Rainbow Bridge: Is It Still Sacred?

Ellen Smith

Rainbow Bridge is the largest natural bridge in the world and one of the most symmetrical land features. Many consider the bridge to be the most beautiful place on the Earth, and it measures 290 feet high; people have claimed that it can sit comfortably over the dome of the Capitol in Washington D.C. (Woodbury, 1).  Overall, the bridge is surrounded by deep blue water and soaring red cliffs, and the bridge is the centerpiece of the most rugged, remote country in the Lower 48 (Farmer 92). Rainbow Bridge was sacred, but is it still considered sacred today? Before 1963, it was hard to access, but with the construction of dams and roads, people can cruise up the flooded gorge and park within site of Rainbow Bridge.

The origin behind the name of Rainbow Bridge helps explain why the Dine consider the rock formation as sacred. The Dine gave the name Nonnezoshi to the rock, which means a hole through a rock; however, they ended up calling the arch Rainbow Bridge due to the story of two women (Miser and Farmer., 521). Two females walked away from Black Water, and they got lost. The women finally reached a place where the sun came up upon the Holy People. The people did not come accustomed to the women, because they were people of water. The Holy People helped the women returned to their own land, which they believed was miraculously accomplished by the way of a Rainbow. The women were brought back to the area of Navajo Mountain or the Head of Earth. Rainbow Bridge is still considered to be a place that brings offerings and prayers that are connected with the pristine water. There are different stories behind the origin of the name of Rainbow Bridge, because Navajo ceremony is done based on the feelings of the leader and his or her individualized experiences. Rainbow Bridge helps explain old traditions, rather than invented traditions that describe the existence of the bridge. Overall, Rainbow Bridge is a sacred religious site where special prayers are said before entering the gates or passageway of the bridge (Farmer, 91).

Unfortunately, due to the development of roads, railroads, damns, and lakes, Rainbow Bridge is easily accessible and has undergone significant transformation. Beginning in 1956, Congress permitted the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) to convert the Upper Basin, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico, into prosperity. The CRSP then proposed a pair of damns to be built, and the dams were constructed. The dams set a precedent for future projects and problems. In 1974, tribal members sued the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation and the secretary of the interior, because they wanted to limit the elevation of Lake Powell in order to prevent flooding of their sacred place. At the very least, the Dine wanted the government to establish restrictions on visitation. The court ruled against the plaintiffs arguing that they had no property interest at Rainbow Bridge (Farmer). American Authorities were selfish by making this statement, because the concerns and genuine interests of the Indians could not compete with the expansion and urbanization of the American West.

The Dine continued to fight for their land, and they took the case mentioned above to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The judges upheld the initial decision due to the constitutional law that states, “action that infringes on a religious practice violates the First Amendment unless the government establishes a competing interest of ‘sufficient magnitude’”(Farmer, 169). According to the government, Glen Canyon Dam had a greater sufficient magnitude than the natural state of the sacred Rainbow Bridge. As one conservationist put it, “when people try to realize their visions of the land, the result is not often what they expect” (Farmer, 4). This quote touches on the ego, arrogance, and disrespect of whites in general. Whether or not we believe that we have good intentions, we often don’t think about the impact that we are making on others—especially those who live a different lifestyle and have different religious beliefs. Although, Rainbow Bridge is a popular destination for tourists, paradise has been lost for the Navajo people (Farmer).

Lake Powell, the dams, and the complexity of the water systems were initially built for two purposes: to store water and to make money. As a result of human ignorance and arrogance, hundreds of miles of desert streams, biological lifelines, and native fish populations have perished. Today, over three million people per year go to Glen Canyon Recreation Area, and people have treated Rainbow Bridge and other nearby features as lakeside attractions rather than sacred land. Over the past several years, the area has been flooded and divided by roads. According to one person, the roads are what tie together the issues of environmentalism, tourism, and economic development. After all, the roads have allowed more people to come for the “wrong reasons.” The Dine sometimes view Rainbow Ridge and the surrounding area as a “routine motorized sight-seeing excursion” (Farmer 166).

Currently, Rainbow Bridge is threatened by inundation to the development of the various dams. Scientists are trying to find solutions to problems that other scientists and the government agencies have created. In order to preserve the bridge, scientists must consider the surrounding area as one. The current options of “preserving” the Bridge means that scenic and valuable features are going to be scarred. For example, if scientists choose to back the water up in the inner gorge under Rainbow Bridge, sandy sediment will fill up and slowly deteriorate the bridge. Scientists and governmental officials argue about whether they should leave the current state of the feature the way it is, or should they attempt to “save” the landscape by continuing annual maintenance (Woodbury, 528). Regardless of what the outcome is, the land will forever be changed, and it will never be seen or viewed as it was several years ago when people had limited access.

Despite the ongoing arguments among scientists and governmental officials, two questions come to mind: how much more destruction can be done to Rainbow Bridge and the area as a whole? Has change become loss, and if not, when will change become loss? Many Americans don’t understand how meaningful areas as a whole are to the Dine. Individuals have failed to consider the possible impact of these critical decisions on Native American beliefs and practices. The Significance of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 by Robert S. Michaelsen underlines that it is important for Indians to state the nature, current status of the area, and the role of the area in religious beliefs and ceremonies of people involved when trying to prevent development near or on their land. However, the Native Americans should not have to make this argument clear in a governmental system that is foreign to them, and white people should have enough respect and integrity to know the importance of sacred places such as Rainbow Bridge for Native Americans. How would Americans or Europeans feel if we walked into a church and found it filled with trash, and marked with disrespectful words? Although it may be too late to clean up the mess whites have made, people can at least have more empathy for Native Americans.

The environmental purpose for the development of dams and Lake Powell is to save more water, but in the end the construction of these man-made features have created more problems than benefits. The engineers intended to conform nature in order to conserve water, but their plan failed. However, the problems that currently exist are evidence that the Indians left everything the way it was for a purpose. One of the major issues that has come to light is the destruction of cultures such as the Dine rituals and traditions. The land was important as a whole for ritual ceremonies and for communicating to the spirits. The debates over the land explained the differences between universal and ritual traditions. The environmental purpose to save water by constructing a man-made feature contrasted the idea of keeping the land sacred by leaving it the way it was for ceremonial purposes. Currently, scientists are “trying” to fix the mistakes that the Dine wanted to avoid in the first place such as water problems. Finally, the American government wanted to benefit economically, whereas the Dine simply hoped to prevent outsiders from destroying or changing the natural land. This example shows how the environmental goals of the non-native culture is contrasting and opposing to the indigenous community in the Glen Canyon area.

Changes in the environment have forever altered the way of tribal religions, but people should still give the Indians more respect. In order for this to happen, the government should require more people to take educational classes on the meaning and importance of these sites to Native Americans, because in the past people have made offensive comments. For example,  when the Park Service was trying to prevent less people from accessing Rainbow Bridge a boater from Arizona rebutted, “we’ve been coming here and walking under the bridge since 1974, so you could say this is our religion.” Another person reacted to the Park Service by saying, “you say we should do this out of respect for the Indians, but isn’t it disrespectful to us? It is reverse discrimination” (Farmer, 170). Both of these people obviously are naïve about the importance of Rainbow Bridge to the Dine; they don’t understand that Rainbow Bridge and the Glen Canyon Area are potentially if not more valuable than something such as the Sistine Chapel. Maybe if people read and studied more about Native American cultures and the value of place, they would be more empathetic. Although our world is continuing to transform, and technology is getting better, I hope that Americans can prevent further destruction of Rainbow Bridge.

Two years ago, I went to the Navajo Indian Reservation, and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see Rainbow Bridge. However, I did see the effects of our impact on the surrounding area. Families were poor, and the overall community seemed lost. Parents worked for at least twelve hours a day, and kids were forced to go on with their lives without their parents constantly there. One of the days, I met one of the five remaining code talkers from World War II and his wife. I helped to clean out his house as he told us about some of the cultural traditions that no longer exist. For some reason, he and his wife lived in separate houses, and he talked about how shocked he was when he returned from World War II. Both he and his wife seemed lonely and isolated from the rest of the community. I never really understood why this was, but some possible reasons include his valuable service to the United States during WWII, the remote location of his house, or a diagnosis of a mental illness. The Navajo language and people were critical to the success of World War II, and it is ironic and hypocritical of how some—including government agencies—continue to disrespect these people and their community.

Is Rainbow Bridge still sacred? Tourists may think that the land is still considered sacred to the Dine, because they are amazed by the structure and the beauty of Rainbow Bridge when they first see it. However, tourists and the general public often don’t think about how easy it was for them to access the land or what the land looked like before it was “untouched” by visitors. Tourists also consider the land valuable, because they enjoy their time spent doing recreational activities on the lake and in the general area. To the Dine, the land is probably still sacred, because they proceed with their ritual practices. However, most Dine would agree that it doesn’t have the same significance as it once did. Maybe to some of the elders, the land is not considered sacred with the presence of roads, houses, man-made dams, and disrespectful tourists. Ceremony still takes place, but their idea of sacred place is different from our idea of sacred place. Most of the places that Native Americans consider sacred are part of the natural land, and the land that we consider sacred are intense man-made structures. Despite different views and opinions on whether or not the land is still sacred, people should work together to attempt to prevent any more damage and should have more respect for the Dine.


Below are links to pictures, maps, and links of Rainbow Bridge! For some reason, I couldn’t post them on this page…
















Video Links:



-Ellen Smith

Works Cited

Farmer, Jared. Glen Canyon Dammed : Inventing Lake Powell and the Canyon Country. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999.

Halliday, William R., and Angus M. Woodbury. “Protection of Rainbow Bridge National Monument.” Science 133.3464 (1961): 1572-83.

Michaelsen, Robert. “The Significance of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.” .

Woodbury, Angus M. “Protecting Rainbow Bridge.” Science 132.3426 (1960): 519-28.

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