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Intertribal summit seeks to create more inclusive tourism economy at Grand Canyon

Deidra Peaches, Courtesy of Grand Canyon Trust

A summit this week will explore ways to make the tourism economy of Grand Canyon National Park more inclusive to Indigenous peoples. The Grand Canyon is the ancestral home of at least 11 tribal nations. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with Jack Pongyesva, program manager of the Intertribal Centennial Conversations group, which organized the first-of-its-kind event.

So the question you’re raising is, we’ve got 5 million visitors a year going through Grand Canyon National Park, and how can Native people tap into that tourism economy?

Absolutely. That’s correct. Just from – there’s so much money made, like you said, I actually think the pre -COVID number were 6.2 million visitors a year, which is crazy… So we think these communities who have ultimately been pushed out of the park, and disenfranchised in a lot of ways from capturing a lot of that revenue by being in the park and having presence in the park, we really hope to facilitate that entry point and be able to get that money flowing more toward these regional economies, these regional communities, and benefit these communities at large.

For visitors, too, I imagine there is a desire to be able to access Native art, and Native food, and know more about the Native history of the canyon.

Yeah, absolutely, that’s one thing we’re focusing on as well…. For instance, authentic and locally sourced arts and crafts in some of these vendor shops or in some of these concessionaire shops, the gift shops you can see all over the park at almost every lookout. If you go there now, it’s hard not to see the kind of things that they’ll selling; trinkets that do not seem authentic and not sourced from around here….It just seems like there are some things that can be changed, and we’re really trying to work on things like that, to really make better representation of Native people in the park through what’s sold. Also, like I said, that would be a beneficial factor financially to their family and community.

Do you have model of where this has been done in other places, or are you breaking new ground?

It is breaking new ground, so to speak. We have a couple of speakers that are coming from different parts of country, for instance, we have someone from Waco Tanks in El Paso, Texas. It’s a state park. What she will be taking about is the relationships that park has with tribal communities in that area. It’s really groundbreaking and innovative…. It’s just really culture-centric and focuses on people understanding— visitors understanding the people in the area, how they’ll still here, how they still exist, and how important that landscape is to them.

Best case scenario, what’s your vision for what the Grand Canyon will look like in the next 10-20 years?

I think the best thing that I would hope to see, would be more Native employment and hiring strategies that take into account people who don’t have internet or access to certain things, but would be qualified for certain positions…. I think that would be a great first move. I think another one would be transportation to park for people in gateway communities like Cameron or Tuba… It really is a big issue for people not being able to go to the park, in general, just because of gas money, a car… It’s tricky. So creating opportunities for more access to be available is what I think is important. Just cause, when you are there, you realize why it’s the origin of so many things in Native religions and Indigenous culture. So, those are some things I’m hoping for, as well as more interpretive staff that are Native American as well.

Jack, thanks so much for speaking with me.


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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