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Celebrating Cultures of Grand Canyon Before National Park Designation

Long before the Grand Canyon was a national park it was home to many Indigenous communities—some of whom still live there. This weekend that history will be highlighted during a special camping trip organized by the Sierra Club. The event is part of the ongoing centennial celebration of Grand Canyon National Park.

Sergio Avila organized the event through the Sierra Club’s Tucson chapter. He told KNAU’s Steve Shadley the trip will bring together Indigenous people and Latin Americans to explore the early history of the canyon that he says often leaves out the voices of Native Americans…

Avila: “What this trip is about is providing opportunities to non-traditional visitors who are interested in the environment, who are interested in history, to learn history directly from Native Americans.”

Shadley: “So, if I was visiting Grand Canyon, for the first time and I was visiting from Japan, and I just sort of took the national park tour…I wouldn’t have the same experience if I met with the Indigenous people there?”

Avila: “Correct. There needs to be a much better representation of the Indigenous and native voices at all national parks so people from Japan or anywhere else understand that there is a connection to nature that still exists that they can understand that the history of Native Americans includes their existence today that Native Americans exist and thrive today and that they are not just a story to be told…and that there’s many myths in our conservation narrative such as the untouched wilderness or the pristine wilderness where a lot of the leaders from the early 1900’s and 1800’s define nature as if it was separate from the people and so a lot of people think that’s the case and they don’t know that there are Indigenous people living in these places or that there are names to some of the mountains and peaks and rivers. And, so, its important that we share some of this history and we hear it from the knowledge holders.”

Shadley: “Have you tried. Have you reached out to the National Park Service and expressed your concerns? And, if so…what has the response been?”

Avila: “Oh, this is something that has been a national movement and it is not only the concern of the Sierra Club. A lot of different organizations and advocates have identified that including the National Park Service. They are addressing some of these challenges in order to tell the history of all America not only just certain narratives. And, so there are examples of some national parks where efforts are being made to promote different voices, diverse voices, including the hiring of diverse staff that can speak to culture and different values in those places.”

Shadley: “And, I understand that some members of your group that will be visiting Grand Canyon this will be the first time they’ve reached the northern plateau and even if they’ve been long time and even native Arizonans…and this will be their first experience at Grand Canyon…what do you hope they will take home with them?”

Avila: “We know that a lot of people go camping and sometimes these kinds of activities look very far—far out of reach for many people—so, what we’re looking for in this trip is a connection to nature and a connection to their own family history. I want people to feel they belong in public lands. I want people to connect to the history of Native Americans and to the values, their cultural values. I also want people to understand a lot of that history especially from Native Americans and that way we can learn there is no separation between social justice and environmental justice. That when we try to protect the Grand Canyon and its natural resources we must also try to protect the people because they are the original inhabitants and they are the knowledge holders.”

Shadley: “Well, happy camping at Grand Canyon this weekend and thank you Sergio.”

Avila: “Thank you so much.”

KNAU’s Steve Shadley spoke with Sergio Avila cwho’s with the Sierra Club in Tucson.

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