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The Colorado Plateau

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PlacesChuska Mountains and Defiance Plateau, Navajo Nation

Original essay for CP-LUHNA by Patrick Pynes, Ph.D.

Tsaile Butte, west slope of Chuska Mountains, looking east. Photo by Patrick Pynes.

As Navajo novelist Irvin Morris has described them, the Chuska Mountains and Defiance Plateau  form an "archipelago of well-watered islands" in the high desert [location map][topo map]. In fact, the Chuska Mountains and Defiance Plateau comprise the wettest, most verdant terrain of the contemporary Navajo Nation. Two-thirds of the average annual surface water generated within the Navajo Reservation originates in this region's ponderosa pine forests. Although the narrow Black Creek Valley separates the Chuskas from the Defiance Plateau, they are two halves of the same whole, a monocline (upwarp) in the Earth's crust that geologists call the "Defiance Uplift." "Piggybacked" upon the larger Colorado Plateau, the Defiance Uplift has been raised up and worn down repeatedly for hundreds of millions of years.

The harder volcanic and sedimentary rocks that cap the Chuskas have strongly resisted the same forces that have eroded the rocks surrounding them, creating the "mountains" that we see today. Most of the gently uplifted Defiance Plateau sits between 7,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level, while the more rugged Chuskas reach up to nearly 10,000 feet. Much of the rain and snow that falls in the Chuskas' montane forests drains westward into the spectacular depths of Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly, eventually emptying into the San Juan River via Chinle Wash. To the east, the Chuskas slope down into the arid, treeless San Juan Basin. These waters also drain northward into the San Juan, via Chaco Wash.

The forests of the Chuskas and Defiance Plateau have been important to the indigenous peoples of the Colorado Plateau for thousands of years. Archaeological, historical, and dendrochronological evidence show that the Hisatsinom (Anasazi, or ancestral Puebloan) people harvested at least 200,000 ponderosa pines from the Chuskas' eastern slopes, using the logs to build massive masonry and wood structures at their ceremonial and trading complex located in Chaco Canyon. No one is certain about how the Hisatsinom transported this large volume of lumber more than forty miles across the San Juan Basin.

Impact of intense livestock grazing along Whiskey Creek in the Chuska Mountains. Photo by Patrick Pynes.

When Navajo agropastoralists began moving up into the Defiance Uplift's open, grassy ponderosa pine forests sometime after 1700 A.D., migrating westward out of the tributary canyons of the San Juan River in present-day northwestern New Mexico, the Hisatsinom had apparently already abandoned the Four Corners. These semi-nomadic churro sheepherders and horticulturalists found that the Defiance Uplift's savanna-like forests provided abundant water, forage, building materials, and other "goods of value" for Navajo people and their livestock, the main source of their subsistence. Since the first Navajos claimed these forests as their own, incorporating them into their language and oral traditions, the Chuskas and Defiance Plateau have been vitally important places within the Navajo cultural landscape. From a traditional Navajo view of this landscape, the Chuskas are the "Goods of Value Range," or a "Mountain of Agriculture," as Navajo headman Barboncito referred to them during treaty negotiations with the U.S. military in 1868. They are considered a sacred male deity whose head is Chuska Peak, whose throat is Narbona Pass, and whose legs are the Carrizo Mountains, at the northern terminus of the range.

All of the Chuskas and all but the southern tip of the Defiance Plateau were included within the original 1868 Navajo Treaty Reservation. The boundary dividing the U.S. Territories of New Mexico and Arizona had been established five years before, bisecting the Chuskas' main body. Today, the southern half of the Chuskas is located mainly in the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation, while the northern half is located in the Arizona portion. The smaller Tunicha and Lukachukai subranges extend outward from the Chuskas' main spine. The Carrizos, Tunichas, and Lukachukais are all considered part of the Chuskas, a transliteration of the Navajo word choosh'gai, meaning "white-colored spruce trees."

Navajos today continue to use the Chuskas and Defiance Plateau for grazing livestock, gathering medicinal herbs and building materials, hunting, fishing, farming, and as a place for conducting sacred ceremonies. With the advent of the ubiquitous pickup truck after World War Two, along with increasing population pressures, permanent (as opposed to seasonal) homesites within the Navajo forest increased significantly, prompting the Navajo Tribal Government to issue a moratorium on new homesites within the forest during the mid-1990s. Since the early 1880s, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs installed the first portable sawmill near Fluted Rock on the Defiance Plateau, the Navajo forest has also been the setting for the federal government's efforts to assimilate Navajos into the mainstream of American culture, and to improve economic conditions on the reservation, mainly by industrializing the 500,000 acre forest.

Regeneration of ponderosa pines in the Navajo forest. Photo by Patrick Pynes.

Using federal funds and tribal royalties from rich oil field discoveries in the Aneth, Utah, area during the late 1950s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Navajo Tribal Council created Navajo Forest Products Industries (NFPI), a tribal economic enterprise. Between 1962 and 1992, NFPI cut and processed an average of 40 million boardfeet of lumber from the Chuskas and Defiance Plateau's forests each year, creating thousands of good-paying jobs and millions of dollars in tribal revenues. However, this aggressive industrial development program was done with very little concern for how these activities would affect continuing traditional Navajo subsistence and spiritual uses of the forest. In the early 1990s, an intense intratribal conflict over the Defiance Uplift's forests erupted on the reservation, as the last of the forest's old growth or "grandfather" trees were turned into lumber. A grassroots Navajo organization called Dinč CARE (Navajo Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment) attempted to change NFPI's and the BIA's industrialized approach to the forest, arguing that commercial timber harvesting was damaging or even destroying the forest's long-term cultural, environmental, and spiritual values. European American environmental groups also became embroiled in the conflict.

This conflict resulted in the mysterious death of Dinč CARE forest activist Leroy Jackson in October 1993, and the bankruptcy and eventual closure of NFPI's sawmill in Navajo, New Mexico two years later. At the same time, the Navajo Nation's own Department of Forestry began to take on increasing responsibilities for managing, preserving, and protecting the Chuska Mountains' and Defiance Plateau's natural and cultural resources.


Baars, D. L. 1995. Navajo country: A geology and natural history of the Four Corners region. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Betancourt, J. L., Dean, J. S. and Hull, H. M. 1986. Prehistoric long-distance transport of construction beams, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. American Antiquity 51: 370-375.

Dinč CARE, Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, http://dinecare.indigenousnative.org/ 2/5/01.

Gabriel, Trip. 1994. A Death in Navajo Country. Outside, May, 78-84, 195-199.

Hansen, B. S. and Cushing, E. J. 1973. Identification of pine pollen of late Quaternary age from the Chuska Mountains, New Mexico. Geol. Soc. Amer. Bull 84: 1181-1200.

Harris, A. H., Schoenwetter, J. and Warren, A. H. 1967. An archaeological survey of the Chuska Valley and the Chaco Plateau, New Mexico.Research records No. 4. Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe.

Kelley, K.B. and Francis, H. 1994. Navajo sacred places. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 260 pp.

Morris, I. 1997. From the Glittering World: A Navajo Story. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Pynes, P. 2000. Erosion, extraction, reciprocation: An ethno/environmental history of the Navajo Nation's ponderosa pine forests. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

Savage, M., Swetnam, T.W. 1990. Early 19th-century fire decline following sheep pasturing in a Navajo ponderosa pine forest. Ecology 71: 2374-2378.

Schoumatoff, A. 1997. The puzzling death of Leroy Jackson. In: Legends of the American desert : sojourns in the Greater Southwest. Alfred Knopf, New York.

Wright, H.E., Jr., Bent, A.M. 1968. Vegetation bands around Dead Man Lake, Chuska Mountains, New Mexico. American Midland Naturalist 79: 8-30.

Wright, H.E., Jr., Bent, A.M., Hansen, B.S., Maher, L.J., Jr. 1973. Present and past vegetation of the Chuska Mountains, northwestern New Mexico. Geological Society of America Bulletin 84: 1155-1180.


Native Americans and the Environment. A comprehensive survey of twentieth century environmental issues facing Native Americans on the Colorado Plateau and throughout the Southwest, including discussions of agriculture, logging, mining, grazing, water rights, and tourism.

Restoring Ecosystem Health in Ponderosa Pine Forests of the Southwest. Previous research has established that forests of ponderosa pine in the Southwest were much more open before Euro-American settlement. Restoration of ecosystem structure and reintroduction of fire are necessary for restoring rates of decomposition, nutrient cycling, and net primary production to natural, presettlement levels. The rates of these processes will be higher in an ecosystem that approximates the natural structure and disturbance regime.