RAINBOW BRIDGE, Utah - Western writer Zane Grey once described the graceful sandstone bridge spanning a side canyon off the Colorado River as the only place he'd ever been that didn't disappoint him.
It's easy to see why. Often
dubbed "the seventh wonder of the world," Rainbow Bridge, at 290
feet tall and 275 feet long, is the world's largest natural stone
But much has changed since adventurers
such as Zane Grey rode 60 miles by horseback across remote Navajo
and Paiute lands to reach Rainbow Bridge. When federal engineers
completed Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, Colorado River water eventually
flooded this side canyon.
Today, as many as
1,000 boaters from Lake Powell swarm the bridge daily. Tourists
sunbathe on towels, drink beer and listen to boom boxes. At one
point, it was even popular to dive off rocks beneath the arch into
the lake below. The atmosphere, at times, is that of a party.
The Park Service is trying to change that.
After five nearby Indian tribes complained that tourists were
desecrating an ancient place of worship by walking beneath the
arch, the agency built a shin-high rock wall in 1995 to discourage
visitors from leaving the viewing area. Park Service signs now
explain that the area is sacred to some American Indians and ask
visitors not to walk any farther.
officials say the signs request respect rather than command it,
many visitors are offended.
"We've been coming here and
walking under the bridge since 1974, so maybe you could say this is
our religion," says Fred Woods, an Anglo visitor from Mesa, Ariz.
Woods ignored the Park Service signs last summer to lead his
friends and family beneath the giant sandstone curve. As a small
herd of tourists followed, scornful onlookers back at the viewing
area audibly questioned their morals.
undaunted: "You come all the way to see it, then they tell you not
to get close to it because of someone else's religion. I don't see
how they can do that."
Agencies walk a difficult line
That paradox is
very much on the minds of government officials, Native Americans,
lawyers, environmentalists and wise-use groups all across the
After decades of taking little notice of
Indian concerns or even aiding the destruction of sacred places by
approving logging, mining or federal water projects, land managers
are now trying to protect places such as Rainbow Bridge. But as
they do, the same question keeps arising: How much can land
managers legally do to protect sacred sites?
Signs of altered management are apparent everywhere. Just as the
new signs appeared at Rainbow Bridge, Park Service officials in
Wyoming enacted a voluntary climbing ban at Devils Tower National
Monument for the month of June to accommodate American Indian
religious beliefs (HCN, 4/15/96).
summer in New Mexico, park officials closed the "great kiva" at
Chaco Culture National Historical Park after Navajos and Pueblo
Indians complained it had been defiled by tourists leaving
everything from crystals to cremated human
Then last spring in Santa Fe, N.M., a
regional Forest Service official overturned a local agency decision
approving a ski area expansion onto a mountain considered sacred by
some Native Americans (HCN, 4/29/96).
And at New
Mexico's Bandelier National Monument, park rangers are now keeping
secret the location of Lions' Shrine, two volcanic rocks carved
into the shape of lions. The shrine is sacred to members of nearby
Pueblos, especially the Cochiti Pueblo, and is also popular among
practitioners of New Age religions. Pueblo Indians complained of
finding strange offerings, such as antlers, beef jerky and even a
.38 caliber bullet, embellishing the shrine.
Federal laws, including the American Indian Religious Freedom Act
of 1978 and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979,
require strong protection of sacred sites. Perhaps more important,
so does the Clinton administration. In 1994, the president issued
an executive order directing federal land managers to consult with
tribes as they would with sovereign nations. In 1996, he told
agency officials to "accommodate the religious practices of Native
Americans, including actions affecting the physical integrity of
Yet land managers face
conflicting directives. They also have obligations to provide
access to the general public. If agencies stray too far toward
protecting Indian religions above others, they can be sued for
violating the First Amendment, which says Congress shall not
establish any religion.
That's what happened at
Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. When Superintendent
Deborah Liggett began a voluntary climbing ban in 1995 for
individual climbers, 85 percent of the climbers complied. In June
1995, only 193 climbers scaled the tower - known as one of the
premier crack-climbing spots in the world - compared to 1,293 the
That June, for the first time
since the volcanic butte was designated the nation's first national
monument in 1906, Indians from more than 20 Northern Plains tribes
held summer solstice ceremonies such as the Sun Dance without
groups of curious rock climbers looking on.
the following year, when the Park Service refused to issue
commercial climbing permits, one commercial climbing outfitter,
Andy Petefish, sued, and the local Bear Lodge Multiple Use
Association joined the lawsuit. Representing them is the Mountain
States Legal Foundation, a Denver nonprofit dedicated to preserving
property rights and the multiple uses of federal land. A U.S.
district court then granted a preliminary injunction, enjoining the
Park Service from prohibiting commercial
"This amounts to
impermissible government entanglement with religion," wrote Judge
William Downes in his
"The government is
trying to push us into a corner," says Jerry Knapp, president of
the Bear Lodge Multiple Use Association in Hulett, Wyo. "There's a
trend toward an interest in Indian cultures; I'm even interested in
it. The only thing I'm not interested in is having my rights taken
Although the Park Service rewrote its
climbing rule to remove any mention of a mandatory ban, both
parties went back to court this past April to resume the case.
Petefish still charges that signs asking non-Indians to stay away
from certain areas of Devils Tower, as well as the park's
cross-cultural educational program, violate the establishment of
religion clause of the First Amendment.
officials say closing off the tower temporarily for Native American
ceremonies is fully within the agency's
"Under law, we
have a special responsibility to work with American Indian tribes,
respect their views and make them part of the process," says
Superintendent Liggett. "But there are people who are mad that we
even let others in the game."
All sides are
watching for the court's decision, expected within the year. It
could have widespread implications for the recreational and
religious use of federal lands.
Pendley of the Mountain States Legal Foundation says that if his
group wins this case, there could be more lawsuits. Potential
plaintiffs are the Santa Fe Ski Area, climbers who were denied
access to Cave Rock near Lake Tahoe and tourists wanting to walk
under Rainbow Bridge.
religion meets the law
If someone does sue
protesting limited access at Rainbow Bridge, it won't be the first
time the stone arch has been argued about in court.
Ironically, one of the precedents Petefish and
his lawyers cite is a 1980 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
ruling which came after Colorado River water impounded by the new
Glen Canyon Dam began filling up Bridge Canyon.
The case was brought by Lamarr Badoni and other Utah Navajo
medicine men who wanted to prohibit public access to once-remote
Rainbow Bridge. They also wanted the reservoir to operate at half
its planned storage capacity. When full, they said, Lake Powell
would drown a holy water spring, a prayer spot and other religious
sites at Rainbow Bridge.
The court acknowledged
that Navajos "believe if humans alter the Earth in the area of the
bridge, (tribal) prayers will not be heard by the gods, and their
ceremonies will be ineffective to prevent evil and disease."
But the Navajos had no property rights, the
court said, because the site was named a federal monument in 1910,
more than two decades before the Navajo reservation was expanded to
include the future reservoir area.
court agreed with a Utah district judge that the federal
government's economic interest in building Glen Canyon Dam for a
major Western power and water project outweighed the Navajos'
Additionally, the justices
wrote: "Although Congress has authorized the Park Service to
regulate the conduct of tourists in order to promote and preserve
the monument, we do not believe (the Navajos) have a constitutional
right to have tourists visiting the bridge "in a respectful and
appreciative manner." Were it otherwise, the monument would become
a government-managed shrine."
The outcome of
Badoni vs. Higginson wasn't surprising to Native Americans. As
Steven Moore of the Colorado-based Native American Rights Fund
points out, not once have the courts saved a sacred place based
exclusively on Native American arguments that their right to freely
practice their religion was compromised or destroyed.
Ten years after Congress passed the American
Indian Religious Freedom Act, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision
ultimately showed the law to be toothless. The case involved a
logging road through an area sacred to several California tribes.
In Lyng vs. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, the
highest court ruled that freedom of religion doesn't apply to
Indians when it comes to destruction of their
While Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted,
in the majority opinion of Lyng vs. Northwest Indian Cemetery
Protective Association, that the road was "an extremely grave"
threat to the tribes' cultural survival, she said that the
government can't help but sometimes make decisions that adversely
affect the free exercise of religion.
"However much we might wish
that it were otherwise, government simply could not operate if it
were required to satisfy every citizen's religious needs and
desires," wrote O'Connor.
Yet less than a
decade later, here is the government trying to protect sacred
places like Rainbow Bridge.
There's a changing
ethic among land managers, says Patricia Parker, chief of the
American Indian Liaison Office for the National Park Service. While
the changes may seem as slow as glacial action to outsiders, agency
observers say this is the most ferment federal agencies have seen
over sacred sites in more than a decade.
the best examples is the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in northern
Wyoming, managed by the Forest Service. Several years ago, the
Forest Service listened to Indian concerns and scrapped elaborate
tourism plans for the area.
"We now have a comprehensive
plan that manages the site first and foremost as a traditional
cultural property and a sacred site," says Jack Trope, lawyer for
the Medicine Wheel Coalition, a group with representatives from
eight Northern Plains tribes. "It's a positive example."
But as agencies become bolder in protecting
Native American spiritual places, some critics say federal
employees have become missionaries for American Indian beliefs at
places like Rainbow Bridge. And that has sparked a
If anyone does sue at Rainbow
Bridge, it's likely to be an unassuming nonprofit of rock-arch
lovers, the Natural Arch and Bridge Society.
Last year, the group's members sent Glen Canyon National Recreation
Area Superintendent Joe Alston a detailed report outlining what
they saw as legal problems with the new signs at Rainbow Bridge.
"There are legal reasons for
restricting access to a particular site on public land, but
religion is not one of them," says Stan Jones, a longtime Lake
Powell historian and an Arch and Bridge Society board
"Joe is the best
superintendent Glen Canyon has had in 30 years, but we are going to
be very tenacious in fighting this, because it's just not legal,"
says Jones. "It's asinine."
like Liggett at Devils Tower, maintains that a voluntary request
for visitors to stay back from Rainbow Bridge is completely within
"Fundamentally, there will
always be an inherent conflict between the large number of people
coming to Rainbow Bridge and how Native Americans view it," says
Alston. "What we're trying to present is the whole story, not just
the Anglo side of it, but also the Native American perspective of
what this place is and what it means to them."
Under President Clinton's 1994 executive order, Alston must manage
Rainbow Bridge in a "knowledgeable, sensitive manner respectful of
tribal rights and sovereignty." He says that has meant drawing up
an understanding between the Park Service and five interested
American Indian tribal governments: the Navajos, San Juan Southern
Paiutes, Kaibab Paiutes, Hopis and White Mesa Utes.
The consultations have already led to changes
at Rainbow Bridge. For example, rather than paving the trail to the
bridge with asphalt, the agency used a pine-based hardener to
stabilize the path. Tribal officials said that paving would
restrict the passage of spirits to and from the
The Park Service also agreed to
delete descriptions of the two historic hiking trails from the
Rainbow Bridge pamphlet in the hope that it will keep people from
walking beneath the arch.
Some tribal members
have even asked Alston to prohibit all non-Indian visitors at
Rainbow Bridge, requesting a ban on boat docking. When Alston
refused, tribal representatives asked if visitors could be kept 750
feet back from the bridge. Instead, Alston decided on the current
200-foot buffer. And if any visitor wants to walk beyond the
viewing area boundary to the lofty arch that frames an azure sky,
that's fine, too.
absolutely not illegal for you to walk under Rainbow Bridge,"
Alston says. "A ranger might ask you if you noticed the sign, but
you will not be stopped; you won't get a citation. It's perfectly
your right to walk to the arch."
rangers admit it can be awkward to explain seldom-discussed and
often-conflicting religious beliefs of American Indians to
visitors, they try to preach respect.
"Just think if you went into
a church to see beautiful stained-glass windows and even though you
may not believe in that religion, there's some things you probably
wouldn't do, out of respect, like walking on the altar," explains
New Yorker Roxanne Kairimi, a seasonal ranger, to an irritated
woman who says she has hiked under the bridge for the past 16 years
and plans to keep doing so.
"You say we should do this
out of respect for the Indians, but isn't it disrespectful to us?"
counters the woman. "It's reverse discrimination."
Critics like to point out there is little
agreement among the five tribes who claim a spiritual connection to
the arch about what, if any, religious significance it holds for
Harvey Leake, the great-grandson of one of
the first white explorers of the area, says only two tribes - the
Navajos and Paiutes - have historical and oral records that connect
them concretely to the bridge. The other tribes, he says, were
brought in by the Park Service.
difficult to explain what it is about the bridge that makes it
sacred. One explanation comes from a Hopi story about the "sipapu'
- a gateway through which the souls of people come out of the
underworld and eventually return to it. The legend goes that the
souls of all humans were shut up in the Earth until the animals,
learning of the imprisonment, began digging. First Coyote and
finally a badger dug a cavelike hole deep enough to release the
souls. When the Earth is done with them, the souls must return
through the archlike gateway, leading to speculation that natural
bridges may represent to American Indians the doorway between life
To make matters even more
complicated, there is no single, organized Indian group pushing for
the changes at Rainbow Bridge. Although the Navajo Nation Council
has expressed support for the new policy, it disavowed any official
connection to a small group of Navajos and whites who blockaded the
bridge for four days in 1995 to hold a cleansing ceremony at the
Some critics even suspect that the protest
was organized by a married couple, a Navajo man and an Anglo woman,
who were frustrated that the Park Service wouldn't allow them to
operate boat tours to the
"All of this political
correctness has gotten out of control," concludes a visitor to
Rainbow Bridge, Don Ralph of Atlanta. "You know, if these Indian
tribes could build a casino on the other side of the arch, they'd
be begging us to walk through it."
More than two stories to
Off-the-cuff comments like Ralph's reveal
some of the deeper issues beneath specific battles over sacred
Now that they've become more powerful
economically and politically, Native Americans are asserting
sovereignty over their past by demanding the return of the bones of
their ancestors and pottery dug up by archaeologists on Indian
homelands. They're also demanding that agencies such as the Park
Service treat them like living cultures, not dead ones.
"That's where our stumbling
block has been," admits Jim Martin, superintendent of a Hawaii
park, who advances the idea of "spiritual proprietorship" by native
peoples of federal land. "The Park Service has done a very good job
of preserving antiquities, but it's had trouble dealing with living
Besides limiting access to sacred
places, federal land managers are working to make it easier for
indigenous peoples to collect ceremonial plants and animals.
They're also consulting with tribes and hiring Native American
interpreters to make sure the Indians' stories are told.
"It's all about creating a
balance," says Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument
Superintendent Gerard Baker. Baker has enraged some Western history
buffs with his efforts to make the 765-acre battlefield in Montana
more welcoming to descendants of the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux
warriors who crushed the cavalry led by George Armstrong Custer in
"I am proud to say I
catch hell from both sides," says Baker, a Mandan Hidatsa Indian
whose traditional braids trail from his Park Service hat to his
shoulders. "I am not "Indianizing" the battlefield. I am educating
visitors about both sides of the story. Although the battle was won
by the Indians, it was looked on as a very negative place that
forever changed their way of life. Here, their freedom ended."
The Park Service recently announced the winner
of a national contest to design a $2.7 million monument to
commemorate the 50 or so American Indians who died in the battle.
Present plans call for the monument to be serveral hundred yards
from the mass grave of Custer's 250 cavalrymen. Groundbreaking will
take place this summer.
To Bill Wells, publisher
of the Custer/Little Bighorn Battlefield Advocate, the monument
insults the memory of Seventh Cavalry soldiers. He suggests it's
like erecting a memorial to the Mexicans killed at the
Still, not all Native Americans want
their side of the story told by federal land
When the Park Service last year
proposed purchasing the site of the bloodiest Indian killing field
in the history of the Old West - the Bear River Massacre site, near
the Idaho town of Preston - the plan was met with vehement
opposition: Local landowners feared their rights to develop
property would be restricted.
The plan was also
met with opposition from nearby Indian tribes. Even Mae Timbimboo
Parry, a Northwest Shoshone who once championed the plan, now
"It's getting to
the point that I'm beginning to lose interest, because the Indians
wouldn't stand to gain anything," says Parry, 77. "They kicked us
off our land and now they would like to build a museum there. It
would be more for the tourists. It's a sacred area and a lot of
tribal members don't want white people tramping over Indian graves.
I think it's better to leave things the way they
"I worked on this plan
for as long as I can remember," continues Parry. "I grew up hearing
stories about the massacre, about how our ancestors fought with
pots and pans against men with guns. But today's young people don't
know the first thing about it. Our tribal members, like a lot of
Indians, can't agree on anything."
attitudes like this, the trend is toward protection of sacred
sites. Their success at the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, for example,
led members of the Indian coalition to help other tribes embroiled
in sacred-lands battles.
A more aggressive group
is the eight-month-old Alliance to Protect Native Americans in
National Parks. Initially formed by members of the Timbisha
Shoshone tribe who are fighting for a land base within Death Valley
National Park, the alliance is stirring the pot faster than park
officials like. Although its primary focus is to secure rights for
tribes living inside national parks, the alliance's lawyer,
Frederick Marr, says the group is also concerned with the
protection of sacred places.
The alliance now
includes the Miccosukees who live in Florida's Everglades National
Park, the Hualapais next to Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajo
Nation and five Sandoval Indian Pueblos in New Mexico. Marr adds
that many more tribes have expressed interest.
For some Westerners, the agenda motivating the alliance is clear:
What Indians really want is to have their native lands back.
"What a novel thought," quips
Looking for a new
Meanwhile, Indian leaders are still
hoping for a legal victory or for the laws to change. Robert Allan,
an attorney for the Navajo Nation's Division of Natural Resources,
believes legal precedents for exclusive access to sacred sites can
be found in cases involving the federal government's trust
responsibility to tribes.
Some would even like
to see the Devils Tower case go all the way to the Supreme
"I think there is a
fine line between allowing religious freedoms and not establishing
religion," adds Charles Wilkinson, a law professor from the
University of Colorado. Wilkinson says he does not think that
restricting access to Devils Tower involves establishing a
religion. "It was a reasonable management decision, especially
considering the federal government's trust responsibility."
Another legal twist in the Devils Tower case,
forwarded by lawyers from the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, an
intervenor on behalf of the Park Service, is that if the Park
Service has established religion at Devils Tower, it has also done
so at other national monuments and parks.
Cheyenne lawyers point out that twice a year at Tumacacori National
Historical Park in Arizona, the Park Service sponsors a Catholic
mass reenacting 18th-century religious
And in Texas, at San Antonio
Missions, the park's official brochure states the following:
"Please be considerate. The historic structures are fragile
resources. Help us preserve them for future generations. Remember
also that these are places of worship. Parish priests and
parishioners deserve your respect; please do not disrupt their
The question, then, is why should a
butte that is sacred to Native Americans be treated differently
than a mission or a church managed by the Park Service? Because the
butte is a natural feature and Native American religions are harder
to understand than Western ones? Or because hundreds of thousands
of tourists come to Devils Tower each summer to see the nation's
first monument - and the place where spaceships landed in Steven
Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
Still, Moore, of the Native American Rights Fund, admits that many
tribes are hard-pressed to find resources to focus on the
protection of sacred land. Many tribes face more immediate
concerns, such as federal recognition, economic development or
attacks on their budgets or sovereignty rights by the current U.S.
Congress. Many are still struggling for the basic needs of housing,
health care and education.
There are also
plenty of Indians who - whether it's because they practice
Christianity, live in a city or even work for a federal agency -
ignore the fights over sacred lands.
Bridge, on the same day that Woods brashly led his family beyond
the Park Service signs, a young Navajo couple stepped off one of
the 85-passenger boats that pulls into the Rainbow Bridge dock.
Without hesitation, they hiked past the Park
Service signs and walk beneath the arch. Later, after returning to
the designated viewing area, Harvey Laughter explained that Rainbow
Bridge holds no religious significance to him.
"To me," the Navajo man said,
"this is just a tourist attraction."
For more information, contact Steven Moore or
Walter Echo-Hawk at Native American Rights Fund, 303/447-8760;
Patricia Parker, chief of the American Indian Liaison Office for
the National Park Service, 202/208-5475; or William Perry Pendley
at Mountain States Legal Foundation,
Former HCN assistant editor
Elizabeth Manning is now a freelance writer. Chris Smith reports
for the Salt Lake Tribune.
These stories were paid for by a grant from The Onaway Trust,