IV. CANYON DE CHELLY, ARIZONA
photos, music curation & story by alexis stember coulter
Plug in your headphones and press play!
Our whole trip was largely built around this destination. A 131 square mile area of protected land, this is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in North America.
Rich in history, ancestry and ruins, it is where Edward Curtis, the early 20th century photographer who took over 40,000 photographs of over 80 tribes of Native Americans at a time when they were being rapidly and radically assaulted, captured one of his most memorable images, simply titled Cañon de Chelly – Navaho (Portfolio plate no. 28).
Curtis was a figure of great interest to both me and Dylan. Having read his biographies, watched documentaries and studied his images, we’d been seduced by a life we found exceptional, conflicted and tragic.
A charismatic, handsome and successful portrait photographer in Seattle at the turn of the century, Curtis embarked on and ultimately became obsessed with The North American Indian, a twenty volume book series intended to document traditional Indian cultures through words, images and sound recordings.
It took him thirty years of grueling, physical field work to produce the volumes and in the end, it cost Curtis his family, his health, his fortune and his reputation. When he died in 1952 at 84, he was penniless and mostly alone with nothing more than a passing seventy-six word obituary in the New York Times to remember him.
Edward Curtis's Obituary
The New York Times, October 20, 1952
LOS ANGELES, Oct. 19--Edward S. Curtis, internationally known authority on the history of the North American Indian, died today at the home of a daughter, Mrs. Bess Magnuson. His age was 84.
Mr. Curtis devoted his life to compiling Indian history. His research was done under the patronage of the late financier, J. Pierpont Morgan. The foreward [sic] for the monumental set of Curtis books was written by President Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Curtis was also widely known as a photographer.
Flash forward to 2015. A newly appreciative New York Times had come out with a story titled Photographer Edward S. Curtis’s Southwest which I read voraciously. In it, the journalist traces Curtis’ steps and tours Canyon de Chelly with a man who’d grown up there and was, in his own words, “101% canyon Indian.”
His name was James Yazzie Jr.
In planning our trip, it hadn’t occurred to me to try and find James Yazzie Jr. but we did want (and need) a guide of our own to access the canyon floor. I found a tour online with a company called Beauty Way Jeep Tours. It was an awkward name but was highly reviewed with a number of guides who seemed knowledgeable and were well liked.
I booked a private tour and our guide picked us up bright and early as we’d requested so we could view the canyon in the breaking morning light. He was warm, chatty and masterful at commanding his Jeep over the ice-patched canyon floor, a floor that later became a series mud traps as the ice melted in the heat of the burning sun.
Our guide explained that his whole family lived in the canyon. Always had and always would. He’d grown up on the land, had his kids on the land, continued to work on the land. “I’m 101% canyon Indian,” he said. I stopped him.
“What is your full name?” I asked.
“James Yazzie Jr.” It was the same James Yazzie Jr. from The New York Times article.
“I can’t believe this. I just read about you in The New York Times.” I said.
“Oh? Oh yes, there was a nice guy, a writer. I showed him around a couple months ago.”
He had no idea the article had been published or what it had said. It seemed to amuse him that I’d read it, but only in a passing way. Instead he breezed passed it by mentioning the movies he’d been in that had been shot in the canyon, or movies his family had been in. Hollywood excited him it seemed. Newspapers, not so much.
At the end of the day, the canyon floor complete, Dylan and I decided to rush to the overlook on the canyon’s South Rim to see Spider Rock before dark. The sun set just before we arrived and by the time we got to the viewing terraces, the horizon had become a delicate ombré of pinks, oranges and blues. Before long, a navy wave flooded the sky and all that was left was a full, luminous, heaving moon.
I wish I could say we’d had the foresight to plan it this way but it was dumb luck. 7 days and 1645 miles behind us, we stood there alone with that moon on the last night of our babymoon and let this ancient place fill us with its millions of years of life, love and humanity.
The world before us and the great unknown ahead, I reached my arm behind Dylan and put my other hand on my belly, pregnant with the silence of the canyon and our little girl.
“Thank you” I said, to nothing and everything all at once.
Ate: Sacred Canyon Lodge
Saw: Spider Rock and the origins of America.
Ate: Whatever we could find at the grocery store, otherwise known as the gas station.
Alexis Stember Coulter is a mother, producer, photographer and writer. She is currently working on a book detailing her 15 years living in New York. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband Dylan, daughter Ella and their coterie of family in southern and central California. You can follow her on IG (Trust me - it is fantastic) @alexisstembercoulter