

Preserving Navajo History In Canyon De Chelly

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On Navajo lands in Northern Arizona, there's a canyon known for its ancient cliff dwellings. Canyon de Chelly is a national monument, one of the few places within the national park system where people still live. These Navajo residents now mostly reside on the rim of the canyon. But each year, some families return, as their ancestors did, to summer homesteads and farms at the bottom of the canyon. Rose Houk of Arizona Public Radio reports.

ROSE HOUK: It's about four miles of rough driving through deep sand to Lupita McClanahan's home in Canyon de Chelly. The farther up the creek bed you go, the higher the orange sandstone cliffs soar into the sky.

Lupita unlocks the gate to her family's homestead. Her dark hair is pulled back into the traditional Navajo hair knot and tied with white yarn. In every possible way, she's trying to hold on to the traditions she learned growing up here. When Lupita was a child, her family grew corn and had 200 fruit trees.

Ms. LUPITA MCCLANAHAN: You get a lot of peaches and apples, and you take rusted buckets out there and you pick them. When you pick a peach and you drop it in the bucket - dong, dong, dong - and the sound of it is still with me today.

HOUK: They laid the peaches out on rocks to dry in the sun.

Ms. MCCLANAHAN: And you see the ledge sometimes, and it's like an orange carpet, or a red carpet up there.

HOUK: But 50 years later, only a couple of her trees still bear fruit. A decade-long drought has hurt farmers in the canyon. Many Navajos have left farming and their summer homes in the canyon behind for the ease of life with electricity and running water.

Ms. MCCLANAHAN: Come into my home.

HOUK: Lupita's summer home is a traditional eight-sided hogan, cool and dark inside with a dirt floor and log walls chinked with mud. Her husband, Jon, built it with the door facing east toward the rising sun, a Navajo custom. Together, they operate a guide service in Canyon de Chelly.

Ms. MCCLANAHAN: I have to be here. If I leave, it's like somebody broke my journey.

HOUK: For a few years, Lupita worked for the National Park Service in the canyon. Wilson Hunter, deputy superintendent of the park, grew up here, too.

Mr. WILSON HUNTER (Deputy Superintendent, Canyon de Chelly National Monument): And everything was there. If we needed water, you just start digging with your hand along the side of the wash. And you'd get a little hungry, go to the cornfield and get some corn and just build a fire, and we roast 'em.

HOUK: Canyon de Chelly National Monument is an unusual partnership between the federal government and the Navajo Nation. The tribe is responsible for natural resources, and the National Park Service protects the thousands of archaeological sites.

About 80 extended families have land claims for farming, grazing and building here. To get to their summer fields and homes, a few residents walk down on the old trails. Others drive pickup trucks in when water flow allows. Lupita is determined to continue the old traditions.

Ms. MCCLANAHAN: My dream is still happening. I want this place to be filled with corn again I want my home to have lots of peaches, lots of apples. I want to hear the sound of that peach drop in the bucket again.

HOUK: Lupita McClanahan knows it's tough to draw kids back to the land, to the old ways. But she brings her grandsons here, so they'll have a future in Canyon de Chelly, so they'll know how to build a fire, plant and water corn, pray to Talking God, and have the chance to drop peaches in those buckets.

For NPR News, I'm Rose Houk.

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