The Grand Canyon Association (GCA) is launching a fundraising campaign to help American Indian tribes rediscover their roots inside one of America’s natural wonders.
While nearly five million people visit Grand Canyon National Park each year, many tribal members from elders to youth have never had the opportunity to visit a site that is culturally significant and sacred to them. The GCA wants to change that.
“With some of these places, they might not get to experience it without our help,” said Janet Cohen, Tribal Program Manager for Grand Canyon National Park. “There are many significant sites in the park they haven’t seen, or haven’t seen in a very long time.”
The Canyon is associated with 11 tribes from Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.
In recent years the Grand Canyon Association and Grand Canyon National Park have organized several tribal visits. One took more than a dozen Havasupai members and elders to Indian Garden. Such trips left tribes, Canyon leaders and the GCA wanting more.
Tribal members say the trips will help them connect with their heritage. Charley Bulletts, a member of the Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, pointed to the significance of Deer Creek inside Grand Canyon. He said Deer Creek creates the same emotion for his people as a war veteran approaching the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
“It is a spot of reverence,” he said. “Tribal youth are taught that when you die, your spirit goes to Deer Creek. You don’t fully understand it ‘til you see it.”
The GCA hopes to raise $35,000, which would help organize and fund tribal trips each year.
The tribal trips are part of a broader effort by the GCA and Grand Canyon National Park to enhance the relationship between the Canyon and American Indians. A prominent South Rim monument is a nod to tribes associated with the Canyon; a new intertribal advisory council gives a voice to tribal concerns.
“I have seen firsthand the impact these trips can make. The trips help history and memories come alive, and we would love to make these trips far more frequent,” said Dave Uberuaga, Superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park.
Below, tribal members discuss why experiencing Grand Canyon is so culturally important to their people.
Charley Bulletts, Southern Paiute Consortium Director
Southern Paiutes have been in the Grand Canyon region for many, many generations. “But 80 percent of Southern Paiutes have never been to Grand Canyon or even know that Southern Paiutes have a connection to the Grand Canyon.”
That could change if money is raised to fund more tribal trips into the Canyon. Youth trips or camps would connect kids back to the Canyon, touching on cultural aspects, making traditional tools, and retelling stories of the past.
“You have to get them out in that environment to see them open up. We’re hoping we can share the stories not just with everyone else, but with our own youth. Some of these kids are not on a good path,” he said. “After these trips, they have a connection. They’re off on a different path.”
Canyon trips made by tribal elders or youth—or ideally together—can range from river tours to hikes to significant cultural spots. The key is that tribal youth open up and connect. “They realize ‘I can’t leave and hike out of here.’ We say, ‘you’ll have to eat with us. You’ll have to talk to us.’ By day nine, they don’t want to leave.”
Being inside the Canyon is welcoming. “You see your ancestors, you hear the names, hear the songs.” On a recent trip, one of the participants “was seeing her ancestors on the banks all along the way” down the Colorado River.
“The impact of the trips would be restoring knowledge back to the people with a connection to the Canyon, to help the next generation connect to the Canyon.” The special place, he says, “offers a lifetime of knowledge.”
Monica Marquez, Yavapai-Apache Nation Tribal Council
Trips to the Colorado River and Grand Canyon sound fun, but they really are so much more.
“It connects us. Honoring culture, honoring a sacred site is important for our youth. It’s so important to keep our culture and our history alive,” she said. “It is, literally, a spiritual journey, not just a fun trip down the river.”
She remembers seeing the benefits first-hand on a tribal trip into Grand Canyon.
“It was grandparents with grandkids, it was parents with kids, whole families participating. There were no barriers, just cultural knowledge. We went to the Grand Canyon, we gathered piñon, we went to the river, went to sacred sites.”
That is significant because “a mom or dad might not have the cultural knowledge, especially with sacred sites. The connection between the youth and the elders, it’s something to always preach.”
“The older ones would say, ‘I used to come here as a youth but I haven’t been back. It sure feels good to be here.’ And to have your grandkids there with you, it’s a memory.”
For other tribal members that might experience the Canyon, she has a simple message: “I would advise them to open their spirit up to the things all around them. The rocks. The water. The animals, everything. Every day waking up with the sun rising and being in the Canyon, just take it in. Do you understand how powerful the water is?”
While any Canyon trips would be beneficial, she said river trips are very meaningful. “Water is so important to our culture. We are born from water. I have a mother that is scared of the water, but she said, “I’ll get on that boat.’”