The story of an 800 year old pueblo called Betatakin or Talastima, depending on who you ask and when.

This guided hike to Tsegi Canyon in Navajo National Monument, Arizona, was special because it was hosted by a Navajo guide who is married to a Hopi. He was able to give us the general history and a tour of the cliff village called “Betatakin”, which was there before the Navajo came to the canyon, but was unwilling to talk much about the life ways of The Ancient Ones who would have lived there. His reason was that one is not qualified to speak about another’s culture. He did, however, share quite a lot of wonderful information about his own Navajo/Dine culture.

I’ve noticed this repeatedly when speaking to tribal elders. There are certain things they will share openly and certain things they will share only in private. There were some things he told us that he said we shouldn’t tell others he said, not because they were secret knowledge, but because various people have different perspectives on “the people’s” history. He said this is probably the reason elders can be cagey about describing certain seemingly innocuous topics in public. Nobody wants to be “that guy” who is caught out telling a version of philosophy/history/culture that may differ quite a bit with his neighbor.

After visiting Navajo National Monument I spent some time out near Zuni, New Mexico. While hiking at El Morro National Monument near Zuni, I stopped at a bench to rest and struck up a conversation with a lovely Navajo woman. She mentioned that she was chaperoning a school trip to the pueblo ruins at the top of the mesa and she was waiting for one student to come down from the top without her class because of a deeply held taboo her Navajo family holds against visiting places where the ancient ones live. She refused to enter the ruins of the pueblo and was to be sent down ahead of the other Navajo students out of respect for her religion. The chaperone was explaining to me that some families honor this cultural taboo and others do not. We discussed several other seemingly other contradictory and irreconcilable differences that people amongst her own culture hold. I asked her how this is managed amongst people and she said, we just respect each other an allow for the differences. This sounded very similar to what my Navajo guide was explaining to me about the discreet way he manages sharing information he believes to be true, but others may contradict.

As you will see in this video (below), Betatakin is full of contradictions. It is only one village, but sits on land that has been passed from culture to culture over the past millennium. It has different names, depending on who you ask. It has different occupants, depending on who you ask. And the people who tell these varied versions of history also have different names, depending on who you ask and at what period of history you ask them. So much complicated history around one village in one small canyon, now try to unpack the layers of confusion that are piled up over hundreds of generations of culture, migrations and invaders. What a fun challenge! Let’s keep trying.

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