Grand Canyon National Park has always had a rich Native American culture and today visitors can experience this culture by visiting a reservation on the Canyon’s south rim or down in the canyon itself. Tribes provide ample opportunities for visitors to experience the canyon through a wide-range of activities from taking a dip in cool emerald pools or by standing 4,000-feet above the canyon’s floor. If you go, plan on spending at least a day exploring the reservations and the countless small shops selling authentic jewelry and artwork.
If you plan to leave the greater Grand Canyon area, plan to stop by the Navajo and Hopi reservations as well.
Havasupai Tribe in the Grand Canyon
The Havasupai tribe has been living in and around the Grand Canyon’s South Rim for the past 800 years, according to anthropologists. In the past, the Havasupais spent the hot summer months growing crops and tending to their orchards in the Havasu Canyon (sometimes called Cataract Canyon) as well as other areas along the Grand Canyon. Winter months were spent hunting for food along the plateau. They left their subtle mark on the area by creating walking paths, which have today been turned into hiking trails, and establishing communities, including one at Indian Garden.
The people are intimately connected with the water that runs through their reservation. In fact, Havasupai means “people of the blue-green waters,” a name that comes from the clear mineral-rich pools found in their canyon home. To them, the water is sacred, flowing not only across the land but through each tribal member.
The Havasupai are connected with the land as well as the water, believing that two red pillars, known as the Wigleeva, guard the tribe. Legend has it that if the pillars were to fall, the canyon’s walls would collapse in, destroying their people. Two other rock formations resembling a woman and a man carrying a child also hold special significance. Stories explain that long, long ago the canyon began to run short on resources to support the growing Havasupai population. As a result, the tribe split in two. One group knew it had to leave, but upon their exit, three members of the group – a man, woman and child – grew sad and turned back for one last look, only to be turned into stone.
In 1882, the US Government created a reservation for the Havasupai of 518 acres at the bottom of the canyon, an area five miles long and 12 miles wide. The Havasupai struggled greatly since they relied heavily on seasonal migrations between the canyon floor and the plateau above, and the government-restricted boundaries took away nearly 90 percent of their original land. This new restriction to only the lower area bordering Havasu Creek restricted their subsistence and economic endeavors. It also offered far too little land to farm to support the growing people group. Finally after many years of lobbying and even fighting off a government proposal to take over the reservation, the Havasupai regained their land. In 1975, Congress banded together and reallocated nearly 185,000 acres back to the tribe. Today the Havasupai rely heavily on tourism to support their reservation and have roughly 650 living members.
If you go, make sure to bring your camera and bathing suit since the reservation is home to four of the most spectacular spring-fed waterfalls in the Grand Canyon. If you’re heading to Havasupai Falls, you’ll want hiking shoes as well since the hike in is more than 8 miles. Make a reservation ahead of time to get a camping permit, which will give you more time to enjoy the deep emerald pools.
Contact the Havasupai Tourist Office for entry information and camping permits.
Hualapai Tribe in the Grand Canyon
The Hualapai, the “People of the Tall Pines,” have lived in and around the Grand Canyon for hundreds of years. In the past the Hualapai were hunter-gatherers inhabiting an expanse of more than 5 million acres stretching from the Grand Canyon south to the Santa Maria River and from the Black Mountains east to the San Francisco peaks.
Today the tribe lives on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. Established in 1883 and covering roughly 1 million acres, the reservation includes 108 miles of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. Many of the tribe’s approximately 2,100 members live in Peach Springs, the capital of the Hualapai Nation, on Historic Route 66.
In 1988 the Hualapai opened their land up to the public. Until recently, the area was heavily promoted as an untouched piece of land where tourists could come and experience the Grand Canyon without the development and crowds commonly found along the North and South Rim.
In more recent years, however, things have changed. The Hualapai people are working hard to develop their reservation into more of a tourist destination, including a luxury hotel, Indian village and restaurant. In 2007, the Hualapai opened up the Skywalk, a large circular platform extending 70-feet out above the canyon. The Skywalk’s walkway is solid glass and visitors can walk out 4,000 feet above the canyons floor.
Navajo Tribe in the Grand Canyon
Situated east of the Grand Canyon, the Navajo Nation is currently the largest Native American tribe in terms of both geography and population. Their reservation spans 27,000 square miles, an expanse larger than 10 of the 50 states. Most of the reservation is located in northern Arizona, stretching west to Grand Canyon National Park, north into Utah and east into New Mexico. The tribe is made up of roughly 250,000 members, called the DinÃ©, who live on and off the reservation.
According to Navajo oral history, the DinÃ© were semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers until they began to farm like the Pueblo people. When the Spanish arrived, they learned to herd sheep and weave blankets from the wool. They are still known today for these intricate woven spreads.
In the early 1800s white settlers began to enter the land and push into the DinÃ© homeland. After years of struggle, the chiefs signed a peace treaty with the United States in 1868. This treaty allowed the Navajo people to return to their homeland. They continued to raise sheep and weave blankets and added silversmithing to their many talents. Navajo jewelry, commonly made with silver and turquoise, is still renowned for its beauty.
The Navajo Nation Visitor Center is in Window Rock, AZ, on the Arizona-New Mexico border, and the Navajo Interactive Museum is in Tuba City, Ariz., east of the Grand Canyon. Also visit the amazingly beautiful Monument Valley on the border of Arizona and Utah.
Read about the controversial tramway project proposed at the Confluence east of Grand Canyon National Park.
Hopi Indians in the Grand Canyon
Known as one of the oldest living cultures in documented history, the Hopi people trace their history back thousands of years to the Ancient Puebloan and Basketmaker cultures. The Hopis have resided in the Four Corners region where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado meet for the past 2,000 years. Today their 1.5-million acre reservation includes only a small portion of their traditional lands.
The northeastern part of Arizona where the Hopis live is known for its desert-like conditions. On average the area receives just 10 inches of rain and snow each year. A climate this arid makes traditional farming impossible, so instead the Hopis developed a new agricultural practice called dry farming. Rather than plowing their fields, they build “wind breakers” at intervals throughout the field to collect soil and moisture. This practice, in addition to gardening irrigated terraces along the mesa walls below their villages, allows them to grow rich produce, including corn, beans, squash and melons despite the harsh conditions.
Even today they consider themselves primarily farmers, although roughly half of all Hopi households have livestock and earn income from wage labor and the sale of arts and crafts.
The Hopi Festival of Arts is held annually in July at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, Arizona. http://musnaz.org/