Chaco Canyon: 'There is, indeed, a Navajo connection to the place'

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

CHACO CANYON, N.M., June 27, 2013, June 27, 2013

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F ollowing up on this astronomy "trip" I went on, I decided to check off another adventure on my list, when I decided to visit Chaco Culture National Historical Park over the weekend for an annual event called the Summer Solstice Sunrise.

Visiting Chaco Canyon had always been on my to-do list as it plays a significant role in Navajo history and also because it's about 50 miles directly east of Naschitti, N.M., where I call home, a place I never had been.

Not only did I want to experience the solstice and celebrate the season of summer, but what other way than to celebrate my season of birth. I'm a Leo, for the record.

Initially, I didn't know if visiting Chaco was such a good idea, because of the "yiiyaa" that most traditional Navajos would associate the extinct Chacoan culture with.

However, through past recreational reading, in which I learned there was a prominent Navajo presence in Chaco, I thought, "Navajos lived there and there are ceremonies such as the Night Way and oral stories, like the Great Gambler, that cite Chaco Canyon as a place of ancestral significance."

The Kinyaa'aanii clan, which is my paternal clan, or my father's clan, is also reported to have originated from there, according to Navajo oral history (see separate story).

Other Navajo clans like the Ashiihi and Tabaaha are also reported to have ancestral ties to Chaco, according to Navajo Anthropologist Robert M. Begay, who wrote a master's thesis on, "Exploring Navajo-Anaasází Relationships Using Traditional Oral Histories."

So, why should I not?

I found so many reasons why I needed to venture there. Besides, the solstice also plays a significant role in the Navajo universe, creation and oral history.

Visiting Chaco was also a follow-up to my NASA trip I went on a few weeks ago. This time, though, I thought it would be best to learn about the universe through indigenous thought, and this was one alternative way. With those reasons, which I felt were valid, I made up my mind.

So, last Friday, on the first day of summer, I left for Chaco to write about the summer solstice sunrise.

En route to Chaco, I also came across the patients and horse riders, who were participating in an Enemy Way Ceremony and were riding near the San Juan/McKinley County line when I saw them off U.S. Hwy 491. The Enemy Way Ceremony marks the official start of summer ceremonies like it in Navajo society.

The horse riders were carrying the "stick" from Buffalo Springs, N.M. to a relative of mine, who apparently agreed to receive the "stick," in Naschitti. Boy, was traffic heavy this day, with the caravan of vehicles moving with the horse riders on the shoulder of the highway.

I didn't know my To'ahani kinfolk, who live near the foothills of the Chuskas, were going to receive the stick until I got home to get my stuff for my trip. I saw vehicles blowing up dust toward the foothills, and then I saw horse riders, who served as markers, and realized from my parent's backyard, "That's where the stick is going."

Already in a rush from leaving my debit card and license in my car, which my dad drove home from work, I continued hitting the road to Chaco. If you don't know me yet, I have a habit of rushing to places. (I once got the King of Punctuality award as a gag gift during a summer enrichment program I participated in when I was in high school.)

To make matters more interesting, I didn't know which way to go to Chaco. There was the Crownpoint road, which I was advised not to go on by Chaco park officials because of a sand dune. There was also driving the short cut through White Rock, N.M., which I know from traveling to my nali's winter sheep camp, and there was going through Burnham, Bloomfield and then to Nageezi.

I decided on the Burnham, Bloomfield and Nageezi route, given the amount of time I had to try and make the Full Moon Walk to learn about astronomical cycles and alignments at Pueblo Bonito.

I wasn't listening, at this point, to Siri on my IPhone. She gives crazy directions, sometimes, and routed me through the biggest detour. So, I decided to drive through the back roads of NAPI, just as long as I was going east in the direction of Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle, N.M. Fortunately, I took some lucky guesses, crossed the NAPI farmlands, and hit U.S. Highway 550 to Nageezi.

I arrived at Chaco Culture NHP at about 8:30 p.m. I was also rushing to get there because earlier in the day I was told by park officials the gates to the park would close by sundown. Luckily, I made it on time, just not for the Moon Walk.

Unlike the entire group of campers there, I was the only one who probably slept in a vehicle. I parked the SUV next to a Chinese family and a white couple, who had their tents pitched. I honestly didn't know there was a fee and process to go camping at National Park Service parks and monuments, like Chaco.

Once I settled in, I briefly talked with the camp information specialist. I asked if she had an outlet to charge my phone for my alarm, and thankfully she had an outlet to use. Otherwise I would have been out of luck.

The reason: I love to sleep and I didn't want to miss the solstice sunrise, after the drama I put myself through, and since those who wanted to experience the solstice sunrise had to be up at least by 4:45 a.m. to enter Chaco Canyon Driveway to Casa Rinconada.

Sitting in the driver's seat of the Yukon, I took it all in. With my feet hanging out of the driver window, I couldn't believe I was actually at this historical place, where many different civilizations, particularly the Chacoan, Pueblo and Navajo people, had lived and still have ties.

The moon was bright and illuminated the floor of the canyon. It was very peaceful. Despite the seatbelts riding up against my back and the little baby, in the tent nearby, waking me up twice throughout the night, I slept well and got some rest.

I woke about 4:30 a.m. after seeing other campers revving up their vehicles and making their way to Casa Rinconada. At Casa Rinconada, considered to be the largest Kiva in the Southwest, about 20 or so of us meet up with GB Cornucopia, park ranger for Chaco Culture NHP.

Cornucopia guided us to the ruin, reconstructed in the 1930s by archaeologists, which was a top a small hill in the central part of the canyon. The architecture of the ruin, like many others at Chaco, is remarkably astonishing with its masonry techniques and astronomical markings, among other features.

For about an hour we stood waiting for the sun to rise over the eastern walls of the canyon and above the clouds. At about 6:11 a.m. is when we witnessed the sun's ray's pass through the kiva's only window onto a niche onto the western interior wall of the ruin – showing us one way the Chacoan culture possibly celebrated and took count of solstice.

Upon finding folks to interview for a story on the solstice sunrise, I also befriended two outdoor enthusiasts from Tohatchi, N.M. and Forest Lake, Ariz., who reiterated the same reasons why I came to Chaco. There is, indeed, a Navajo connection to the place.

As we talked about the significance of the place, we decided to go on a hike to Pueblo Alto – House of the Great Gambler. It was part of their plan from the onset. The hike to Pueblo Alto is somewhat intense, given the rugged crevice we had to climb up to and walk through, and the heat of the sun's summer rays. Compared to others who had Camelback backpacks, I was ill equipped with one bottle of water, shades and a baseball camp.

On our way to Pueblo Alto, I was teasing my new friends of how we were going to win our sheep and livestock back from the Great Gambler, like how the Navajo deities and animals teamed up to defeat him during primordial creation.

In some ways, my outing with these outdoor enthusiasts was also my official initiation into their exclusive outdoor activity group. Because I don't currently have the proper equipment, particularly a Camelback backpack, I had to pass on their Grand Canyon expedition this weekend. Next time, I told them. It was at Pueblo Alto that I finally got cell reception and posted some of my pictures of Chaco on Instagram.

Atop the mesa, you could see Mount Taylor to the South, the Chuskas to the west, and the rugged canyons that lead up to the Rockies to the north. From here, you could also see the ancient road system the Chacoans developed that linked them to various other sites in and throughout the canyon and to places like Mesa Verde and Aztec Ruins. It was beautiful.

Burnt out from our 3-mile hike, it was about that time, I'd say 11:30ish a.m., when we trekked back down to the canyon floor and, unfortunately, back to our realities.

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