Tucked away among the isolated canyons at the base of Navajo Mountain is a geological feature known as the Rainbow Bridge (shown above in a National Park Service photograph). For the Indian people of the Southwest – the Navajo, the Hopi, the Paiute, the Ute – this ancient place is sacred. Archaeological evidence and oral tradition show that this area has been used by American Indians for more than 13,000 years.
For thousands of years, hunting and gathering bands camped in the area and harvested wild game (including mountain sheep) and wild plant foods. The earliest evidence for Indian occupation of the region dates to about 11,500 BCE. During the period which archaeologists call the Late Puebloan Period (700 to 1300 CE), ancestral Puebloan peoples in the area planted small fields of corn, beans, squash, and cotton.
The oral histories of the Hopi clans show a strong link between Rainbow Bridge and Navajo Mountain and the Hopi people. According to Hopi tradition, the Snake People from Navajo Mountain (Toko’ nabi) were the first people to come to the southern Hopi mesas. Rainbow Bridge is mentioned in the Hopi stories as a source of aboriginal knowledge. Rainbow Bridge is also seen by the Hopi as a site of refuge and during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 many fled north to this area.
For the Navajo (who call themselves Diné), Rainbow Bridge is an integral part of their origin stories which tell of their emergence into this world. As with other Native American nations, oral traditions and spirituality are intimately connected to geography. The landscape is a part of the oral tradition, the spiritual heritage of the Navajo. For the Navajo, Rainbow Bridge is the place where Monster Slayer and Born for Water returned to the earth’s surface after coming back from their journey to Father Sun.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, relatively few non-Indians—trappers, prospectors, cowboys—had seen Rainbow Bridge and its existence was unknown outside of the Indian nations of the area. In 1909, however, this changed when two expeditions began searching for the legendary span. With the aid of Paiute guides Nasja Begay and Jim Mike, the expeditions saw the bridge and as a result its presence was communicated to the non-Indian world.
One of the features observed by the members of the first Euro-American expedition to the bridge was some type of shrine or altar at the foot of the bridge. This altar was also noted by Theodore Roosevelt when he trekked to the bridge in 1913.
In 1910, President William Howard Taft created Rainbow Bridge National Monument by executive order under the 1906 Antiquities Act to preserve this "extraordinary natural bridge, having an arch which is in form and appearance much like a rainbow, and which is of great scientific interest as an example of eccentric stream erosion." As a result of this publicity several well-known non-Indians, including Teddy Roosevelt and Zane Gray, made the long trek to see the Rainbow Bridge. While it was designated as a national monument, Rainbow Bridge was isolated and out of the way of tourists. Thus its sacred nature was undisturbed.
Archaeological surveys conducted by Charles Bernheimer in 1920 and 1921 provided some limited data on the aboriginal inhabitants of the area. David Kent Sproul, in his National Park Service report on Rainbow Bridge, notes:
“Bernheimer made no qualitative effort to categorize the sites he and his team located nor to accurately characterize the contents of those sites.”Following World War II, tourist traffic to Rainbow Bridge increased as people began to travel up the Colorado River to the area. Still, the fastest way to get to the area – using jet boats – took three days.
The Glen Canyon Dam (shown above) was authorized by Congress in 1956. Following the authorization of the dam, the Bureau of Reclamation contracted with the Museum of Northern Arizona and the University of Utah to conduct archaeological surveys of the areas which were to be inundated by the dam’s reservoir. The survey teams reported eleven sites in the Rainbow Bridge area, including granaries, small housing structures, terraced garden plots, chipped hand-and-toe-hold trails, and petroglyphs.
In 1963, the gates on the dam closed and rising Lake Powell began to engulf the river and its side canyons. Higher water made access to Rainbow Bridge much easier, bringing thousands of visitors each year. In order to facilitate the tourists the National Park Service installed a dock in the area.
In 1974, Navajo spiritual leader Nakai Ditloi testified:
Rainbow Bridge is extremely sacred to the Diné, asIn 1977 Navajo religious leaders brought suit against federal officials over Rainbow Bridge. The Navajo contended that flooding of the area caused by Glen Canyon Dam and the intrusion of tourists interfered with their religious practices. They asked for a prohibition against beer drinking at Rainbow Bridge and that the Monument be closed during native ceremonies. The district court ruled that their lack of title to the land and the public interest overrides their claims.
are many of the sites and much of the area surrounding the Bridge. The water from the lake has already entered the Canyon of the Rainbow Bridge and has covered the grounds sacred to the Diné.
In 1978 Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act which was designed to pro-tect and preserve traditional religious practices, including access to sacred sites. Many Indian religious leaders thought that this act would give them a voice in the management of the Rainbow Bridge National Monument.
The Navajo continued to pursue their case, known as Badoni v Higginson. In 1980 the Tenth Circuit District Court ruled that low cost electricity created by Glen Canyon Dam and tourism to the Rainbow Bridge was in the public interest and this superseded Navajo religious rights. Furthermore, the Court ruled that accommodating Navajo religious practices would make Rainbow Bridge a shrine managed by the federal government and thus a violation of the First Amendment. With this ruling the court gutted the religious freedom guidelines set forth in the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
In 1993 the National Park Service adopted a management plan which included the creation of the Native American Consultation Committee. As part of the planning process, the National Park Service consulted with the five Native American nations affiliated with Rainbow Bridge: the Navajo, Hopi, San Juan Southern Paiute, Kaibab Paiute, and White Mesa Ute. Chief among their concerns was that Rainbow Bridge – a religious and sacred place – be protected and visited in a respectful manner. Additionally, the tribes expressed concerns about visitors approaching or walking under the bridge. Today, the National Park Service simply asks visitors to visit this site in a manner respectful of its significance to the people who have long held Rainbow Bridge sacred.
In 1995, the Protectors of the Rainbow took control of the Rainbow Bridge National Monument for four days in order to do cleansing ceremonies.
In 1996, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13007, the Indian Sacred Sites proclamation which stated that federal lands were to accommodate access and ceremonial use of Indian sacred sites by Indian religious practitioners. In addition, managers were to avoid adversely affecting the physical integrity of sacred sites.
In 1997, members of the Natural Arch and Bridge Society (NABS) vehemently voiced opposition to the Park Service’s cultural interpretation of Rainbow Bridge. They argued that the Park Service was supporting Native American religion through its interpretation of Rainbow Bridge. According to NABS, the Park Service was violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and proselytizing Navajo religion. They were oblivious to the fact that Navajo religion, unlike Christianity, neither seeks nor accepts converts. David Kent Sproul writes:
The NABS had always been offended by Park Service policies which discouraged visitors from approaching or walking under the bridge.In 2000, NABS filed suit in U.S. District Court claiming that Park Service policies prevented visitors from approaching the bridge unless the visitors were Native Americans engaged in religious activities. They argued that the Park Service decision to “allow” the Navajo to conduct rituals at the site supported religion. In 2004, the court dismissed the suit.
With the Bush administration’s position on energy resources, the Navajo call for the removal of the dam was not well received. During the Bush administration, Navajo medicine men were harassed by federal officials for holding religious ceremonies at the Rainbow Bridge.
Rainbow Bridge has been and continues to be the site of many important Navajo ceremonies, including Protectionway, Blessingway, and rain-requesting ceremonies.
With regard to tourism, the National Park Service reports that the Rainbow Bridge National Monument has 85,000 visitors per year.