The First American Explorers to Canyon de Chelly by David Hagerty

The First American Explorers to Canyon de Chelly

David Hagerty

The motorcar rattled to a stop at the head of the canyon, and a family of pale Americans stepped out. They dressed wildly—a father in white trousers and skunk-striped shoes, a mother in a flour sack dress and bell-shaped hat covering her short hair, and a red-headed boy in pants that reached only his knees—looking as out of place on the reservation as a parrot. Despite their flamboyance, they advanced toward the Indian as they would an unfamiliar dog they feared might be aggressive. Once they stood close enough for him to smell the woman’s scent—of some foreign flower—she said, “Can you help us? We’re visitors.”

Rather than acknowledge the obvious, Aditsan waited for her to continue, the image of the strong, silent Indian. His name meant listener, and he’d always found it safest to adhere to the moniker around the bilagáana

“Do you speak English?” the woman said slowly, enunciating each word.

He nodded but said nothing.

“Thank goodness. You’re just about the only person here that does. Where is the road to the bottom?”

Aditsan looked toward the mouth of the canyon, which followed the Chinle wash through porous sand, then back at their Model T, its black metal gleaming in the sun like the railroads that pushed onto Dinétah many years before, bringing the first Americans. “There is none,” he said.

“How do you get through?”

He inclined his chin toward his horse and wagon.

The woman glanced back at her husband, who was wiping the red dust from his white shoes with a handkerchief. “I suppose we could see most of it from the rim?”

Aditsan nodded and turned away, only to hear the boy whine, “But you said we could go in.”

“Wait!” said the woman. “Can you take us?”

Not long before, Corky O’Bannon, owner of the local trading post, predicted that Canyon de Chelly would soon draw tourists to Dinétah. “Everyone wants to meet you Navvies,” he said.

Most tribesmen scoffed. Why would Americans travel for days over rough wagon ruts to see Navajo grazing lands? Still, the entrepreneur talked of national parks and tours led by Fred Harvey.

Aditsan shared the skepticism of his kin, though for other reasons. For years, he’d traded and worked with Americans, enduring enough of their exploitative commerce to know their disdain for traditional ways. Besides, when had the nation ever shown interest in Indian country?

“I’ll pay you a sawbuck,” said the husband.

Aditsan knew how to price rugs and jewelry, but tours were a new commodity. He calculated how much food he could purchase with ten dollars, then nodded.


The trail descended gently, following the stream past clusters of yucca and cottonwood, into the red rock of the canyon. Both mother and son looked comfortable on the buckboard, rolling with the dips and divots of the river wash, but her husband struggled to sit upright in the bed, gripping the rails as though he feared falling off. Several times he groaned in pain when the wagon ran over a ditch.

“Go faster!” said the boy.

“This is fast enough,” said his father.

Around them, the canyon’s walls drew closer, amplifying the trickle of water. A dry wind carried yellow leaves from the cottonwoods and the scent of roasting piñon nuts. Aditsan enjoyed the tranquility until the woman filled the silence.

“I can see why the automobile has replaced these,” she said. “Riding out in the open, you eat all the wind and dust. And this wool! It’s positively primitive. We’re lucky that little James is so hearty. But really, if you’re going to carry people, you need a hansom. You can’t expect all youngsters to adapt to such rough passage.”

While the woman kept up a ceaseless sermon about the amenities expected by tourists, her husband did not speak for many minutes. When finally he did, he uttered only one word: “Stop.” He said it so forcefully that the horse startled and trotted another dozen paces.

As soon as they halted, the passenger leaned sideways and vomited, eliciting gasps from his wife and giggles from his son. Aditsan looked away and waited for him to finish, yet once he’d expelled his beans and fry bread, he slid from his perch and landed in his own spittle. Even stationary, he looked unnaturally pale with a trickle of drool hanging from his mouth. “No more riding,” he said.


The father continued on foot, trudging behind the wagon as though captive, forcing the party to halt frequently so he could catch up.

“I remember these old carriages,” the wife said during one respite. “I grew up with them. My father maintained a whole stable to pull our buggy. Now, living in town, I hardly ever see them. People mostly travel by cable car.”

“What’s that?” Aditsan said.

“You never heard of one? I guess you wouldn’t, living all the way out here, but in San Francisco, where we’re from, it’s the easiest way to get around. Until the Model T, that is. Nowadays, nobody uses a hackney.

“You all should really build roads. I mean, if you want to appease visitors, you’ll have to make some adjustments. You can’t have people risking their lives on this trail….”

To distract himself from her prattle, Aditsan checked on the boy’s father, who trailed in their backwash, his shoes and white pants stained brown by mud. For this, the guide decided to call him the Dust Man.


The river descended so gradually that its fall was perceptible only by the rise of the canyon around, yet soon the walls reached many times taller than a tree. To an outsider, their party might appear as an alliance of settlers investigating a foreign land, except Lewis and Clark never navigated the streams of Dinétah.

As they rolled over a sand bar, the boy turned to Aditsan and studied his guide for an uncomfortable time. “You’re not a real Indian.”

“Face forward, James,” said his mother.

The boy ignored her and continued to stare until Aditsan asked, “How’s that?”

“You dress like a cowboy. Real Indians have feathers and moccasins.”

Aditsan noted the brush of his jeans and the stiffness of his leather soles. “Most Navajo dress this way,” he said. “The boots work better for riding.”

“What about your hair?” said the boy to his guide. “How come you tie it up?”

Although it broke with tradition to do so, Aditsan removed his headband, letting his long tresses flow down his back. “Convinced?”

The boy touched Aditsan’s hair as he would a horse’s mane, then answered, “Nope.”


At the canyon’s divide, Aditsan paused to consider where to lead his party next. Most bilagáana showed more interest in things than people, captivated by rugs and pots and jewels, even as they ignored their makers. Maybe they’d like the petroglyphs that dotted the walls with images of tribes and animals long extinct.

“Where are the ruins?” the woman said.

Of course, Aditsan knew the ones she meant, but still he asked, “What?”

“The ones from the cliff people.”

“Scattered,” Aditsan said.

“I want to see,” said the boy, all eagerness and greed.

“Most hide up high near the rim,” Aditsan said. “You can’t get close to them.”

“There’s none at ground level?” the woman said.

Nearby, a waxwing called to its mate as Aditsan debated his reply. “One.”

“Then show us that.”


They followed the stream into the main branch of the canyon until the walls rose so high that they obscured the sun. Once they came within sight of an octagon of mud packed around a timber skeleton, the boy pointed and said, “What’s that?”

“A house,” said Aditsan.

“Where are the tee-pees?”

“We don’t have those. We live in hogans.”

“All Indians live in tee-pees.”

“For those you need hides, and buffalo are hard to catch.”

“Buffalo?” said the boy’s mother. “I haven’t seen any. Why don’t you show us those?”

Aditsan stifled a smile and led them around the dwelling. Once they’d passed out of earshot, he paused to let the boy’s father catch up. Instead, he sat on a sandstone ledge and wiped his face with a handkerchief, which only spread the dust into moist swirls like a river’s eddy.

As everyone waited, the woman shielded her eyes to scan the canyon. “Is there nowhere to get a drink down here?”

Aditsan nodded toward the stream that trickled through the center.

“That filthy thing?”

Aditsan refrained from commenting that the river ran purest in the dry season when the silt had settled to the bottom, and no storms disturbed it.

“I don’t see how you people survive,” she said, “with no bathrooms or faucets!”

Aditsan looked to the squash and cornfields by the river, which to anyone should have signaled fecundity, especially in the high desert. “This canyon has sustained people for many generations.”

“Those little sprigs wouldn’t feed a crow.”

Overhead, the clouds passed swiftly on winds blocked by the canyon walls, reminding Aditsan of nature’s potency. He decided to call her the Blind Seer.


When they came to Kiníí’ Na’ígai, the house with white streaks across it, even the Blind Seer fell silent, staring with awe. The ancient dwelling nestled in a sandstone cove, its red bricks camouflaged by the canyon walls behind it. Despite its age, it rose several stories, with dozens of rooms intact many generations after it had been abandoned.

“We call this the White House,” Aditsan said.

“Who built it?” the woman said.

“Anasazi. Our enemy’s ancestors.”

“And you just let them live here? I wouldn’t welcome my enemy to move in right next door to me.”

“It was before us. Before we emerged—” Aditsan started to explain how the Diné came from the earth, then silenced himself. Missionaries laughed at the story of his people’s origins—since everyone knew the first humans were Adam and Eve—and persecuted anyone who said otherwise.

After an idle moment, the boy jumped from the wagon and ran to the ruins, tracing his fingers over its rough walls.

“Is it safe?” said the woman.

Aditsan recalled his grandmother’s warnings about the place—that it contained chindi, spirits of the dead, which could bring ghost sickness. “People are buried inside.”

“JAMES,” his mother called. “Leave that be.”

From her handbag, she extracted a black box that fit in her palm and produced a click like a bird. Aditsan had seen a camera once before when the headmaster at his Indian school wanted a class photo for his office, but not such a compact one. After several moments, he asked the woman where the picture waited.


Aditsan still did not understand how such a small box could hide a photo the size of writing paper, but he didn’t want to question her, fearing that it would provoke more derision. Instead, he debated silently where to take the family next—to another ruin or Spider Rock—until the woman asked her husband, “Where’s little James?”

The Dust Man slumped on a fallen cottonwood, looking defeated by his untidiness. “He was right here.”

“JAMES!” Her voice caromed off the canyon walls without reply. Aditsan scanned in all directions to where the stream wound behind the rock walls, but he saw no one.

“I’ll wager he’s playing inside,” said the Dust Man, pointing toward the ruin. “You know how he is.”

“How he is?” said Blind Seer.

“Always into something.”

“Only when no one’s watching. He hates being ignored. JAMES!” she shouted toward the building, but again only her own voice echoed in response.

“Go look for him,” she said.

Aditsan thought she was speaking to her husband, but she stared at him instead. “He would hear you calling.”

“He might be playing hide and seek. You have to check.”

Aditsan scrutinized the ancient site, with its crumbling walls of loose mud brick. “He’s nearby,” Aditsan said. “No other trails lead out.” He turned his back to the one behind them, which trickled invisibly from the sandstone.

“We’re paying you to guide us,” said the man. “If my son gets lost, expect no money.”

Money concerned Aditsan least. He would gladly forsake the ten dollars to be rid of these trespassers, but his conscience wouldn’t allow him to abandon them in the canyon. Who knew what havoc they might cause? So he strode toward the ruin and called the boy’s name again.

After a long silence, filled only by the wind whistling through the rock, Aditsan turned to the parents. “He’s not there.”

“How do you know without checking?” the woman said.

“There’s nothing to interest a child.”

“I’ll bet you played there plenty of times when you were young.”

Aditsan resisted explaining again his ancestor’s prohibitions. Even to him, they sounded superstitious, yet something about the place repelled him, like a house that recalled bad times. He moved closer so that he could peer over the low, broken walls but saw nothing. The dirt floors held a few sticks and strands of plant fibers, probably nests from some bird or animal.

“He’s not here,” Aditsan called back.

“Look in back,” said the Dust Man. “He likes to burrow.”

Aditsan circled the structure and peered into the shadows. As he leaned in, something shrieked past him, brushing his face and knocking him backward. His next sensations were confused: pain at the back of his head, a rush of blood in his ears, a struggle for breath. His eyes were still throbbing when the Dust Man called, “It was just a bird. Check the tower.”

A small doorway accessed a square chamber several stories high, but to reach it, Aditsan had to scramble up the rock walls, digging in his fingers and toes until they cramped with pain. Inside, the room pressed down upon him, too low for modern man to stand, so he squatted amid the dust and the debris: a straw mat, a pottery fragment, and a denuded corncob. Tentatively, he pawed the ground until he felt something solid and leathery, then drew it back toward him—a dusty shoe of modern vintage, yet too large for the boy. Overhead, square holes led higher into the ruin, but the roof sagged already without added weight. Aditsan left the artifacts and climbed out.

“He’s not there,” Aditsan said.

“What about there?” said the Blind Seer. She pointed to a second tier of buildings embedded in a cove, but it lay several times higher than a man, with only narrow handholds cut into the rock.

“There’s no way in,” Aditsan said.

“There must be,” said the woman.

“Not for a boy.”

“You must find him.”

To show her determination, she sat on the log next to her husband and rocked herself as she would a baby, mumbling reminders of her cherished offspring. The Dust Man stood and walked toward Aditsan, looking forceful. “I thought all you Indians were expert trackers.”

Face to face, Aditsan measured several inches taller and broader, yet the father looked so determined, he nodded and scanned the sand for clues. Overtop their own tracks ran another set heading back the way they’d come. After a hundred paces, the prints split, with one pair heading to the wash. He followed this spur until it ended at the water’s edge, with the couple following just behind.

“My God, he’s drowned! Has he drowned?” cried the Blind Seer.

The Dust Man stepped so close that Aditsan could smell the vomit on his breath. “My wife is very delicate. If she’s upset, it could take days for her to recover.”

Since the dry season had depleted the stream, the boy would have to lie face down to gag. Still, the trail eluded him until he saw a large bank of sandstone across the water with a broken tree limb at the boy’s height. Past it, the prints resumed.

Behind, the woman cried, “He’s lost! Is he lost? He must be lost.”

Her husband said, “He’s just wandered off.”

The parents followed Aditsan’s every step, second-guessing him each time he paused. At the top of a rise, prints led to the hogan, but a dense weaving covered its doorway, so Aditsan stopped several paces away and called inside, “Yá’át’ééh.”

“What are you waiting for? Just knock,” said the Blind Seer.

“That’s not our way.”

Shortly an old woman pulled back the curtain. She wore a traditional wrap banded in blue, white, and red: a chief’s blanket from a prior era. This elder would expect a formal greeting, so in their own language, Aditsan introduced himself as being of the Salt Clan and for the Bitter Water Clan. After a polite pause, the woman explained her own family connections until the Blind Seer interrupted, crying, “Has she seen our James?”

“We’re looking for a little boy,” Adisan said, still using his native language, “a bilagáana, with red hair and no manners.”

“He’s here,” the old woman said. She lifted the blanket to reveal James sitting quietly by a fire. Before Aditsan could say more, his mother pushed past both Diné to clasp her child.

“Are you hurt?” she said.

While she assessed his scratches, the old woman explained that she’d discovered the boy stroking a sheep. “He acted as though he’d never touched one before.”


Within minutes, all of them sat inside the hogan, inhaling the wood smoke of the fire while eating the woman’s mutton stew. Custom required that she share her meal with guests—even intruders. While Aditsan enjoyed the tenderness of the meat, the bilagáana only picked at it.

“How long have you lived here?” said the Blind Seer.

In her own language, the woman explained that her family emerged from the third world to inhabit Canyon de Chelly during the time of Monster Slayer, that her great-grandparents died at Massacre Cave, and that during the raids by Kit Carson, her mother hid on Fortress Rock.

“A long time,” Aditsan translated.

“Surely she said more than that,” said the Blind Seer.

But Aditsan would no longer explain things she could not comprehend.

About the Author

David Hagerty is the author of the Duncan Cochrane mystery series, about a politician intent on avenging his daughter’s murder. He has also published more than a dozen short stories online and in print. He is currently polishing a novel based upon the same character in this story, a did-he-do-it set amid the red rock of the Navajo reservation that spans the first half of the twentieth century. Read more about his work at