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Celebrating 100 years of racism in Grand Canyon National Park

Updated: Jul 21, 2019

After nearly 40 years of advocacy by various people, the Grand Canyon region was formally declared a National Park in 1919 by President Woodrow Wilson. Teddy Roosevelt famously said, "Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see." As a white American, I was acculturated to view the National Parks as a triumph of conservation, an idea at the very heart of the term "public lands." A trip to the Grand Canyon region in 2011 changed all that.


My trip took me to the far less well-known area of the Grand Canyon that is the Havasupai reservation. The town on the reservation is called Supai, and it is the base for exploring Havasu Canyon and the beautiful waterfalls found there. To get to Supai, you walk 7 miles into the canyon, or you ride a horse, or you take a helicopter ride. There's no road to town from the highway up on the rim. The town has a small guest lodge, a store, a cafe, and not a whole lot else. In the gift shop you can find a small book called, "I Am the Grand Canyon," which will tell you the other side of Grand Canyon's story.


Roosevelt wanted to keep humans away from the Grand Canyon, but people already lived there. The Havasupai and their neighbors the Hualapai earned their living in part ranging across the many square miles of the Grand Canyon. The Havasupai could get one crop per year farming the canyon floor, where their reservation is now. The rest of the year they ranged the plateau, hunting and gathering for their livelihood. They were successful and are physically adapted to that life.


The land seizures began toward the end of the 19th century, as the US government began restricting the Havasupai's access to their traditional lands, in favor of giving allotments to white ranchers. The government continued to chip away at the tribe's access, until finally the creation of the Grand Canyon National Park and forced settlement in Havasu Canyon brought their way of life to an end. No longer able to range the plateau, the Havasupai have suffered a terrible loss of culture and health. They have one of the highest rates of diabetes in the country, and remain one of the country's remotest communities.


NBC news ran a short segment on the 100 year anniversary of Grand Canyon National Park. It makes no mention of the land seizures that made the park possible. The National Park Service has a webpage about the anniversary. That page notes that 11 tribes occupied the Grand Canyon before it was a National Park. It makes no mention of what happened to those people, or that the formation of the park lies in racism and land theft.


The local tribes' struggles with the National Park are not purely historical, either. Having been kicked off the land, the tribes have endeavored to find some small profit from the millions of visitors to the park by setting up stalls selling goods. Since the National Parks operate on a system of approved concessionaires, and (unsurprisingly) local tribes have had a hard time securing concessions permits, sellers may find themselves hustled away from parking lots and roadsides where they are trying to earn some money. The loss of land remains a sore point as well, and the Havasupai have pursued a series of court actions to recover a fraction of the land they once controlled.


I believe we have a responsibility as a nation to recognize that the establishment of some of our most treasured public lands involved the eviction of the historic inhabitants. The Grand Canyon is not the only place with a story like this.

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Portland Anti-Racism Team
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