In the act of preserving land for the future, we have often neglected the future of people who considered those lands not just home, but hunting and burial ground, 
garden and god

Hopi dancer outside Hopi House, Grand Canyon South Rim, 9/2015

In the Grand Canyon I hike down to a place called Indian Gardens. It’s on the canyon’s south side, halfway between the rim and the river, and it’s a pit stop for mules and hikers alike. Water is piped there from the North Rim. There are composting toilets, picnic tables, camp sites, a creek with duck weed floating on its surface—all shaded by redbud and giant old cottonwoods. Also at Indian Gardens, off the trail and unknown to most who hike by, are the remnants of two granaries and several other structures used by indigenous people that made the Grand Canyon home for at least 13,000 years until anglos came and called it their own. 

When Southern Pacific railroad built their tracks to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim in 1901, Havasupai Indians still lived and grew crops at Indian Gardens. They accepted the white men’s intrusion into their isolated lives, and even allowed them to grow crops beside their own. Then, in 1928, when the canyon became a national park, the Havasupai were forced to leave.

It’s much the same throughout the Colorado Plateau. You hike and you come across the curve of kivas, the hollow of granaries, the geometry of rock weirs. There are agave roasting pits, flint chips, arrowheads, petroglyphs, grinding stones—all set within a landscape so big and bold and breathtaking it’s impossible not to think of the Devine. 

The people who once inhabited these places were eventually driven away. Some by other tribes, some by desertification, and some by white man and their diseases. The ones who survived were eventually routed to reservations. 

Havasupai Girls playing game, Indian Gardens, 1898
By James, George Wharton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Ahwahnee did not survive. Their home was what we now call Yosemite. During the 1851 Mariposa War, anglo miners “discovered” what the Ahwahnee called “the gaping mouth place” while pursuing the tribe into the mountains. The only thing that remains of Ahwahnee now is a lodge that bares their name. A lodge that will soon lose that name because of a trademark dispute between the concessioner and the National Park Service.

Mount Desert Island, off Maine’s coast was once home to the Wabanaki—People of the Dawnland. It was there that they fished, collected clams and sweetgrass. Now that area is known as Acadia National Park. 

Yellowstone was used by the Crow, Cheyanne, Nez Perce, Flathead, Bannock, Shoshone. All of these tribes were displaced as a result of the christening of the parks. 

This idea, that conservation projects must be cleansed of their ancestral inhabitants, is not unique to the United States. It is happening in the jungles of India, Brazil, and Central America. It’s occurring in China’s lowlands and in the savannas of Africa. Around the world, indigenous people have been and continue to be jerked from their homeland and tossed onto less valuable, less productive lands, marginal places for a people often treated as marginal, at best. 

To bring awareness to this issue, the human rights group Survival International has started a “Stop the Con” campaign which calls for governments and conservation groups throughout the world to work with native people to preserve land and wildlife. Instead of evicting people from their land, and then turning away as they struggle to survive, enlightened conservation plans include tribal people in efforts to build biological diversity and sustainability while protecting the area from poachers, vandals, and developers.

The Grand Canyon is a good example of a place where this kind of cooperation is sorely needed. The national park only occupies a portion of the canyon. To the southeast is the expansive Navajo Nation, to the Southwest, the Havasupai and Hualapai reservations. Over the years, development plans on these reservations have come in conflict with the national park’s conservation goals. 

On the Hualapai reservation, a Las Vegas developer David Jin built the notorious Skywalk. The Skywalk is a curved glass balcony which juts over the canyon like a giant toilet seat. Visitors pay seventy nine bucks to be bussed in and greeted by a tired looking group of native dancers, who will let you take their pictures, for an additional price. From the Skywalk, many visitors are then bussed down to one of several heliports, where for an additional two to three hundred dollars they will be flown over and into the canyon.

when tribes are not part of a conservation plan, 

their plans for economic development can be become part of a conservation problem 

The experience, from the air, is considered unsurpassed. But the experience from below—for wildlife, for hikers, for rafters—is more than jarring, it is an affront to everything the canyon is about: peace, quiet, isolation, spiritual renewal. From sunrise to sunset the western end of the canyon is more like a scene from Apocalypse Now than the natural wonder it is. What makes the intrusion even more jarring is that the helicopter tours are in direct conflict with the National Overflights Act of 1987, which aimed to preserve the quiet in Grand Canyon National Park. In 2000, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted the Hualapai a hardship exemption. Baring bad weather, the Hualapai heliports are today among the busiest in the country, flying hundreds of visitors into and over the west end of Grand Canyon National Park every single day. The FAA exemption allows the Hualapai to fly up to 300,000 flights a year.

In 2011, the Navajo’s applied for a similar exemption. A portion of their land also borders the Grand Canyon, and tribal members who support the idea imagine drawing from the millions of tourists who visit the national park every year. Navajo leaders are also considering teaming up with a Scottsdale, Arizona-based development firm to build a gondola that will carry people from the rim of the canyon to the confluence of the Colorado River with the Little Colorado River. The project is very controversial. The gondola would offload its passengers just feet from the national park boundary, and put them within walking distance of one of the Hopi’s most sacred sites—the place where they emerged into this world. The gondola proposal has split tribes between those wanting the Grand Canyon Escalade and those trying to Save The Confluence from the spoils of unfettered tourism.

The bottom line: when tribes are not part of a conservation plan, their plans for economic development can be become part of a conservation problem.

The experience, from the air, is unconsidered unsurpassed. But the experience from below is an affront to the canyon

Stop the Con is right. Governments and conservationists need to do more to include ancestral people in the planning, management and development of protected lands, and they need to aggressively support sustainable and economic development projects which help native people thrive. 

It’s difficult to pass judgement on the Navajo for trying to find ways to cash in on the millions of tourists who come to see the Grand Canyon when you learn that more than 40 percent of their tribal members are unemployed. It’s difficult to criticize the tribe for not developing other opportunities in other regions of their nation when you learn that there are more than 600 abandoned and unreclaimed uranium mines scattered over that land, that their water often is contaminated, and that many of their streets, sidewalks, houses, and schools were built with radioactive tailings (A Killing Wind, 2013). It is difficult to square white man’s history of paternalism, abuse and neglect and not realize we owe a debt to native people who considered the lands we hike and raft and climb not just home, but hunting and burial ground, garden and god. 

If there is a way to actually “conserve” land and wildlife then the steps to do this must not just align with native values and goals, but native people should be part of their very design.

-Naseem Rakha, February 22, 2015


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