Skip to main content

Connections to the Grand Canyon

GRAYSLAKE, Ill. -- In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt said: "In the
Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which so far as I know, is in
kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world ... Leave it
as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and
man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your
children's children, and for all who come after you."

How ironic that his speech came more than two decades after the U.S.
Cavalry completed its Native removal efforts that ended the Indian wars in
1882. What would the Grand Canyon be like today, had Roosevelt made such a
proclamation 50 to 100 years earlier?

In a recent interview, Robert Breunig, director of the Museum of Northern
Arizona, made an excellent point when he said, "What's important is that
when we think of the Grand Canyon, we think of Grand Canyon National Park.
But the Indian people have had a long connection with the canyon that goes
back thousands of years." He added, "All the tribes of northern Arizona
have had connections to the Grand Canyon at one point or another."

The canyon was known as Kaibab or "Mountain Lying Down" by the Paiutes, who
called the North Rim their home prior to being removed to a reservation on
the Arizona-Utah border. Its earliest inhabitants were believed to have
been Puebloans and Cohoninas.

Breunig stated, "Although currently the Hopi don't have any land adjacent
to the canyon, their oral history tells of a place called a Sipapu [an opening] in the Little Colorado River gorge, just before it runs into
Pisisbaiya, or the main Colorado River. This is the place where they
believe they emerged up to the surface of the earth."

Navajo medicine man James Peshlakai is saddened by the restrictions held by
Grand Canyon National Park. "We don't go into the canyon anymore; we just
do our ceremonies at the top. When you go there, you have to get a permit,
and every move you make is watched. This becomes annoying -- you can't get
what you want from the experience.

"It's ironic," Peshlakai continued. "There are people who die, who want
their ashes sprinkled in the Grand Canyon, and they get a permit in nothing
flat -- to pollute the area. When we want to do a ceremony for mother
earth, our little ceremonial dances are now held in [the nearby town of]
Tusayan every weekend. That's as close as we can get to the Grand Canyon
without a lot of hassle."

Janet Balsom, chief of Cultural Resources at Grand Canyon National Park, is
the liaison between the superintendent's office and the affiliated tribes.
"Because the Park Service has preservation mandates, our rangers are our
law enforcement. The laws often differ with a tribal member's idea of what
they should be allowed to do. Our challenge has been to work within the two
sets of views to accommodate the tribal member's needs and what the law

Balsom mentioned a time when they were successful in accommodating both
sides. "Take collecting firewood, for example. You can't do that in a
national park. On the flip side, the local communities need wood. We don't
have the authority to break that law and give them wood from the park, but
we found a way to provide wood through BIA to the individual tribes."

Peshlakai and Balsom agree that current positive changes are largely due to
the willingness of Park Superintendent Joe Alston. He is willing to work
with his staff to make things happen.

"Like Martin Luther King, I have a vision that one day we will do our
ceremonial dances again, down in the Grand Canyon," said Peshlakai. "One
group of dancers was invited by the Grand Canyon Symphony to dance at their
Grand Canyon Music Festival. The dancers were crying, right at the edge of
the canyon, while doing their dances. It was the first time in 100 years.
The music festival people were glad, thinking these were tears of joy --
but they were crying because it was a great sacred place, but they've been
denied access for so many years. We all cried.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

"To this day, this same practice is being carried on by the remnants of the
old regime. I hope the new regime, led by Joseph Alston, will make more
changes for the better. I admire that man who's doing his best, making it
possible for us to all live together."


"Ancient Pueblo People," or "Ancestral Puebloans," are preferred terms for
the group of peoples more commonly known as Anasazi -- the ancestors of the
modern Pueblo peoples. The term "Anasazi" -- Navajo for "Ancient Ones" or
"Ancient Enemy" -- is not preferred by Puebloan descendants, although there
is still controversy among them on an alternative. Today's Hopi use the
word "Hisatsinom," which means "people who lived long ago."

Archaeologists still debate when a distinct culture emerged, but the
current consensus suggests their emergence around 1200 B.C. Renowned for
their remarkable basket-making skills, the Basketmaker Anasazi evolved from
the Desert Culture sometime around 500 A.D. They inhabited the rim and
inner canyon, surviving by hunting, gathering and a bit of farming. These
people lived in small groups inside caves and round mud structures called
pithouses. By 500, the Ancestral Puebloans became more sophisticated in
agriculture and technology, so their lives became more sedentary and
stable. At the same time, another group called the Cohonina lived west of
the current site of Grand Canyon Village.

Approximately 300 years later, the Pueblo period began in the Grand Canyon
when the Anasazi started using stone in addition to poles and mud to build
above-ground houses. In winter, the Puebloans migrated from the inner
canyons with little sunlight to the warmer high plateaus; they reversed the
journey for summer. Multi-room pueblos survive from this period, with about
2,000 known Puebloan archaeological sites within park boundaries. Tusayan
Pueblo is the most accessible of these sites. It was constructed sometime
around 1185 and housed 30 or so people.

Archaeologists are convinced by the large numbers of dated sites that the
Ancestral Puebloans and the Cohonina flourished until about 1200. About 100
years later, however, something happened that forced both of these cultures
to leave the Grand Canyon area. While their true fate remains a mystery,
evidence leads to a theory that climate change caused a severe drought from
1276 to 1299, forcing these farming cultures to search for a climate that
would sustain them.

Many Ancestral Puebloans moved to the Rio Grande and the Little Colorado
River drainages. Their descendants, the Hopi and the 19 Pueblos of New
Mexico, live there today. The Hopi people believe they emerged from the
canyon and that their spirits rest there.

Starting about 1300, the canyon area was forsaken by humans for about a
century. Then, Paiutes from the east and Cerbat from the west
re-established settlements in and around the Grand Canyon. The Pauite
settled the plateaus north of the Colorado River and the Cerbat built their
communities to the south, on the Coconino Plateau. The Navajo, or Dine',
arrived in the area sometime in the 15th century.

Interestingly, Breunig tells us the Navajo language is part of the
Athbascan language family, which includes the Apache languages, and is
found in Canada and the Northwest coast of the United States.

All three of these cultures were stable in and around the Grand Canyon
until the federal government moved them to Indian reservations in the late
1880s. The Havasupai and Hualapai are descended from the Cerbat. According
to Breunig, the Havasupai (also known as "Supai") lived on the rim of the
Coconino Plateau and a village inside the canyon. During the 1880s, they
were given a very small reservation, which caused big problems for them
because they were confined to only one part of their historic homeland. In
the 1970s, the tribal government successfully petitioned Congress to
restore their homeland on the rim.

The Supai were given back a significant parcel of land on the rim. Since
they were a people that had seasonally moved in and out of the canyon,
winning their petition enabled them to do so again. Today, most of the
people still live in Havasu Village in the western part of the current
park. It is one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in the
contiguous United States.

Adjacent to the eastern part of the park is the Navajo Nation, the largest
reservation in the United States. Peshlakai said, "The Grand Canyon we call
Red Cliff Canyons -- we hold it very sacred."