‘Our stories need to be told’: Grand Canyon park enlisting Native input as it marks 100 years

Desert View sits on the eastern end of the Grand Canyon, which snakes through 1,902 square miles of northern Arizona. (Photo by Laurel Morales/KJZZ)

FLAGSTAFF – The Grand Canyon, carved by water over millions of years, is a geologic wonder that has inspired poets to dream and scientists to ponder. Most of us are lucky to visit once or twice in a lifetime.

But for several Native American tribes, the Grand Canyon is their home.

“Most Americans think Native Americans are gone, but we’re still here,” said Carletta Tilousi, a Havasupai Tribal Council member who grew up in the Grand Canyon. “I’d like them to know that this was a home – is the home – of Native Americans, and our stories need to be told.”

In the late 1800s, the federal government sequestered the Havasupai to a side canyon until 1975, when they were given back some of their ancestral land.

The Desert View Watchtower is made of steel, concrete and stone. As temperatures fluctuate, the steel contracts and expands while masonry stays put and cracks. The park has hired conservators to address the issue. (Photo by Laurel Morales/KJZZ)

“It’s been a really long, bitter relationship with the park,” Tilousi said. “The park forcefully removed my family, my great aunts and my great grandfather. And that really made me personally very angry as a child.”

Today, the National Park Service is required to consult with tribes when making changes that might have an impact on their land or their people.

Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its centennial next year. To mark the occasion, the National Park Service is working with 11 tribes traditionally associated with the canyon to tell their stories, converting the Desert View scenic overlook and watchtower from a traditional visitor-services area into an cultural heritage site.

“I think Havasupai, we’ve been ignored for a long time and not given the opportunity to voice our concerns on lands that were occupied by our family members,” Tilousi said.

Only in the past decade has Tilousi been willing to sit down with park staff members. In those meetings, tribal leaders have asked the park for an opportunity to tell their stories.

When the concessionaire Xanterra Travel Collection dropped Desert View Watchtower from its contract three years ago, former Grand Canyon Superintendent Dave Uberuaga invited tribal leaders to help park officials design a cultural heritage site there.

“What is really forward-thinking … about this project is the way that the relationship is changing,” said Jenn O’Neill, partnerships and planning coordinator for Grand Canyon National Park.

Mary Coulter designed many of the buildings at Grand Canyon National Park, including the Desert View Watchtower in 1932. Coulter said the structure is not a copy of any one tower, but her take on the towers erected by ancient puebloans of the Colorado Plateau. (Photo by Laurel Morales/KJZZ)

“Recent superintendents have used those other authorities available to them to change the conversation (with tribal leaders) to do more listening and less speaking, and to really build the trust. I mean, this whole project is propped up on trust that we will do what we say we will do.”

In addition to providing a venue to tell their own stories, the National Park Service also wanted to preserve existing cultural treasures, including Hopi artist Fred Kabotie’s murals inside the watchtower, which serves as the park’s eastern entrance. Architect Mary Colter modeled the steel and stone structure after towers erected by ancestral puebloan people of the Colorado Plateau. Built in 1932, it now is a National Historic Landmark.

“Every time I come in here, I see something new that I never saw before,” O’Neill said.

With the help of a grant, she said, the park hired conservators to clean the Kabotie artwork.

“They have spent the last three years cleaning with Q-tips and brushes every square inch of the murals,” she said.

Once the intertribal cultural heritage program is up and running, O’Neill hopes the rest of the park will follow suit.

“We don’t want to dispatch all things Native to the farthest corner of the park,” she said. “We want to create a program that works and is sustainable and then it will move into the larger park,” giving Native Americans a greater presence throughout.

Mable Franklin, who is Navajo, sees the heritage site at Desert View as a positive step.

“We actually are going to have a voice in the Grand Canyon again, and that’s one of the things I like about this heritage site,” Franklin said, although she’d like to see more.

Park officials only let Native artists sell their artwork under strict regulations. Artists are limited to selling only the crafts they’ve shown visitors how to create in cultural demonstrations.

“We would like to see our communities put their wares and generate revenue from that because in our community we have a lot of people that are vendors and that’s their way of life and that sustains them out here,” Franklin said.

For now, she hopes the 6 million annual visitors to Grand Canyon National Park will consider taking a side trip to Cameron Trading Post, about 30 miles east on the Navajo Nation, where artists earn a living selling their work.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

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