Growing up I always heard lots of stories about Lake Powell. After graduating high school my uncle began his first job with the National Park Service there. A few years later, after her own graduation, my mother, accompanied by a few friends, also moved to southern Utah. For a rather blissful year and a half in the late 70’s my mom spent her days floating around Horseshoe Bend on an inner tube with monthly trips into the “big city” of Grand Junction, Colorado for groceries and cat food. So when I read Robert Michaelsen’s article The Significance of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and it mentioned Lake Powell I was rather intrigued. Could the place where so many of Mom’s wild adventures took place really be a site of religious significance?
To the Navajo people of the Southwest, Rainbow Bridge is not just a unique geological feature. Navajo stories tell of a male and a female rainbow person coming together in perfect union, and being frozen in time. This rock rainbow is particularly special because it is the only rainbow that can be viewed from both sides (Luckert 22-3). It is the site of ritual offerings, sacred ceremonies, and other religious practices. Glen Canyon is home to several other sites of religious significance for the Navajo people, including a sacred spring, several rock beings, and the union of the feminine Colorado River and the masculine San Juan River. However, these sites have all been covered by the waters of the manmade Lake Powell, disrupting Navajo spiritual practice (Luckert 24). One major concern of the Navajo is that the rock people are being drowned by Lake Powell. Additionally, sacred offerings cannot be placed at the union of the Colorado and San Juan Rivers, as it is covered by water, which prevents the Navajo from properly conducting ceremonies that protect them from harsh weather and disease (Luckert 25). Perhaps of more pressing concern than any of these other issues is the increasingly large presence of tourism in the Glen Canyon area. Because of the tourists, the Navajo people are not able to communicate with the spirits around Rainbow Bridge during the day, but the ceremonies cannot be conducted at night after the tourists have left because of the decrees of the spirits (Luckert 92-3). Tourists are also often quite disrespectful of Navajo beliefs. Despite the posting of various signs asking them to avoid doing so, many tourists approach and walk under Rainbow Bridge, things that are expressly forbidden in the Navajo tradition.
Lamarr Badoni, a Navajo medicine man, saw Lake Powell and the tourism it created as a significant enough problem to merit legal action. He petitioned to have access to Rainbow Bridge for non-indigenous peoples restricted and to have the reservoir operate at half capacity so that the spirits who were covered by the water could breathe again, citing the American Indian Religious Freedom Act as support for his case. In Badoni v. Higginson the courts ruled that the Navajos have no property rights because the site was declared a national monument twenty years before the Navajo reservation was expanded to include Rainbow Bridge and the site of the reservoir (Smith and Manning). Badoni was dissatisfied with this decision and took the case to the court of appeals. The appellate courts ruled that the economic interest of having a major water and power source outweighed the benefits of protecting the Navajo’s religious interests. In that same decision the justices stated that protecting the monument would make it a “government managed shrine” (Smith and Manning).
Although the courts have not responded favorably to the Navajos, the National Park Service has attempted to be more accommodating of the Navajo religious practices of the area. In 1994 President Clinton issued an executive order that expandeddialogues between the Park Service and interested Native American parties. This executive order has led to several small successes for the Navajos. For example, a trail leading to Rainbow Bridge was paved with a pine-based hardener, rather than asphalt, to allow spirits to pass to and from the underworld (Smith and Manning). Park Service employees are also working with indigenous peoples to increase their access to ceremonial plants and animals in protected areas. Beyond these accommodations, the Park Service is also working on education initiatives to help explain the sacred nature of the monument to tourists in the hopes that it will cultivate respect for native peoples and their religions (Rainbow). Their attempts to educate tourists include posting signs asking people to consider not approaching or walking under the bridge and deleting directions to trails that lead to Rainbow Bridge from informational brochures (Smith and Manning). The National Park Service asks people to respect Rainbow Bridge the same way they would a church, because as cheesy as it sounds, it is more than a bridge, it is “a bridge between cultures” (Rainbow).
– Kasey Gardner
Luckert, Karl W. Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge Religion. Flagstaff: Museum of Northern Arizona, 1977. Print.
“Rainbow Bridge National Monument – A New Day at Rainbow Bridge (U.S. National Park Service).” U.S. National Park Service – Experience Your America. Web. 29 Jan. 2011.
Smith, Chris, and Elizabeth Manning. “The Sacred and Profane Collide in the West — High Country News.” High Country News. 26 May 1997. Web. 29 Jan. 2011.