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Science and Innovations

‘Not Your Playground’: Indigenous Voices on Grand Canyon’s Centennial

Dustin Wero

One hundred years ago today, Americans celebrated protecting the Grand Canyon as a national park. But for Native Americans, the redrawn boundaries excluded them from ancient hunting grounds and ceremonial places. Many visitors today don’t know that history. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, an intertribal group wants to use the centennial to craft a new vision for the park’s next 100 years.  

At a training seminar for hiking guides at the South Rim, Coleen Kaska opens with a Havasupai prayer. Kaska, and Jack Pongyesva of Hopi, are here to speak about indigenous views of the canyon.

"To a lot of tribes, including my own, this is a church of some sort, so it’s important to let people know it is a sacred space and to act appropriately and have a proper mindset," Pongyesva says.

Credit Dustin Wero
Coleen Kaska opened a recent hiking guide seminar at the Grand Canyon with a Havasupai prayer.
Credit Dustin Wero
Jack Pongyesva

Eleven tribes consider the Grand Canyon part of their cultural and spiritual traditions, including Havasupai, Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, and Paiute. Pongyesva is part of an initiative called Intertribal Centennial Conversations. He says, "It’s basically an opportunity for natives to reclaim their ancestral homelands, using the centennial—which marks the anniversary of 100 years of being excluded from the national park, for natives—and flipping it into a way to integrate native presence back into the park."

The first step is to add native names onto park signs and maps. Many visitors hike the Bright Angel Trail, but Kaska says they don’t know it’s an old Havasupai path.

"The Bright Angel Tail, our people call Gthatv He’e: that’s because of the trees, cause the way their branches are, or the leaf part of it, is how my dad explained it to me," Kaska says. "Gthatv He’e: that’s Coyote Tail Trail, because it’s kind of bushy at the end."

The next goal is to work with the Park Service to hire more Native guides, artists, and entrepreneurs. Nikki Cooley was the first Navajo woman to work as a licensed commercial river guide in the Grand Canyon.

"I felt very alone in that respect. I didn’t see a lot of brown people on the river," Cooley says.

Cooley says many of her guests on river trips thought of Native Americans as a vanished race or a Hollywood stereotype. She fought those misconceptions by telling Navajo stories.

She says, "You get your water from the earth, you get your food from the Earth, and you get your strength from the deities, the holy people who reside in these places, because they came long before you: so you could be here, enjoying it, but also carrying on that tradition of not treating it like a playground."

The Intertribal group’s third goal is to involve tribes at higher levels of management and policy. Jason Nez is a Navajo archeologist. He says native culture and environmental protection are closely linked, but parks were founded on a false idea of ‘untouched wilderness.’

Credit Dustin Wero
Sarana Riggs, Coleen Kaska, and Jack Pongyesva

He says, "And they’ve used that myth against native people, they’ve used it to keep us out of participation in management, they’ve used it to keep us out of park areas where we’ve lived for time immemorial."

No national park has a model for restoring native presence, so the Grand Canyon is leading the way. Sarana Riggs of the Navajo Nation is part of Intertribal initiative. She says it won’t be easy. The centennial ‘celebration’ is a reminder of past wrongs. "What is there to celebrate?" she asks. "Do we celebrate the Trail of Tears? Do we celebrate the Long Walk of the Navajo and Apache?"

But Riggs says the centennial has also awakened something in tribal nations: a new commitment to make their voices heard and share their experiences. For Riggs the canyon is a spiritual place, not a tourist destination. "It’s not just rock. You can feel the energy coming off it, you can feel it’s alive," she says.

Her hope is from now on, the Grand Canyon’s six million annual visitors will have a chance to see it that way, too.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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