This past fall while traveling out west mostly in Arizona and New Mexico, my husband and I traveled to Page, AZ to visit Antelope Canyon. This slot canyon was discovered a few years ago after a local farmer supposedly lost his cows and found them in this amazingly beautiful smooth-sided, red-walled canyon a few miles outside Page. It was on Navaho land and made famous by photographers who flocked there for the amazing light and color phenomenon of both the upper canyon and its more rigorous lower canyon. The Navahos give regular tours of both canyons and are very accommodating to tourists seeking good photographs of this spectacular place.
While in Page we found Antelope Canyon was not the only sight to see. There was Glen Canyon and the dam as well as Horseshoe Bend, a magnificent overlook of the Colorado River, and Lake Powell. We managed to schedule a rafting trip on the Colorado River to Lee’s Ferry but it was the 50-mile boat trip on Lake Powell that was mesmerizing. As one of the largest man-made lakes in North America, Lake Powell straddles the Utah-Arizona border. Named after the noted explorer John Wesley Powell, the lake supposedly possesses more shoreline than the Pacific Coast of the continental United States. The lake was created in 1963 when Glen Canyon Dam was completed, a controversial project at the time to say the least, but now the lake is a boater’s paradise. A boat is the best way to experience the vastness of Glen Canyon and to get a sense of what it was like before the dam was created.
We decided to do an all-day boat trip from Wahweap Bay to Rainbow Bridge National Monument, 50 miles on the lake from the marina, and then a 1½ mile hike into Utah. Other access points in Utah involve a 3 to 4-day backpacking trip and require a backcountry permit from the National Park Service. Traveling to the bridge, our tour guide filled us with stories of various overlooks, historical sights, and movie locations as well as wildlife. On reaching Hidden Cove and access to the trail to Rainbow Bridge, the waters grew stiller and calmer, and the mood quieter and more pensive.
You see, Rainbow Bridge is a sacred site to several Native American tribes, who regularly make pilgrimages there and hold special gatherings. The bridge reaches 290 feet into the sky, and its 275-foot span is supported on each side by its own canyon. Our guide on the boat was a Navajo woman named Melinda, and I had the opportunity to talk with her after spending time chatting with her adult son Benny as we were checking in. His mom had invited him on the trip, and he had a free day from university so he decided to come and spend some extra time with her as she worked.
Not everyone from the boat made the hike to the bridge as one could begin to catch glimpses of it from vantage points along the way but those of us who did found Melinda and Benny already there, telling those of us who made it about the Native American rituals that occur there regularly. Benny talked about the matrilineal nature of his culture as well as the history of the taking of the land from the Navaho and suggested we look up the films “Broken Arrow” and “The Long Walk,” the latter of which gets re-enacted every August 8 by native tribes in stages and who all meet up at Rainbow Bridge. Melinda was taking pictures of some of our boatmates under the arch of Rainbow Bridge but we felt funny about that, given the sacred nature of the space to the native cultures.
When we were back on the boat, I asked Melinda how she felt about the tours and the photo ops and shared the hesitation on our part to be photographed with the bridge as a backdrop. She shared a poignant story of talking to her maternal grandfather – an elder in the Navaho nation – about being offered this job as a guide to Rainbow Bridge. She was not sure she should take it and wondered if doing this guide service would belittle her, her culture, or the site or be sacrilegious in any way. Her grandfather listened carefully and then told her she was needed on this job and at Rainbow Bridge to ensure that the Navaho and Native American culture and history were not demeaned or forgotten. Melinda has faithfully tried to do that with her storytelling and conversation.
Melinda is divorced from her former husband, who was in the Navy and was also alcoholic, abusive, and of the Hopi tradition. She thought their mixed cultures were a factor in their separation and divorce. Her lessons to her sons focused on respectful treatment of women, telling them how they treated her and the grandmothers were indicative of how they would treat women in their own later adult life. She eventually enlisted their estranged father as the boys grew older to teach them how to be a man, and according to Melinda, the father stepped up and acknowledged his shortcomings to the boys.
Watching “Broken Arrow” after our trip, I was disheartened to see how ruthless the U.S. government was in their treatment of the native cultures. The land was deemed initially worthless due to its being barren, arid, and gray, seemingly lifeless, and thus appeared to be an easy ‘gift,’ so to speak until later when uranium, copper, and coal were discovered there. The government moved the tribes yet again without their sheep or livestock, their livelihood, giving them a mere pittance of what the land was worth to companies like Peabody Coal. I was also surprised to learn that the Nazis studied the United States’ treatment of the Native Americans as an example of how they should handle their presumed issues with Jewish culture.
When I hear or read about the possibility of reparations for former slave families, as in this New York Times article https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/19/us/reparations-slavery.html I am supportive of these actions but feel the families of former slaves are due a bigger acknowledgment than a sum of money, a heartfelt apology being the first place to start, showing an understanding of what was wrong with what our ancestors did.
I think about what Guatemala has tried to do with the Inca and what even Germany has tried to do with Jews whose property was confiscated. Money does not replace the lives that were lost or the suffering of those families. How do we change the culture to accept and treat the other as ourselves? How do we confer respect and dignity to those who are different? This is a much larger conversation for our country about acknowledging our history of bullying and brutalism in the past as well as currently in national and international arenas, occasionally in the home and workplace, maybe even within ourselves.
Rainbow Bridge National Monument has become symbolic for me as a reminder of our connectivity to all humanity, bringing diversity together in one magnificent whole. Jesse Jackson’s ‘Rainbow Coalition’ campaign of the 1980s and the LGBT movement’s ‘Rainbow Flag’ banner carry much the same weight.