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 arch.
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.
Although park 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.
Woods was 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 West.
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).
The following 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 remains.
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 sacred sites."
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 previous June.
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.
But 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 climbing.
"This amounts to impermissible government entanglement with religion," wrote Judge William Downes in his decision.
"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 away."
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.
Park officials say closing off the tower temporarily for Native American ceremonies is fully within the agency's discretion.
"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.
William Perry 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.
When 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.
The appeals 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' religious interest.
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 land.
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.
One of 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 backlash.
Somewhere under the rainbow
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 member.
"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."
Alston, however, like Liggett at Devils Tower, maintains that a voluntary request for visitors to stay back from Rainbow Bridge is completely within his authority.
"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 underworld.
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.
"It is 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."
Although 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 them.
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.
It's even 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 and death.
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 site.
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 bridge.
"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 tell
Off-the-cuff comments like Ralph's reveal some of the deeper issues beneath specific battles over sacred places.
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 cultures."
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 1886.
"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 Alamo.
Still, not all Native Americans want their side of the story told by federal land agencies.
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 opposes it.
"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 are.
"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."
Despite 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 Marr.
Looking for a new precedent
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 Court.
"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.
The 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 traditions.
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 services."
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.
At Rainbow 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, 303/292-2021.
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, Leeds, England.