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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, December 2019


Massacre Cave At Canyon de Chelly: The Place Where Two Fell Off

by: Dr. Greg Little

Canyon de Chelly in NE Arizona, in the middle of the Navajo Reservation, is one of the most intriguing and beautiful places I have ever seen. It is steeped in history, from truly ancient to historic times. The Pueblos, the Anazasi, Navajos, the Spanish, and Kit Carson leading a U.S. Calvary force in are just pieces of an incredible history and today Navajos still live in the canyon and serve as guides. One location in the massive complex, known as Canyon del Muerto, has an overlook to a cave or rock shelter located on a ledge formed inside a sheer cliff. It is located about halfway from the rim to the canyon floor, on a 600-foot sheer cliff. It is known as Massacre Cave and derives its title from a sad event that took place in 1805. In January 1805 Lt. Antonio Narbona, a Spanish military officer, was dispatched from Chihuahua to a Spanish Military Post in New Mexico in response to Navajo raids in the Spanish-held areas around Mount Taylor. Narbona moved his force of 500 soldiers north through the Zuni Pueblo to Canyon de Chelly where the Navajo families were clustered. Along the way, the force killed scores of Navajos and collected prisoners as slaves.

As Narbona approached the canyon, the Navajos took refuge in various hiding places along the canyon’s walls and ridges. At what was to become Massacre Cave, about 150 Navajos, primarily or nearly all women and children, huddled together where they thought the were safe from both the rim above and the canyon floor below. The accounts from the Spanish and the Navajo differ on precisely what happened.

According to Navajo accounts, an old woman who earlier had been held captive by the Spanish began yelling at the Spanish, which revealed their hiding place. In response, the Spanish, located at the bottom of the canyon, began firing their rifles into the cave ricocheting bullets all over the cave. Records relate that 115 Navajos were killed, most of who were women and children. In his final report, Narbona left the slaughter off his account. When Narbona left the Canyon, he took along 33 captured Navajos as slaves. According to the oral accounts, a couple Spanish soldiers climbed the steep cliff leading up to the cave. As one of them reached the edge, a Navajo woman ran to him, wrapped her arms around him, and plunged them both to the canyon floor. The Navajos call the cave “The Place Where Two Fell Off” for that reason. While we were at the overlook, an older Navajo began explaining the event to us, perhaps embellishing the story or altering it for other reasons. He related that many Spanish soldiers had ascended the cliffs to the caves and that the Navajo women surrounded them and locked arms. They then all plunged over the edge to their deaths. Nearly all of the accounts of Massacre Cave are based on oral reports, handed down generation after generation. In 1925, 1938, 1940, and 1973 archaeological surveys recorded numerous skeletal remains at the site.

Sunday, June 16, 2024