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America's best Idea: Excavating Keet Seel at Navajo National Monument

Steve Hayden
Jimmie Black

By Rose Houk

Flagstaff, AZ – Perhaps the most famous cliff dwellings in Arizona Keet Seel, Betatakin, and Inscription House are protected in Navajo National Monument. During the Great Depression, a government program put a crew to work excavating Keet Seel. Little was known about that expedition until recently, when a diary was discovered detailing the story of three generations of archaeologists and local Navajos who worked at the monument. Rose Houk has the fourth installment in KNAU's series "America's Best Idea."

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In the dead of winter in 1934, Julian Hayden was living in a tent, facing the grand sweep of Keet Seel. He was deep in the heart of Navajo country, 12 miles by pack mule from the nearest dirt road.

"Keet Seel is beyond words, Dad and I hiked up from the Marsha Pass camp Tuesday last and climbed a shoulder of talus in the dusk and looked across a tangle of brush to the great cliff curtain above the ruin, and the ruin itself, a ghost city." - Julian Hayden, Journal Entry 1934

At the time, Julian Hayden was 23 years old. During the Depression, Julian and his father Irwin Hayden, a Harvard-trained archaeologist, had been hired by the Civil Works Administration to excavate Keet Seel.

Decades later, Julian Hayden would become one of the grand old men of desert archeology. When he died ten years ago, his son Steve Hayden moved back into the family's adobe home in Tucson. There, he discovered his father's Keet Seel diary, written in pencil on plain white paper.

"The amazing thing about the diary and why this is an important diary is because there's no information anywhere about what this project was like, what was life like in camp, even who was there," Hayden says.

The diary tells of thirty-two men who--with carbide lamps and dust masks--cleaned out rooms, rebuilt masonry walls, and shored up timbers. Evenings around the campfire were livelier with the tunes of fiddler Kenner Kartchner.

But they weren't prepared for winter at 7,000 feet. Some even cleaned out a kiva to sleep in because they were so cold.

"We need clothing. Some of the men are wearing oxfords and very light ones at that. They're all poorly clothed. Hayden and his boy have few clothes. Young Hayden, when he ate his first dinner in camp, said it was the first time he'd had enough to eat for over a year. Yours truly, John Wetherill." -Letter excerpt by Julian Hayden

A big accomplishment was repairing the pueblo's hundred-foot-long retaining wall. But Steve says that effort sparked a serious showdown between Irwin Hayden and John Wetherill's nephew, Milton Wetherill, the crew foreman.

"Gramps was offsite when Milton undertook to stabilize that wall," Hayden says. "He did it by building an addition to the kiva that was to say the least un-Anasazilike. When my grandfather came back and saw that he just had a hissy fit."

Irwin Hayden resigned rather than risk a quarrel with John Wetherill. Julian took over.

"I hate to see dad leave, we've been I think real companions here, I've held all respect for him and I think he's respected me, I'll miss him " - Julian Hayden journal entry March 7th

Seventy-five years later, Steve Hayden returned to Keet Seel to transcribe his father's diary. As he recalls that experience, an afternoon rain drums on the roof of his Tucson home:

"It was monsoon time just like right now," Hayden says. "We were in the hogan with the rain coming down, filling the Tsegi Canyon. And oh gosh gems came out... I realized that this family connection was far larger than I was and that the diary itself was a key to not only Keet Seel but to this whole scene at Navajo National Monument with the Navajo, with the monument, with Tsegi Canyon, with the whole experience.

Hayden returns often to volunteer for the Park Service, meeting visitors who make the eight-mile trek up Tsegi Canyon. He's made good friends among the local Navajos, people like Jimmie Black.

I was born in Shonto," Black says. "In a summer shade in open under a tree."

Black and his father Bob Black, his grandfather, his brother, and his extended family all have worked at Navajo National Monument along with many other Navajos. On a sunny July day, after finishing a morning tour into Betatakin, Black talks about his life-long ties to the area.

I worked here as a seasonal ranger in 1973 and before that my first trip was in 1954," Black says. "I was about seven years old; my dad had to take me out on his back I was so tired."

Black grew up with horses and cattle and sheep. And he's seen every inch of this convoluted country on horseback:

"In high school we got together with some friends and used to ride the canyons," Black says. "My mom and dad would tell us, don't be going down there...but we still went, just to ride a horse, explore, look around, see what's around the corner of the canyon."

But they never entered the homes of the ancients. Navajos have a taboo about that, because people may have died in the dwellings. Now, Black takes precautions when he guides visitors to Betatakin and other sites.

"We have a prayer before we can go in there, and then when we get back up before we get into the home we have to have a cedar or juniper burnt smoke to relieve us of all the bad things we might have encountered," Black says.

Black respects the power of these places. So does Hayden.

All we have to do is go to Keet Seel and transport ourselves back about 700 years," Hayden says. "It's not hard to make the connection for people between their own ability to survive and these ephemeral whimsical machinations of nature that will turn you on a dime and send you in a different direction."

"And if people are lucky," Hayden says, "They'll visit Keet Seel during a monsoon storm, when a curtain of rain is pouring off the alcove, and thunder shakes the whole canyon. "