Denver Bar Association
March 2011
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Where Spider Woman Dwells

by Justice Greg Hobbs

 My grandson K.J. and I travel with the Navajo teachers to Canyon de Chelly in July 2010. Stricken by a heart attack last month at the Grand Canyon, Professor Michael Welsh remains in Greeley. The sacred stones the Diné arranged in prayer for him continue to bless his recovery.

We gather at Chinle. Summer "monsoon" rains greet our opening workshop session. If Chinle Wash is passable tomorrow, we may enter Canyon de Chelly. Tonight we prepare indoors.

We savor Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso’s exquisite poem "A Breeze Swept Through": 

The first born of dawn woman slid out amid
crimson fluid streaked with stratus clouds

her body glistening August sunset pink
light steam rising from her like rain on warm rocks
(a sudden cool breeze swept through the kitchen
and Granpa smiled then sang quietly,
knowing the moment).

She came when the desert day cooled and dusk began to
move in

in that intricate changing of time she gasped and it flows

from her now with every breath with every breath.
She travels now sharing scarlet sunsets
named for wild desert flowers
her smile a blessing song.

And in mid-November, early morning darkness
after days of waiting pain the second one cried wailing.

Sucking first earth breath,
separating the heavy fog,
she cried and kicked tiny brown limbs.
Fierce movements as outside
mist lifted as the sun is born again.
(East of Acoma, a sandstone boulder split in
two – a sharp, clean crack.)

She is born of damp mist and early sun.
She is born again woman of dawn.
She is born knowing the warm smoothness of rock.
She is born knowing her own morning strength. 

"It’s about a woman having a baby," says an Anglo male teacher.

"Hear her push the child. She’s breathing in and out!" exclaims Maria DeGracia.

"This is how Changing Woman gives birth to the Hero Twins," explains Marie Salt. "Dawn woman ... her body glistening."

We all agree that, after an August desert day has cooled and dusk moves in, sunset pink and kitchen breezes will send the ancestors and their children singing.

In the morning, we carpool to the Thunderbird Hotel, just inside the entrance to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. We enter Chinle Wash at the mouth of the main canyon, but only with a Navajo guide. In this unique National Monument, the Diné, may I say (repeating myself) the people, still live, work, and practice their art within.

Andrew Bia plays the flute above Massacre Cave.

As many as we are, we board two six-wheeled military transport vehicles adapted, safari-like, to carry us aloft in the open air for better viewing. All day, their gears grind lower and lower. Their wheels whir in the mud of the wash from the night before. We plunge into swirling arroyos and teeter up far banks, expecting to slip back down.


We stop to see many figures, hands, and flute players the Ancestral Pueblo people pecked and painted onto sandstone walls. We proceed up Canyon del Muerto from its junction with Canyon de Chelly, passing cliff houses that are 1,000 years old. We take a mid-morning rest break at Antelope House, a fenced off but very approachable multi-storied ancestral Pueblo appended by Navajo-owned art tables and food service. The fry bread is tasty. I buy, carved of cottonwood root, a masked Navajo dancer for my wife.

The sheer red walls of this 18-mile canyon tower 400 and more feet above us. We pass corn fields, peach orchards, young people riding good-looking horses, dilapidated hogans, and fixed up new ones that families live in. Children swimming in the creek wave at us. Binoculars focused, we zero in on Navajo rock art depicting the 1805 Spanish march of Narbona and his soldiers into Canyon del Muerto, where they gunned down men, women, and children huddled in "Massacre Cave."

We enjoy a late lunch below Mummy Cave, a spectacular ancient dwelling located high up a southwest facing wall. Our Navajo friends talk of summers they spent here as kids tending sheep up side canyons.

K.J. and I are riding in the rumble seat at the very back of one of these six-wheeled beasts. We howl at the jokes the teachers make. The more we howl the more they joke, until one of the double set of wheels on our vehicle goes flat.

There’s lots of help jacking up the truck, but not enough spares. Our guide calls for a replacement truck. As the afternoon moves on we pass back by Fortress Rock and round the bend, leaving Canyon del Muerto and heading up Canyon de Chelly for Spider Rock.

Fortress Rock is a large, semi-detached sandstone peninsula to the top of which Navajos retreated during Kit Carson’s 1864 invasion. Burning corn, slaughtering sheep, and cutting down peach trees, the Army and New Mexico militia under Carson’s command drove the Navajos out of these heartland canyons on their Long Walk to Fort Sumner on the Pecos River.

From its fork at Canyon del Muerto, Canyon de Chelly is 10 miles long, its walls rising 1,000 feet above the valley floor. We are getting weary of the long ride, but offered the opportunity, not one of us would turn on back for the Thunderbird Lodge.

Exploring the native plants on the canyon’s rim.

Making many creek crossings up Canyon de Chelly, we stop to examine the White House ruins, the only spot where visitors without a Navajo Guide may hike. We reach Face Rock, also known as Speaking Rock, Talking Rock, or Whispering Rock. A pinnacle at the mouth of Monument Canyon, it resembles a profiled human.  

The most sacred of all the canyon’s sacred sites now looms before us. Spider Rock is a twain column, 800 feet tall at its highest point, where Spider Woman, crossing on the rainbow’s arch, lives and spins her webs, teaching the Diné how to weave.

Politely, our guide asks us to dismount but not approach any more than the distance needed to take photographs of each other. Great curing ceremonies occur here at various times of the year.

Night is closing in. Rain begins to fall as we return to sleep.

On the third day, we split up our group and alternate between a geological program on the north rim of Canyon del Muerto anchored by Katie Gilbert, and an introduction to native plants and their uses led by Marie Salt on the south rim of Canyon de Chelly, above the White House ruins.

Katie gives K.J. the task of putting out little yellow flags to space three billion years of the Earth’s formations. We start away from the canyon’s rim and make giant strides toward the abyss marking Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. We learn in measured time that we humans are but a fingernail on the glistening body of Dawn Woman. Held back by the rail guarding against our fall, we can look into Massacre Cave below us. Andrew Bia plays the flute and Leroy Morgan prays Navajo blessings.

Stepping around shining water pockets, smelling of new rain, Marie Salt has us touch, smell, and sometimes taste the needles, leaves, flowers, and buds of native plants. We see beeplant, hollyhock, juniper berry, rock sage, paintbrush, service berry, and yucca fruit. From these and others you might brew some tea, soothe your nerves, purge your bowels, salve your wounds, or conjure a water color.

We end at noon with a picnic near the monument’s entrance. The teachers will start the school year soon. There’s much to share in a Luci Tapahonso poem. D

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