Rainbow Bridge
Administrative History
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Issues and Conflicts I: Rainbow Bridge Religion and Navajo Legal Claims, 1863-1998

After Rainbow Bridge became part of the national park system, it was not long before it was caught up in numerous controversies. Immediately after the bridge was mapped and made a monument, members of the Cummings/Douglass expedition were embroiled in arguments over which white man saw the bridge first and which Paiute guide actually knew the way to the bridge. But the significance of Rainbow Bridge to certain Native American groups also became the subject of controversy. Given the historic presence of Native Americans near Rainbow Bridge, it was only a matter of time before the interests of Indian groups clashed with the interests of the monument's federal managers. While many peoples, such as the Hopi and the San Juan Paiute, considered Rainbow Bridge important to their origin stories, the most strenuous claims to the bridge's sacred status have been made by the Navajo Nation. These claims were eventually part of litigation that affected the way the National Park Service currently manages the monument. This chapter will detail the Navajo origin story as it pertains to Rainbow Bridge and identify the relationship between those beliefs and various lawsuits filed by the Navajo Nation to protect them. In addition, this chapter will explore the outcome of those lawsuits as pertains to NPS management policy at Rainbow Bridge.

While Anglo culture appreciated Rainbow Bridge for its aesthetic beauty and geologic uniqueness, Navajos have identified Rainbow Bridge as a sacred, religious site. They believe it is integral to the story of their emergence into this world. The ingress of Native American peoples to the Rainbow Bridge area provides some of the data to support Navajo claims to cultural and historical preeminence in the region. The hearth located at the foot of the bridge, excavated by Park Service archeologists in 1994, suggests a definite and early Native American awareness of the bridge. The non-secular cultural characteristics of these ancestral Puebloans also allows contemporary scholars to at least argue that the bridge was a source of worship during the last 1,500 years. But the incorporation of Rainbow Bridge in Navajo religious beliefs is more readily documented than suppositions concerning ancestral Puebloans. One of the problems associated with examining this subject is the set of academic standards in place that mitigates the veracity of Navajo claims on Rainbow Bridge. Too many historians demand a degree of quantitative proof that cultures who rely on oral tradition cannot provide. Neil Judd's comments in 1924 regarding the double standard of Anglo history were especially prescient with respect to Navajo religious claims on Rainbow Bridge.

Unfortunately, quantitative standards for proof do not mesh easily with the qualitative study of Native American religion. To understand the Navajo conception of the religious and cultural significance of Rainbow Bridge, one must make use of different conceptions about what merits belief and about what constitutes a legitimate belief structure. This is less problematic when coupled to the physical evidence that verifies a long-standing Navajo cultural tradition at Rainbow Bridge. That evidence includes detailed oral histories that document a pattern of religious belief involving the bridge; detailed descriptions of a primitive altar at the base of Rainbow Bridge prior to 1930; and, physical evidence of early Navajo existence in the region. What is important to remember is that one need not agree with the tradition that involves Rainbow Bridge religion in order for that tradition to have merit to Navajos. Their beliefs are as circumambient to them as the air they breath.

Part of the larger Navajo origin story includes the importance of the four sacred mountains. When First Man (Áltsé Hastiin) and First Woman (Áltsé Asdzáá) emerged into the Fourth World they created the four sacred mountains. After the first four Navajo clans emerged from a subsequent global flood, they moved into the area bounded by these four mountains. This was the original Dinétah (Navajo country). Those mountains are recognized today as San Francisco Peak, Gobernador Peak, Mount Taylor, and Mount Blanca. Some scholars argue that the Navajo origin story reveals much about the ontology of the Navajo people. The importance of place and the relationship of place to spirituality is evidenced in the four sacred mountains. The full account of the origin story reveals dozens of place-specific episodes that can be recognized in modern geography. Every nation, the Navajo included, has found tremendous nationalist spirit in places and place-specific events. [203] The Navajo belief structure is one that cannot be separated from the natural world. Mountains, water, and various natural features imbue their religion just as edifices and geographies underpin Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. The Navajo origin story also informs their value structure and social organization. It is not hard to discern the Navajo desire for order and their devotion to clan-based politics from their story of the world's beginning. The fact that Navajos pray to certain gods and assign importance to the location in which those prayers take place only evidences their dedication to polytheism in the face of other people's commitment to monotheism. It certainly does not mitigate their value structure on a comparative level; after all, much of the world's current population is polytheistic.

For this administrative history, oral interviews with residents of the Navajo Mountain community were conducted to elaborate on the role of Rainbow Bridge in the origin story. These interviews revealed much of the common belief in Rainbow Bridge as an instrument of spirituality and religious significance. Most of the interviewees had lived in the Navajo Mountain/Rainbow Bridge area their entire lives, as had their parents and grandparents. The stories they shared form the basis of the traditional origin story detailed below. [204] In this account, the first people were born in the Black world, home to spirits and holy men. Áltsé Hastiin (First Man) was born in the east out of a union between the white cloud and the black cloud. Born with him was Doo Honoot'ínii (the first seed corn). In the west, yellow cloud and blue cloud met and made Áltsé Asdzáá (First Woman). She arrived with yellow corn, white shell, and turquoise. Cooperation was a virtue in the Black World, demonstrated by Insect Beings. Other beings also lived in the Black World, including Wasp People, Bat People, Ant People, and Spider Woman. But infighting and bickering led all these beings to move up to the Blue World. They carried with them all the evils of the Black World.

In the Blue World, beings from the Black World found new beings, including large insects, feathered beings, wolves, and mountain lions. After much quarreling, Áltsé Hastiin conducted ritual prayers and feasts so all the beings could proceed to the Yellow World. In the Yellow World, there were six mountains and no sun. The original travelers also discovered snakes, squirrels, and deer. Unfortunately, Coyote came to this world with Áltsé Hastiin and Áltsé Asdzáá. In the Yellow World, Coyote caused problems. The inhabitants of this world watched as the clouds began to gather, first in the east, then the south, west, and north. The clouds came together and rain began to fall. The water rose all around them. They knew they must escape to the Fourth World to avoid drowning. They planted many different tree species, hoping one would grow tall enough for them to climb up and escape the flood. After each tree proved too short, they planted a giant reed, which grew into the heavens. Locust volunteered to lead the group to safety. They moved up the hollow core of the reed to safety.

Unfortunately, Coyote decided to cause mischief during the escape. As Coyote watched the rising water, he noticed the child of Tééhooltsódii (Water Monster). Coyote decided he wanted to keep the child and raise it as his own. He took the child and hid him from Tééhooltsódii. In response, Tééhooltsódii made the waters rise up the reed behind the group, which threatened to drown everyone. The group pleaded with Coyote to give the child back to Tééhooltsódii. After pleading with Coyote four times, Coyote released the child. To appease Water Baby's parents, the group made offerings to Tééhooltsódii and the water receded enough for the group to escape. At this time, the Glittering World was inhabited by gods and spirits. There were no humans. Locust surveyed the land after emergence and found it covered with water. Big Horn Sheep dug canyons with his horns so the water could escape to the ocean. This is how canyons were formed. Locust then decided that fires should be lit so the gods would know of the group's presence. It was in this world that the first sweat bath was taken and the first hogan was built. The stars were placed in the great sky. In the Glittering World developed the seasons and the harvest. When the first emergents spied Navajo Mountain in the distance, they regarded it as the Head of the Earth.

It was at this point that two of the most important figures in Navajo religion appeared: the Hero Twins. After the first fires were lit, Áltsé Hastiin and Áltsé Asdzáá noticed tracks that led to the west. Part of the group decided to follow the tracks. The tracks were left by White Shell Woman's children, born to her after the Sun committed adultery with her before the emergence. These children are known to the Navajo as the Hero Twins: Naayéé' Neizgh´ní (Monster Slayer) and T&ocaute; Baj&icaute;sh Chini (Born For Water). To travel to the western oceans and visit White Shell Woman, the group used rainbows to cover great distances. As the group proceeded west, they encountered the many monsters and evil spirits that were byproducts of the Sun's adultery. After visiting White Shell Woman in the west, the group returned with the Hero Twins, hoping they would grow up to battle the monsters and evil spirits.

Once they had returned to the Navajo Mountain area, holy men from the group placed the magic rainbow in the safest place they could: Bridge Canyon, below Navajo Mountain. The rainbow then turned to stone. Monster Slayer and Born For Water were raised in the cradle of Bridge Creek and the stone rainbow formed the protective handle of their cradle board. After they reached maturity, and discovered the Sun was their father, they traveled to visit him. They used the rock rainbow to ease their journey. The Sun tested his sons thoroughly during their trip and rewarded each of them with a weapon so they could battle the monsters. To Monster Slayer the Sun gave Lightning That Strikes Crooked. Born For Water received Lightning That Flashes Straight. The twins returned home and defeated most of the monsters. The monsters that were allowed to survive personified old age, lice, hunger, and death.

Monster Slayer and Born For Water went again to visit with the Sun. This time, the Sun gave them gifts from the four directions. In exchange for giving them these gifts, the Sun received the ability to destroy all beings who lived in houses. This was very important as many of the surviving monsters were children of the Sun. The Sun precipitated an immense flood which covered the earth and destroyed most living things. The Holy People saved one man and one woman and pairs of all the animals. In the wake of the flood, Asdzáá Nádleehé (Changing Woman) established the first four clans: Kiiyaa'áanii (Towering House), Honágháahnii (One Who walks Around You), Tó Dích'íi'nii (Bitter Water), and Hashtl'ishnii (Mud). The four clans settled inside the area bounded by the four scared mountains.

All of the residents of the Navajo Mountain community interviewed for this administrative history detailed the same origin story. The only deviations that occurred were in the minute details that some respondents were hesitant to reveal. These people consider those details part of their identity as a people and therefore not open to public consumption. The Navajo are still very much an oral culture. The lessons contained in the entire origin story are meant to serve as lessons for Navajo children. What specific substances were offered to which gods or the details of various ceremonies are told from Navajo parents and grandparents to Navajo youth, not to whites or other interested parties. The Navajos interviewed for this history spoke often about cultural ownership and identity regarding their stories. But Anglo misunderstanding of Navajo life ways has a long history.

The clan-based Navajo socio-political structure was at odds with Anglo (mis)conceptions of Native Americans at least as early as the 19th century. Navajo tribal historian Bill Acrey, tracing the development of the modern Navajo nation, found that the initial contact between Anglos and the Diné was laden with the classic repugnance of Anglo attempts to mold Navajos into yeoman farmers. [205] In the period between 1846 and 1860 there were more than five separate treaties of peace, all initiated by United States military commanders in response to livestock and slave raiding conducted by the Diné. Each of these treaties contained some provision which demanded Navajos stop raiding and embrace the farming ethic of the expanding United States. The lack of cultural understanding on the part of military personnel led to the demise of every treaty. For example, the Treaty of Ojo del Oso in 1848 forbade the Diné from raiding into New Mexico settlements because the United States was no longer at war with the Mexicans. This made no sense to Diné leaders because the Diné believed that an enemy was always an enemy regardless of political climate. American treaty negotiators continually made the assumption that there was some central form of leadership among the Diné. American military personnel assumed that those Diné leaders who signed the various treaties represented all the Diné. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Diné signatories knew that they only represented their individual bands and that those bands not represented in signature on the treaty would never abide by its terms. These were just a few of the cultural misunderstandings that occurred between 1846 and 1860.

In 1863, the enmity that had formed between the Diné and the U.S. military culminated in the Bosque Redondo War and the military defeat of the Diné. Leading a scorched earth campaign, Kit Carson brought the Diné to their knees by late 1863. At that point, all the Diné that could be rounded up were marched through the winter months and incarcerated at the Bosque Redondo reservation, located at the newly erected Fort Sumner. The Diné endured four years of starvation and disease but persevered to a palatable solution. In 1868, the Diné successfully negotiated the Treaty of Bosque Redondo and were allowed to return to their ancestral homelands. The red rock mesas and canyons that the Navajo returned to formed the original Navajo reservation. In addition, the treaty stipulated that livestock would be returned to the Diné. As a result of both perseverance and excellent husbandry techniques, Navajo and livestock populations increased every year after the incarceration at Fort Sumner.

In every region of the Navajo Nation's current geography, the origin story has its permutations. To the western Navajo, Rainbow Bridge and Navajo Mountain are an integral part of the origin story. Both locations are also key elements in various ceremonies conducted by Navajo singers or medicine men. There have been numerous attempts to document the role of Rainbow Bridge in Navajo religious belief. In the early 1970s, when Lake Powell waters started encroaching on the bridge, a group of Navajo singers filed suit to protect their religious freedom. The specific claims of that suit are dealt with later in this chapter. As a result of the suit, however, a stunning piece of oral history was collected. In an effort to put into writing what had long been oral culture and custom, a group of Navajo singers provided their oral histories to Karl W. Luckert, an ethnohistorian from the Museum of Northern Arizona. [206] The result was a sincere attempt to do justice to the Navajo tradition involving Rainbow Bridge in a form that non-Navajos would see as legitimate.

Like most ethnohistorians, Luckert tried to place the religious significance of Rainbow Bridge and Navajo Mountain in the proper historical context. For many of the Navajo singers interviewed as part of Luckert's project, Rainbow Bridge and Navajo Mountain were considered sanctuary from the ravages of Kit Carson's campaign against the Diné. At the time, many Navajos still held fresh memories of tribal experiences with the United States military and of the incarceration at Fort Sumner. But there were many Navajos who eluded Carson and avoided Fort Sumner altogether. Those Navajos hid in the numerous canyons of northern New Mexico and southern Utah. In addition to the role of the bridge in Navajo emergence, the added element of sanctuary endeared both Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge to contemporary Navajos. It was in those terms that Luckert's interviewees figured Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge as key fixtures in the story of Monster Slayer. The Navajo people refer to their sacred mountain in the northwest of their reservation not as "Navajo" Mountain but as Naatsis'áán (Earth Head). [207]

In the oral histories collected by Luckert, all the interviewees told basically the same story with regard to Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge as those stories collected in 2000 for this administrative history. The origin story that was taught to Navajo singers included Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge. That story also included the modern details of a group of Navajos attempting to evade the United States military. Fleeing Navajos perceived the fortuitous location of Navajo Mountain as a sign that their gods were watching over them. They perceived the canyons of the region to be gifts from Head of Earth. Whatever their motivations or proclivities, the fact is that all Navajo singers interviewed by Luckert couched their origin story in the benevolence of Navajo Mountain and the peculiar beauty of Rainbow Bridge. Each interviewee recalled in some form that in the days when humankind was born, Monster Slayer was transferred and born and raised in Bridge Canyon. When the Navajo were threatened, Monster Slayer (clothed in an armor of flint) and the Head of the Earth placed themselves as shields between the Navajo and Kit Carson. This event still echoes in the formalized Protectionway prayers of contemporary singers. [208]

Dozens of ceremonies were and still are conducted at Rainbow Bridge. The most common ceremonies conducted there during the period of Luckert's interviews were Protectionway, Blessingway, and rain-requesting. [209] In a 1974 affidavit filed as part of a larger suit to remove Lake Powell waters from Bridge Canyon, Navajo singer Nakai Ditloi recounted the tradition of Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge:

I have conducted countless religious ceremonies and sings throughout the area surrounding Rainbow Bridge and Navajo Mountain. Rainbow Bridge is extremely sacred to the Diné, as 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.

When the Diné were emerging from the east they stopped at a large mesa near Navajo Mountain to make a home on the mountain for Lageinayal. He is the god who was given lightning to create rain. His name means "came into being one day." In gratitude for his home on Navajo Mountain, Lageinayal promised to protect the Diné and look after their well being. Sometime later, a group of the Diné left this home with a god named Danaiize. He has the power to create and to travel on the rainbow. The Diné reached a canyon which they could not cross. Danaiize told them he would create a rock rainbow which would be a bridge for the Diné. It was in this way that the Diné were able to cross the Canyon of the Rainbow Bridge. [210]

Much of this interpretation is confirmed in the oral histories collected by Luckert. Floyd Laughter, another Navajo singer, recounted that "the Rainbow was left for prayer and offerings to the power of the Holy People." This account was echoed by other interviewees as well. [211]

There was another common understanding among various interviewees regarding Rainbow Bridge: the existence of a "sacred" spring below the bridge in Bridge Canyon. In 1974, Nakai Ditloi detailed for the courts his recollections of the spring and the specific ceremonies that were performed there:

There is a cave down the canyon from Rainbow Bridge. Medicine men come from all over the reservation to meet in this cave. There is also a sacred spring in the canyon near the cave. It is called "clear body male and female water." Its water is used in the prayers and to wash the sacred bundles of the medicine man. Ground turquoise and shells are given to the spring to aid in the prayers from rain. Prayers are renewed and knowledge of the earth and the ways of the Diné is increased when the medicine men come to the cave. [212]

All of Luckert's interviewees confirmed the existence and location of this spring. Floyd Laughter also remembered the spring as where Spring Person lived. It was located at the base of the slope of Rainbow Bridge. It was there that singers said prayers for wealth, for livestock, for jewelry. They also conducted raiding prayers and protectionway ceremonies at this sacred spring. [213]

The other detail that most Navajo singers agreed on was the identity of the Navajo man who first brought them, or their fathers, knowledge of the bridge. His name was Áshiihí bin áá' ádiní (Old Blind Salt Clansman or Old Hashkéniinii). This was the same man who told Louisa Wetherill about the bridge in 1907. It was Áshiihí bin áá' ádiní who helped many of the 20th century singers with the rites associated with Rainbow Bridge. The one obvious problem with Luckert's interviews was the misconception that Navajos did not arrive near Navajo Mountain until the 1860s, being chased there by Carson. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Celone Dougi, Áshiihí bin áá' ádiní's granddaughter, was interviewed for this administrative history in 2000. She said that her grandfather had always been here, along with many other Navajos. Most of the Navajos and Paiutes interviewed for this administrative history were able to recount a long lineage in the Navajo Mountain area, remembering relatives born near the mountain as far back as the 1820s. But what is important is that most Navajo singers and other residents from the region credit Áshiihí bin áá' ádiní with both early knowledge of the bridge and its associated religious rites. [214]

It is unlikely that Navajos were the only people to find religious significance in the bridge. A fair argument can be made that early inhabitants of the region found the bridge and likely prayed there. The existence of the hearth excavated at the foot of the bridge (see chapter 2), the proximity of ancestral Puebloan dwellings, and the number of other pre-Puebloan sites a short distance from Bridge Canyon makes it likely that early inhabitants of the region found the bridge. Besides the oral tradition of Navajo religious beliefs involving Rainbow Bridge, there is other, albeit limited, physical evidence of religious worship at the bridge.

After the Cummings/Douglass expedition reached Rainbow Bridge on August 14, 1909, members of the party fanned out to explore the immediate vicinity. Cummings observed a small "fire shrine in the shadow on the bench at one side." [215] The details of the location are important in their comparative value. Cummings' observation put the shrine on the north side of the bridge, which would have been shadowed by a noon sun climbing into the sky above Bridge Canyon. Judd reported seeing the same shrine. He wrote that "near the down-curving buttress, but slightly to one side, is a small heap of stones inclosing a slab sided receptacle, the altar of cliff dwelling peoples who roamed this canyon country long before the Navaho [sic] won it for themselves." [216] William Douglass made a similar note. He reported that "almost under the arch, on the north side of the gulch [was] the wall of some small prehistoric structure in front of which slabs of sandstone set on edge outline an oval 3x5 feet—an altar . . . ." [217] Temporal and cultural observations aside, the consistency in these descriptions allows some suppositions to be made regarding the non-secular traits of early inhabitants of the region and the possibility that they worshiped near the bridge. Before 1930, other travelers to the bridge noted the stone altar as well. Notable among these visitors was Theodore Roosevelt. He described what he saw as "the ruin of a very ancient shrine." [218] It seems clear that before the 1930s, when someone or something destroyed the altar-like structure, Rainbow Bridge was used as a worship site.

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Last Updated: 07-Feb-2003