by Maggie Judi
See also Dust in the Wind
Sometime in the year 1801, a baby boy was born near a babbling spring just north of two massive mounds of earth. The mounds appeared to have been snipped off by some unseen and careless deity, not quite reaching their original potential.
The mother of the new baby no doubt shared the sacred history of their home as he grew.
While the traditional oral histories vary some, the story this boy learned as he grew went something like this.
A beautiful maiden waited many years to marry and when she finally did, she chose a man who was half coyote and half man.
From him, she learned the dark witchery that would transform her into a fearsome bear. When she became the bear, she hunted her brothers and killed them all but the youngest.
The Bear searched the three sacred mountains and finally found the youngest brother, but the bear was outsmarted by the youngest brother because the wind whispered to him her evil plan.
He carved up the bear’s body and scattered it to ensure that no magic could reincarnate his enemy. The head he tossed to the West and all that remains are the ears of the bear.
However, not all of the magic left this land. Snippets of it remain in its ancient ponderosas, the majestic rock formations known as Chippean Rocks, in the northern headwaters of Cottonwood Creek, and in the many sunny and green grazing meadows tucked beneath steep and winding canyons striped red and white, such as Horse Pasture and Kigalia Springs.
The magic and beauty of this place must have instilled a deep warm feeling in the heart of the boy, a feeling of peace, of safety, of home.
It was a feeling that would drive him to take a huge risk, and in the process, save his family and inspire his Navajo progeny far into the future.
Kigalia Springs is known these days as Kigalia Ranger station. If you grew up in San Juan County, or spent significant time there, you recognize that name. Kigalia Point, Kigalia Canyon, there’s even Kigalia Apartments!
Why so much Kigalia? It turns out that Kigalia is an anglicized spelling. The little boy, born on the Bears Ears, was given the name Ka’ayelli (pronounced K-eye-yelli) which means “One with Arrow Quiver”. Through the years, the name evolved in English into Kigalia.
To understand the significance of Ka’ayelli and the reason his name has survived more than 200 years after his birth, we go to the time in history known as the “fearing time” by the Navajo.
In the 1860s, the United States government began a campaign of terror to push the Navajo onto reservations. Calling it “the Navajo problem,” General JH Carelton ordered Col. Kit Carson to round up the Navajo using scorched earth tactics.
The government troops eventually forced them to an unsuitable reservation in New Mexico called Bosque Redondo, nearly 500 miles away from their current lands.
Of this forced march, Kit Carson said, “Go to Bosque Redondo, or we will pursue and destroy you. We will not make peace with you on any other terms.
“You have deceived us too often and robbed and murdered our people too long—to trust you again at large in your own country. This war will be pursued against you if it takes years... until you cease to exist or move.”
What followed was to be known as “the Long Walk”, during which an estimated 1,000 Navajo perished on the way to Bosque Redondo.
Another 3,000 would die over the next five years in what was essentially a concentration camp at Bosque Redondo.
In 1868, U.S. President Andrew Johnson ordered their release. The treaty that was signed reduced the Navajo lands, but it back to The People a measure of freedom.
Navajo Headman Chief Manuelito, or “Holy Boy” as he was known by his people, was one of the last Navajo leaders to surrender to the March.
Manuelito and his warriors tried unsuccessfully to stop the tragedy happening all throughout the Four Corners region. For several years, Manuelito led efforts to resist the federal government mandates that led to so many deaths.
Eventually, his leadership helped to secure the treaty, as he and several other Navajo leaders signed the peace agreement in 1868.
Manuelito, as it happens, is the younger brother of Ka’ayelli. These two brothers differed in age by 18 years, and their tactics for survival were just as diverse. While Manuelito tried to resist the tragedy by fighting, Ka’ayelli chose to hide.
And where better to evade the harassment of obnoxious soldiers than in the deep and twisting canyons of his home?
Ka’ayelli and his family retreated deep into the area around the Bears Ears, where his people thrived during the years of the Fearing Time and The Long Walk.
Many of his family stayed with him, including his sister Woman with a Burned House, or Asdzaan Kin Diidlii. They named their place of safety the Place to Escape from the Enemy, or Naznidzoodii.
The people there had several hogans, plenty to eat, and a sense of peace.
In As if the Land Owned Us, local historian Bob McPherson writes, “The people accepted Ka’ayelli as their leader, adopting his policy of not provoking the enemy to avoid conflict.”
This is evident in Ka’ayelli’s dealings with other people in the area, particularly members of the Piute tribe.
Ben Denton is an Aneth resident who is a descendent of Ka’ayelli. In an interview, he mentioned how his ancestor created relationships with Piutes he found lost and hungry in a canyon near their hiding place.
Ka’ayelli’s tactics for survival were simple: stick to what you know, don’t make waves, stay quiet.
Ka’ayelli had an uncanny ability to escape raids and ambushes, and always had men acting as lookouts surrounding his encampment. There are stories of women who escaped kidnapping and enslavement during the fearing time and walked for weeks to reach the safety of Ka’ayelli’s home.
Because of this safe haven, Ka’ayelli’s people escaped starvation, disease, displacement and death.
Because of his decision to retreat deep into his homeland, his ancestors still honor him today and look to his name as a symbol of resistance, courage and honor.
Many descendants of Ka’ayelli have been very vocal about how they want their native lands to be treated. A 2016 resolution by a group known as The Descendants of K’aayelii asserts, “We speak for ourselves, and we ask that others not speak on our behalf.”
The group, based in Montezuma Creek, was established in 2014 “with the purpose of preserving its homeland and protecting its indigenous culture, language, ceremonies, beliefs and values.”
The pull of this beautiful area runs deep in the people who call her home.
The passionate response to questions about how this land should be used has caused many arguments, misunderstandings, and contention.
Regardless of your politics, opinions, race, or organization, it seems to me that we all want the same thing. We want this land to be preserved. We want what Ka’ayelli wanted, to be free to responsibly roam through the sage and the quakies, down dark canyons and along cool springs.
We all seem to want this land to remain what it has been to thousands of people for hundreds of years, a home and a refuge.
A special thanks to Bob McPherson and Ben Denton for contributing to this story.