Rainbow Bridge
Administrative History
NPS Logo

Issues and Conflicts I: Rainbow Bridge Religion and Navajo Legal Claims, 1863-1998 (continued)

The National Park Service spent much of the 1960s embroiled in numerous legal battles involving Section 1 of the CRSP and protection of Rainbow Bridge (see chapter 6). Between 1960 and 1978, the Secretary of the Interior and the Director of the National Park Service were sued four times by three separate groups. Rainbow Bridge and its particular relationship with Lake Powell was a never-ending source of controversy. Despite this atmosphere, the Park Service fostered certain relationships with care and concern. Between 1960 and 1975 the Park Service dedicated significant time and resources to developing a cooperative agreement with the Navajo Nation over fights, access, and commercial management at Lake Powell. The details of those negotiations are discussed in Chapter 7. Suffice to say that Park Service personnel were concerned with ensuring the Nation was treated fairly at Lake Powell while still maintaining a proper degree of visitor access at Rainbow Bridge. The Nation was more than stressed by the process of dealing with Anglo bureaucrats over issues it thought were non-issues. Navajos never understood or agreed with the need to comply with Park Service and Reclamation regulations and requirements concerning concessions and facilities at Lake Powell. The combination of this strained relationship with local Navajos and the reality check imposed by Badoni v. Higginson also compelled NPS to reevaluate its interpretive perceptions of Rainbow Bridge.

The mood of most Navajos after Badoni was subdued. They realized too late that the economic importance of water reclamation was more than their lawyers or prayers could manage. But the Park Service was not immune to the Navajos' needs at Rainbow Bridge. Badoni made it plain to the Park Service how the Navajo Nation felt about Rainbow Bridge. Badoni made public the Navajo belief that Rainbow Bridge was central to their origin story and that prolonged desecration of the bridge would not be tolerated. In internal memos written during the 1974 suit, the Park Service took stock of its secular interpretation of Rainbow Bridge. NPS maintained that its defense in the suit was not directed at Navajo beliefs about Rainbow Bridge. The plaintiffs, as part of the many claims for relief in Badoni, demanded that the Park Service restrict visitor access to the bridge in favor of Navajo religious use. As a matter of legislative mission the National Park Service was compelled to deny this request, adhering to the legal and legislative tenet that Rainbow Bridge was part of the public domain and must remain accessible to the public. Access could not be denied no matter who held it sacred. But the mood at the Park Service changed during the suit.

Thirty-eight days after the court issued a decision in Badoni, and months before the AIRFA passed, the Secretary of the Interior instructed Park Service personnel to begin accounting for Native American cultural resources in management and planning activities. The Secretary outlined this policy in Special Directive 78-1, which read in part:

In carrying out its mandate for the conservation and public enjoyment of park lands and their resources, the Service, consistent with each park's legislative history, purpose and management objectives, will develop and execute its programs in a manner that reflects informed awareness, sensitivity, and serious concern for the traditions, cultural values and religious beliefs of Native Americans who have ancestral ties to such lands. [229]

The purpose of SD 78-1 was to revise the Park Service's overall management plan to include Native Americans in significant and official ways. Even if the Park Service knew that the AIRFA was imminent, this was a bold step. The Park Service revamped its own policy to account for issues raised in both Badoni and the eventual passage of the AIRFA. SD 78-1 also directed local park and monument managers to encourage and foster Native American involvement in local policies related to cultural resource management, and planning. SD 78-1 was not ambiguous with its intent: "Where planning, development, or interpretation relate to Native American interests, consultation with Native Americans is very important."

Within two months, the Statement for Management for Rainbow Bridge NM was in flux. In January 1979, the Park Service completed an informal survey of all of its units regarding the potential for religious significance to Native American groups. While the report was cursory, it concluded, "it is generally understood that Rainbow Bridge has a sacred significance to the Navajo." [230] The Statement for Management for Rainbow Bridge was expanded to include discovery and development of the cultural significance of the bridge. By 1979 the Park Service developed and adopted a religious liaison program to meet the legal requirements of the AIRFA. The program appointed special liaisons to help with implementation of the specific tenets of the AIRFA. Consulting religious leaders from every tribe affected by the AIRFA was a key goal in the early 1980s. [231] In 1981 the Park Service completed a draft version of the Native American Relationships Policy (NARP), an extension of the religious liaison program. The Park Service realized that part of its mission, in light of the AIRFA, was to interpret in certain park areas the "cultural heritage of the Native American." The legislative intent of the AIRFA trickled down to Rainbow Bridge in the form of yet another revision to the monument's statement for management. The revised management objective was "to strive to foster and maintain a better cooperative relationship for the use and protection of the national monument with the Navajo Tribe." [232] The Park Service knew it could not remove the waters of Lake Powell from the monument; but, it was willing to accommodate the Navajo Nation to the best of its ability while staying within legal limits.

As plans solidified during the 1980s for equitable management of Lake Powell's resources, the Park Service undertook an ethnographic study project. Pauline Wilson, the American Indian Liaison for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (NRA), conducted numerous interviews with members of the local Navajo Nation chapters. The interviews were specifically designed to discern the level and type of religious activity engaged in at Rainbow Bridge. Based on these interviews, Wilson determined that Navajos "viewed their religious significance of the Rainbow Bridge as a very private activity." Wilson also noted that "in this situation, the public has impacted the Bridge so much that it has limited the religious activities tremendously since the lake establishment. Therefore, the Navajo People have adjusted to the impact rather than opposing the situation." [233] That lack of opposition did not last much longer.

To cope with the numerous command and control issues at Rainbow Bridge, the Park Service also began working on a General Management Plan (GMP) for the monument. The GMP went through numerous revisions before sufficient cooperative efforts produced the final draft. As a result, the Park Service realized that some of its management efforts made during the previous thirteen years did not address the expanding expectations of Navajos and tourists. More of the administrative details of the GMP are explored in chapter 7. But one of the major tools developed in the GMP was a framework for dealing with the religious issues surrounding Rainbow Bridge. An important part of this plan was limiting the number of visitors to Rainbow Bridge to approximately 400 people at one time (PAOT). [234] This constituted an overall increase in annual visitation but might reduce the maximum daily visitation during peak months. The first draft of the GMP also suggested that everyone who wanted to visit the bridge, including Navajos, should be required to obtain a permit and reservation prior to their visit. The permit proposal met with immediate criticism from both Navajo and Anglo sources. Alan S. Downer, the historic preservation officer for the Navajo Nation, said it was absurd to suggest that Navajos be required to obtain a permit to use something they had always considered sacred and holy. Speaking in the local press, Downer suggested other additions to the GMP: stricter limits on visitation, mandatory Navajo interpreters, and restricted traffic under the bridge. [235] Terri Martin of the National Parks and Conservation Association agreed with Downer, reiterating that the proposed visitation limits in the GMP would definitely result in overcrowding at the bridge and extensive ecological damage. [236] Martin suggested that the result would be "a carnival type atmosphere." [237] The Navajo Nation was certainly opposed to this possibility.

The first draft of the GMP, published in September 1990, was not an adequate response to the multifaceted concerns over Rainbow Bridge. The lack of local input was obvious. To remedy this problem, the Park Service involved the local chapters of the Navajo Nation even more closely than before. Each affected Navajo chapter held planning meetings to express detailed concerns over the GMP. Park Service officials were present at many of these meetings. The various drafts of the GMP that followed these input and planning sessions were significantly different from the first draft. Some of the modifications included limiting visitation during peak season to fewer than 300 PAOT. Revisions also suggested daily time restrictions on visitation, providing tour groups a limited window of four to six hours to see the monument. [238] By February 1992, the most recent draft of the GMP limited visitation to between 40 and 200 PAOT. It also included proposals for a reservation system and a shuttle service that moved people from a contact station outside the mouth of Bridge Canyon to the docks below Rainbow Bridge. [239] These changes represented the management direction most preferred by the Navajo Nation.

By June 1993, the final draft of the General Management Plan was ready. The visitation level was set at 200 people at one time during the peak season. The plan also recommended that NPS interpreters be assigned to all tour boats entering the monument. This part of the GMP had two purposes: to facilitate monument interpretation and to ensure orderly and appropriate ingress and egress at the monument docking facilities. While the GMP allowed for discouragement of visitor access to areas close to the bridge, the plan made no stipulation restricting visitors from approaching the bridge via approved trail access. The plan classified the entire monument a "natural zone." This meant that in addition to the bridge's proposed status as a traditional cultural property, the monument would be managed based on natural resource sensitivity and the potential for negative impacts to extant ecology. The bridge represented the outstanding natural feature subzone; by extension, NPS was to manage the monument based on concerns for the bridge's physical integrity and not just its importance to Native Americans. The final GMP made no attempt to restrict visitor access in deference to Native American use; in fact, the GMP referenced Badoni a number of times to reiterate the Park Service's mission to manage for the benefit of the general public. The final GMP also included an interpretive prospectus that mapped the history of the monument; the area's significance; the monument's cultural and natural resources; and, the history of the area's use coupled with Native American concerns. [240] But even the execution of a management plan would not help the Park Service avoid conflict or controversy in administering the monument.

Rainbow Bridge was a contested space as soon as it was first mapped. The debates ranged from who discovered what and when they discovered it to the controversial role of dams and reservoirs in the national park system to the responsibilities of officials charged with protecting the bridge from harm and preserving it for religious use. Navajos had long been present in the region, even when Anglos were nowhere near Navajo Mountain. The frustrations of some Navajos over religious use and restricted access came to a head in 1995. On August 11, 1995 a small group of Navajos and Anglos calling themselves Protectors of the Rainbow, announced that beginning immediately they wanted to deny public access to the bridge for a four-day period. They intended to perform cleansing and other religious ceremonies that they could not perform during the constant flow of tourist activity. [241] By 1995 over 1,000 tourists per day (during peak season) made the trek along Lake Powell into the monument. The Protectors of the Rainbow were angry that despite the best intentions of the Park Service, visitation had increased after the GMP was adopted in 1993 and abuses at the bridge continued. The Protectors of the Rainbow felt that the trust Navajos extended to the Park Service had been violated. "Many desecrations and defilements have been permitted by the Park Service during the 25 years in which the Navajo Nation has allowed the Park Service to conduct tours [at the bridge]," claimed the press release issued by the Protectors of the Rainbow. [242]

The Park Service responded with deference. There were no attempts made to remove the protesters, and the ceremonies took place without incident. [243] On August 15, four days after the protest began, the Protectors of the Rainbow ended their ceremonies and returned control of the bridge to the Park Service. In a post-occupation press conference, members of Protectors of the Rainbow said they wanted to demonstrate "Navajo sovereignty and to bring a renewed level of spirituality to the people." [244] The protestors also made references to frustrations over their failure to secure tour boat concessions from the Park Service. The Navajo Mountain Chapter of the Navajo Nation denied any affiliation with the protest, as did the Navajo Nation. Regardless, the event illustrated that some Navajos were not willing to watch passively while the bridge was continually over-crowded. The Park Service for its part became even more willing to do what it could to facilitate respect for Navajo beliefs at Rainbow Bridge while still adhering to its own legislative mission and the letter of the law as expressed in Badoni.

In July 1995, the Park Service placed a sign near the bridge asking tourists and visitors not to approach or walk under the bridge. The new signage was part of the requirements of a Programmatic Agreement (PA) signed by the Park Service and five Native American tribes that claimed cultural or spiritual affinity with Rainbow Bridge. The intent was not to physically prevent any visitor from approaching the bridge but to "discourage" such activity. In addition, the Park Service removed references in printed materials to the two historic trails so as to discourage excessive hiking in the region. The PA formalized plans to for a viewing area, located at the trail head. The viewing area was constructed from a natural Kayenta Sandstone platform bordered by small boulder. Rather than pave the trail to the bridge, the Park Service used a pine-based organic hardener to stabilize the trail. The organic hardener would not restrict the movement of Navajo spirits to and from the various under worlds. The one thing the Park Service could not do was require tourists to stay back from the bridge.

How far the Park Service could go in regulating visitor access and activity at a national monument was tested in Wyoming District Court in 1996. In February 1995, NPS managers at Devils Tower National Monument (NM) did two things. First, in their Final Climbing Management Plan (FCMP), they instituted a voluntary ban on climbing during the month of June, "in respect for reverence many American Indians hold for Devils Tower as a sacred site, rock climbers will be asked to voluntarily refrain from climbing on Devils Tower during the culturally significant month of June." In addition, the Park Service, placed signs along access trails to the Tower which indicated the lands off-trail were sacred to Native Americans. The signs asked hikers not to leave the trail. Lastly, NPS decided that if the voluntary ban was not sufficiently successful, it would encourage compliance by not issuing any commercial use licences for guided climbing activity. Facing issues similar to those at Rainbow Bridge, Park Service personnel at Devils Tower NM decided to defer to Native American interests through a dedicated policy of voluntary compliance. [245]

The policy continued through the 1995 season and commercial permits were denied in June 1995. The lawsuit came in March 1996 in Wyoming District Court. In Bear Lodge Multiple Use Association v. Babbitt, climbing guides filed suit based on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, arguing that the Park Service's express purpose for restricting commercial and private activity at Devils Tower NM was to promote Native American religion. [246] The Court split in its June 1996 decision. The Court held partly for the plaintiffs, ruling that refusing legitimate commercial activity permits for the purpose of securing private Native American religious access to the Tower was a violation of the Establishment Clause. But the Court also ruled for the Park Service on the constitutionality of their policy of voluntary compliance with not climbing during the month of June and voluntarily refraining from leaving the trails that accessed the Tower. The Court specifically stated:

The Defendants' efforts to fashion a voluntary program whereby climbers are encouraged to show respect for American Indian religious and cultural traditions is both laudable and constitutionally permissible. The Defendants' solicitous concerns for Indian religion and efforts to provide reasonably unfettered access to Indian sacred sites is also in keeping with the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act ("AIRFA"), 42 U.S.C.1996. Yet it must be remembered that the purpose of this act is to ensure that American Indians are afforded the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause and was not intended to grant rights to Indians in excess of those guarantees. [247]

The Park Service at Devils Tower NM subsequently modified the FCMP to allow for the Court's ruling, eliminating the ban on commercial climbing permits during June. The Mountain States Legal Fund, litigating on behalf of Bear Lodge, appealed the Court's second order concerning the constitutionality of a voluntary climbing ban. Eventually the Supreme Court refused to hear argument on the case and the Wyoming Court's opinion held in the absence of Supreme Court action. The Park Service had a firm idea of how far it could go to facilitate relations with Native American groups with respect to visitor activity at a national monument.

After Bear Lodge, and in consultation with Native American groups, Park Service personnel at Glen Canyon NRA modified the signage at Rainbow Bridge once more. In 1997 the Park Service placed a sign at the viewing area (250 feet north of the bridge) that asked visitors to voluntarily refrain from walking directly under the bridge. [248] Joe Alston, superintendent for Glen Canyon NRA, knew that any attempt to prohibit public access to the bridge in favor of Native American religious beliefs would be seen the same way the commercial climbing ban was interpreted at Devils Tower NM. Using the word "voluntary" clarified the intent of the Park Service's policy. The Park Service never intended to prohibit access to the bridge. Even Native American groups whom the Park Service regularly consulted agreed that total prohibition would not work. The contemporary policies concerning Native American religion and access to Rainbow Bridge are detailed more thoroughly in Chapter 8.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 07-Feb-2003