For anyone who doesn’t know, November is Native American Heritage Month. Since the indigenous populations of the U.S. no longer constitute the majority, it is easy to forget that all National Parks, Monuments, and Historic Sites were once homes to native peoples (some still are). Visitors and even park staff may look at these sites and see stunning views, a fun place to recreate and enjoy the outdoors, or reminders of important people and moments in history, but they don’t necessarily see or think of Indigenous history. Of course, there are many parks which were specifically established to protect that history, and/or have strong connections to a local native community. My park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a perfect example of that. Nevertheless, there still remain many untold stories of Native America about the areas parks occupy. Celebrating Native American Heritage Month gives parks the opportunity to acknowledge, respect and appreciate the culture and history (both good and bad) of American Indians, especially as it pertains to their park.
At Canyon de Chelly, celebrating this month is both exciting and a no-brainer for all of us at the park. For one, we are one of the few parks that isn’t just bordered by an Indigenous nation but engulfed by it. Also, unbeknownst to many people, our monument is actually owned by the Navajo Nation, whereas land in most parks is solely owned by the federal government. This means that we must actively work together with the Navajo Nation, as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs to manage Canyon de Chelly National Monument. As such the 50 families who have called the canyon home for generations, can continue to reside in and make a living within its walls. And if that wasn’t enough, majority of us who work at Canyon de Chelly are in fact Diné (Navajo). All this adds up to the below list of special programs and hikes in commemoration of Native American Heritage Month.
Most of the evening programs and hikes were offered by Ranger Ravis Henry, but we also had some volunteers do evening presentations. It began with Melvin Gorman (who is actually my dad), on the second Wednesday night of November. After Ranger Henry presented Navajo stories about the creation of the night sky, visitors were encouraged to meander outside to gaze through telescopes at stars, planets, and the moon. My dad who has a passion for astronomy, helped to set up all the telescopes (of which there were five) and directed them at cool sights like Venus, Mars, the moon, and even a binary star system. He was more than happy to share with people his knowledge about the extraterrestrial world.
The next night, William Yazzie, a former park ranger himself, performed various Indigenous songs both funny and ancestral in his program “Native American Music of the Indigenous Southwest.” In addition to his musical performance, he shared with visitors the significance of the Navajo bow guard, as well as the significance of his attire, and even brought along a collection of small sheep props to explain the importance of Navajo’s favorite domesticated animal.
The next Wednesday, canyon resident Jackie Hunter set up a makeshift pottery workstation in our park’s visitor center museum area. She painted and etched a small piece of pottery right in front of visitors, then passed around the finished result shocking everyone with how easily and without mistake she carved the design. As evidenced by all of the photographs being taken, the visitors enjoyed seeing the process of how the finished pottery pieces on display next to Jackie’s workstation were crafted.
The last volunteer presentation was given by Kathy Paymella, also a canyon resident, who demonstrated how a Navajo rug is made starting from scratch. Not as many Navajos today weave rugs from wool that they themselves sheared from sheep, carded, spun, and dyed using color they made from the surrounding native plants. But Kathy still does, and she showed visitors a glimpse of how long it takes to create just one of her rugs.
We have one hike left in our Native American Heritage Month schedule the day after thanksgiving, but for this month our special volunteer presented programs are complete. Each one was a success, and gave an individual from the surrounding community the chance to share and educate park visitors about aspects of Navajo culture.