Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation, Arizona

By Maria Moss

I first came across White House Ruin in Canyon de Chelly (pro­nounced dəˈʃ or də·shā′) in N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize win­ning nov­el, House Made of Dawn (1968). White House Ruin, he wrote, is the home of Talk­ing God, one of the most promi­nent Nava­jo deities. For years I thought that White House Ruin – much like Talk­ing God – belongs to the realm of Native Amer­i­can cre­ation myths: sig­nif­i­cant for under­stand­ing the work­ings of the oral tra­di­tion, but long devoid of any sig­nif­i­cance and thus incon­se­quen­tial for every­day life. Yet all of this changed when I first vis­it­ed Canyon de Chelly in Jan­u­ary 1994. Not only was White House Ruin one of the main attrac­tions of the stun­ning, inter­twined net­work of canyons at Canyon de Chelly, but the sun in the sky and the snow on the ground cre­at­ed an atmos­phere that felt almost mystical.

A bit over twen­ty years lat­er, dur­ing our study trip to Neva­da and Ari­zona, we walked with our stu­dents down the steep path to vis­it White House Ruin. I was hes­i­tant, think­ing I might ruin an expe­ri­ence I had cher­ished for more than twen­ty years. The blue sky, the snow on the ground – how could those impres­sions pos­si­bly be repeat­ed? At the begin­ning of April, the weath­er might be dull with a cloudy sky and mud­dy ground. How­ev­er, when one of our stu­dents start­ed build­ing a snow man, I cast my view upward into the bluest sky imag­in­able. White House Ruin is more than just a sight – it is the home of a god indeed.

Spi­der Rock (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“White House Ruin”

To encounter the sacred is to be alive at the deep­est cen­ter of human exis­tence. Sacred places are the truest def­i­n­i­tions of the earth; they stand for the earth imme­di­ate­ly and for­ev­er; they are its flags and shields. If you would know the earth for what it real­ly is, learn it through its sacred places. At Devil’s Tow­er or Canyon de Chelly or the Cahokia Mounds, you touch the pulse of the liv­ing plan­et; you feel its breath upon you. You become one with a spir­it that per­vades geo­log­ic time and space.

“Sacred Places” from N. Scott Momaday’s The Man Made of Words


Check out this pre­vi­ous blog post about our study trip to Las Vegas!

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