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Katie Lee, Goddess of Glen Canyon, Inspires Young Activists

Martin D. Cligan

Today, we bring you the profile of a woman who’s been fighting to protect wilderness for most of her nearly 100 years. Katie Lee—activist, folksinger and native Arizonan—was on the forefront of the fight to stop the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and the subsequent flooding of Glen Canyon. Katie Lee lost that battle, but she never let go of her fervor to save wild places. Her grit continues to inspire young activists around the world. KNAU’s Gillian Ferris has this profile of The Goddess of Glen Canyon. Just a heads up … this piece contains some colorful language. 

In 1999, NPR’s Renee Montagne profiled singer and activist Katie Lee about her book All My Rivers Are Gone. It was, essentially, an obituary for Glen Canyon which was dammed in the ’60s, submerging it hundreds of feet under water and creating Lake Powell. It was Katie Lee’s favorite place on Earth. She took Renee Montagne down a nearby slot canyon to give her a feeling of what was lost. 

Credit Martin D. Cligan
Katie Lee in Glen Canyon.

“This canyon here is very similar to The Glen which is why I come back here now and then to get the feeling of how the place used to be,” said Lee.

“The rocks themselves look like frozen waves,” said Montagne.

“That’s exactly what they look like!” said Lee.

It was a landscape that would shape the direction and passion of Katie Lee’s life.

“You’d walk along and the next thing you’d see is this blue reflected from the sky, this beautiful, clear little pothole pool,” she said. “Every little grotto was full of frogs and birds and wildflowers. Plus, the incredible light was what nearly drove us all crazy. There was no light in the world like that. It isn’t the same in the Grand Canyon. I cannot tell you why. But when I finally saw Glen, it just captivated me.”

Credit Martin D. Cligan
Katie Lee in Glen Canyon prior to the construction of the dam.

Katie Lee has fought most of her life trying to protect pristine places like The Glen. She turns 98 this month. I visited her at her cliffside house in Jerome, and she told me what fueled her activism to protect her beloved Glen Canyon.

“You know, anger is what fired me,” she says. “And I’ve always believed in anger because if you channel it, it’s a great thing to have. And that pissed me off so much that I really started in on the senators. I talked to Barry Goldwater, I wrote to Barry Goldwater, I wrote to all the people that were involved in the river. I told them how stupid this was. And I sang. If you sing, you know, it’s a great thing music. Music can go where words will never, never make it.”

Excerpt from Katie Lee’s song “Shining River”:
Don’t you think it’s time we got together to save our shining river?
It will soon be gone forever.
Don’t you think it’s time, time, time?

Credit Archival image
The 710-foot-high Glen Canyon Dam was completed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1966.

Just a few years ago, Katie Lee was featured in the documentary “DamNation,” about the political history of Glen Canyon Dam.

“You know I never dream about it,” she said in a clip from the film. “It’s because it’s on my mind all day long, every day. I don’t need to dream about it. I think about it all the time … what was lost? Eden. I don’t think Eden could have touched Glen Canyon.”

“DamNation” went viral on social media and inspired a new wave of environmental activists and Katie Lee admirers. 

Credit Courtesy of Katie Lee
Katie Lee

“You should see the beautiful letters I get, you know. Sometimes they’re a whole page and they say, ‘We saw you in ‘DamNation’ and how free you were and how this, and how that … and we want to know what to do! What can we do to help get this movement going?’ And I just keep thinking, God, you’ve gotta realize the world is not like it was then. But that doesn’t keep you from fighting. You’ve got to do it your way in this particular climate. I mean I didn’t have any of this ‘Tweeter, Bleeter, Flipper, FaceYourAss’ or whatever ‘Book’ it is. I mean, if they’re taking away things from you that you adore and love, it’s gonna make you mad. And it sure as hell made me mad. Made me mad enough to get off my ass and go to work,” Lee says.

Credit Martin D. Cligan
Glen Canyon before the construction of the dam.

Still mad?

“I’ve been doing it ever since,” she says.

Outro music: Katie Lee's “There’s A Canyon” 

Gillian Ferris was the News Director and Managing Editor for KNAU.
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