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New website gathers Indigenous stories of Little Colorado River

Deidra Peaches / Grand Canyon Trust

A new interactive website features the voices and stories of Navajo, Hopi, Apache, Zuni and other Indigenous people talking about the Little Colorado River. It’s sacred to local tribes, spiritually connected to the Grand Canyon and tied to prayer and ceremony. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Sarana Riggs of the Grand Canyon Trust about the project, called “Lifeways of the Little Colorado River.”

So this collection of videos and interviews and photographs that you’ve put together, tell me what inspired that idea of putting all those stories together in this project?

I think the project just stemmed from what lies beyond the Grand Canyon, and what are the different tributaries that lead into the canyon, and LCR seemed like it was the most impacted… I look at first of all the dam project that’s being proposed on the LCR, and then of course you look at past threats like uranium mining, and how that continues to play a big part of everything right now and how it’s still impacting many lives and many families, it’s a generational trauma… And so how do we talk about all the things that impacting everybody, how do we showcase that, and how do we highlight that, and let people know there’s an interwoven connection from all of us.

Just tell me a bit about the Little Colorado River, and I know this is a big question, but why is it so special to so many of Arizona’s tribes?

Looking at the Little Colorado River, if you’re driving on 89 going north or going south, you don’t think too much about it, because you going over this bridge in Cameron, and… you just see that you’re going over this small little canyon. But to many of us—for myself as Navajo when we go over the water, we go over that bridge, we’re leaving the boundary of the Navajo Nation. In our mind, we do a small prayer to ensure we have a safe journey wherever we’re going, and that we’re going to return home, and that those left back at home are going to be safe and we’ll see them pretty soon… To me it’s the corridor that leads to the Grand Canyon. Its carries prayer from everywhere, it starts off in the White Mountain area, you have White Mountain Apache, so they have prayers that get carried all the way to the Colorado River, you have Zuni, it’s like a highway for them to get back to the canyon where they had emerged from…. and then you look toward Hopi, and it’s the same thing, the same corridor that leads back to their emergence place.

Bringing together these stories on this website, this story map, what do you hope bringing that putting that traditional knowledge into that format is going to do? What do you hope it will achieve?

The first thing that comes to my mind is awareness. Awareness for sure. The story map idea is a great platform because it’s constructed in a way where it’s not a traditional website, it’s not a traditional learning tool…. You get to listen to them, you get to listen to their voice, and everybody’s got a different accent and their own way of speaking, you can hear where they come from. You can hear the identity of each person.

Some of the places along Little Colorado River are culturally significant but they’re also tourist destinations, places like Grand Falls. What should non-Native people know about approaching places like that? How can non-Native people do that respectfully?

Yeah, it’s interesting you brought that up, because that was one of the questions we asked everybody in these interviews… So we’re also going to compile that together in another media space…. I would say that, before you—I say this for myself, too. Before I venture into any place that I think it’s going to be cool and I want to check out, just get some background knowledge on it first… Go a little bit deeper into that Indigenous knowledge and the perspective around it…. And also that in places you go to, be very respectful, as if you were going into the holiest church you could think of. You’re not yelling, you’re not screaming. Treat it with respect because it’s a living entity.

Sarana Riggs, thank you so much for speaking with me.

No problem.

Click on the audio link above to hear the interview and music from singer-songwriter Radmilla Cody called "Honoring the Homeland." Cody is one of the people featured in “Lifeways of the Little Colorado River.”

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.