Making National Parks Accessible to Native People Again
While boarding the plane, we get the text. Mom was in the hospital.
My mother is a downwinder. She spent her early childhood in Kingman, Arizona, where the fallout of U.S. nuclear tests rained. She has nonsmoker’s lung cancer, diabetes, and blood clots. Now dialysis has entered the picture. She and my father left rural New Mexico for Phoenix, Arizona, when she first got sick. They figured big city doctors were better.
When my husband and I flew home that time in October 2017, we originally planned just a short visit to see my mom and dad. We’d use their house as a base camp, we had thought, fulfilling our filial duties before heading out for a two-week backpacking trek.
We’d loaded our backpacks with cold weather clothing, headlamps, two-person tent, sleeping bags, butane canisters, bug spray, powdered eggs, dry hummus—the usual stuff. But things didn’t go as planned.
Upon landing, we drove straight to Chandler Regional Medical Center. After four days, the doctors found the source of mom’s infection, and she stabilized. Dad told us to go on our trip anyway. He could see that we were tired of the waiting rooms, hurried doctors, cafeteria food. The white halls of institutionalized death are exhausting
As we jumped on the freeway to leave the suburban sprawl, I felt the pang of guilt. I was leaving my mother still in recovery. We were heading north to Sedona rather than southwest toward my homeland along the Colorado River and the Yuma Reservation where I was born and raised. Where most of my relatives still live.
Looking out the window as we climbed away from the valley’s buzz, I told myself my heart is in the right place. Far from being a rejection of my family, this trip would be a return to my spiritual values, I decided, a walking prayer for my ancestors and elders.
My bloodlines are more than half Native American, but thanks to the boarding school era, my elders all came from different tribes. My grandfather was born into the Quechan (Yuma) Nation in southeastern California, and I write about his traditions here.
We were delta dwellers, fish eaters, and bean growers living along the once-mighty Colorado. We thrived in an arid desert made fertile by the river’s rising. Every spring it busted its banks, and our people planted seeds when the waters receded.
We are a people of dreamers. Our way is the icama, a state of being that is more than ordinary sleep. Our elders teach us that our experience in the world manifests itself in two dimensions. Daytime experiences offer material gain; the dream world provides spiritual benefits. Nature writer Ellen Meloy writes about us as she hikes the canyons of our homeland, calling us sleepers “so laden with dreams that all during the day you carry them into waking thick as stones.”
The Yuma region is known for its geoglyphs, best visible from the windows of planes. Patterns, figures, and mazes cut into the desert by scraping off the dark top-layer of rocks to reveal the light-colored soil underneath. My ancestors hovered over the earth in their dream bodies, bringing designs from their sleep into their working day. They crafted routes followed by gods in the time of creation.
If I felt sad that my ancestors had been driven off these lands, I reminded myself that the land was still there.
Our people were whirled into existence in a windblown desert pockmarked by dust devils. Our desert trails are thousands of years old. Into the sandstone we roam, travelers, traders, long-distance trekkers, a people who find their sacred spaces with dreams and song. An old Arizona map I found in my basement refers to our beliefs in their legends: “Rock Maze built so the spirit of the dead could shake off the evil ones pursuing them in these tangled paths.”
I want to hike these tangled paths until I give my fears the slip. I want to exit the rock labyrinth with my peace of mind restored. I want to shake the anxiety of my mother’s impending death. Driving between Arcosanti and Camp Verde in the Coconino National Forest, my hospital headache started to fade. I couldn’t wait to tighten my boots and hit the trail.
My husband and I drove to the Red Rock Ranger Center to purchase our backcountry pass. I didn’t think twice about the $20 expense. The sandstone hoodoos—the spires, pinnacles, and cap rocks—are hard to maintain and protect.
When we arrived at the station, we found the parking lot packed with RVs, a gang of white-haired retirees milling around the information booth inside. The National Park Service’s centennial celebration had just ended, and the place was flooded with visitors. Looking around, I suddenly realized I was the only person of color in the station.
Only 22% of National Park visitors are people of color. The statistics are not surprising given the history of back country lynching and Native American removal campaigns. For many of us, America’s most stunning landscapes trigger memories of trauma. Survivors have nightmares in which they get hunted by blood hounds. To this day, the animalization of Native peoples as a tool for conquest makes some of us fearful of the outdoors: of sleeping outdoors without locked doors, or of being too closely connected to the outdoors in reductive, simplified, or romanticized ways.
Only twenty-two percent of National Park visitors are people of color.
My father grew up in the era when mountain resorts, alpine lakes, and soft sand beaches were labeled with signs that read “Whites Only.” He recounted a story about a powwow he went to with his family in the early 1950s. The Yuma Tribal Council rented an old school bus to take dancers and marching band members up north for the festivities, but as they passed through Sedona they were pulled over and harassed by the local sheriff and his deputies.
“We don’t like Indians in these parts,” they were told. The bus was turned inside out and their regalia were thrown on the side of the road. Dad said they were held for hours before the White bus driver finally managed to convince the sheriff it was OK to let them go. OK to let them go on the sacred land of their ancestors. OK to let them go, as long as the kids hiding and shaking under the bus seats understood that they didn’t belong.
Not me, I thought, as we chatted with the gang of RV owners in the visitor center. I had spent my adolescence in the 1980s sharing trails with White hikers and rock climbers all over the Southwest. But I had never begrudged anyone space on the trail. If I felt sad that my ancestors had been driven off these lands, I reminded myself that the land was still there, and I was still on it. Nothing was going to get between me and my sacred places.
Except perhaps the cost it took to get here after I moved away.
More than 20 years had passed since I last lived in the Southwest, and as we pitched our tent in Oak Creek Canyon and I plotted the week’s trails, I vowed to see the land and meet it where it was. Some things did not change, things I had somehow forgotten: the infinity pools at the top of mesas after an October rain, the sponginess of the wet soil under my boots, and the sound of mud falling off the bottom of the car like hail hitting pavement when we drove away. The enormous size of the crows and the way their wings make a scratching sound as they fly above you in a canyon.
Some things, on the other hand, did change: the cost of two eggs and a cup of coffee in downtown Sedona. The extra $10 per car and $2 per person fee at the start of the West Fork trail. The price of local real estate and the commercialization of the canyon with massage therapy, all-terrain vehicle tours, and other businesses catering to vortex seekers, outdoor enthusiasts, and retirees. The absurdity of the vision quest workshops and sweat lodge gurus charging tourists a mint.
My ancestors had wandered through here freely for centuries, but I saw no acknowledgement of my people or their memories.
When we approached the start of the West Fork trail, and a woman with a Make America Great Again hat told us we had to pay to use it, I broke down.
“It feels like Disneyland,” I told my husband. The trail fee wasn’t exorbitant. It was the principle of the thing. All around me I saw sacred beauty. My ancestors had wandered through here freely for centuries—it was their place to pray—but I saw no acknowledgement of my people or their memories. I had to pay a volunteer to visit.
Merrill Gates, chairman and then secretary of the Board of Indian Commissioners from 1899 to 1912, said losing the land was good for Natives. “We have to awaken in the savage Indian broader desires and ampler wants. To bring him out of savagery into citizenship we must make the Indian more intelligently selfish,” he said. He thought Native people had to learn the value of personal property, that we had to have “a pocket that aches to be filled with dollars.”
The capitalism in Sedona struck me, the way New Age seekers and retirees had transformed the place into something unrecognizable. My poorest cousins in Yuma would never be able to afford this place. And I wondered, if I had the money, would I live here?
Everywhere I looked I saw where money had purchased our Nation’s treasures. I resented this fact, but at the same time I knew it was greedy to wish outsiders away from this beauty. The sacred is meant for all.
Everywhere I looked I saw where money had purchased our Nation’s treasures.
My husband and I went to a diner to mull over our plan for the remaining days. We didn’t want to stay in Sedona. “Why don’t we hike down into the Grand Canyon?” I asked.
We both knew it was a long shot. Havasu and Beaver Falls have become famous for their aquamarine waters. The waterfalls sit on the Havasupai Reservation and the tribe only issues about 300 permits a day. Phone lines open on the first of February and spots for the entire season are filled within hours. Still, I decided to call them. I said nothing about being a Colorado River tribal member until after they praised my impeccable timing. I’d called on the heels of a cancellation.
The next day, we wended our way down the slot canyons and cottonwood-lined washes to the Havasupai’s tribal land. Once I told them I was an enrolled Quechan Yuma member, they refused to accept any payment for the nights we would stay there. “This is what Natives need,” I said as we hiked, a bit embarrassed to admit I wanted preferential treatment for my people.
But I do. Deeply discounted “senior passes” are offered to America’s retired citizens when they visit the great outdoors. Since the inception of the National Parks, pristine places have been set aside for wealthy individuals who need time off to relax. The concept of vacation—the eagerness to partake in the “wild” and feel a bit of nostalgia for yesteryear—is a privilege for those who can afford it. Vacationers drive prices up, too often holding local Indigenous populations at a distance from their own lands. My ancestors saw “wilderness” not as a place to retreat but as part and parcel of themselves.
My parents and grandparents were made sick by the loss of their land, by the development of the land, by the nuclear testing done on the land. When I return to Phoenix after our trip to the Grand Canyon, I stand by my mother’s bed and think of all my ancestors gave to this country to make it what it is today. I think of the blessing I received as I swam in Beaver Falls at the Havasupai Campground. Would giving the descendants of Native Americans, their grandchildren who too often struggle for a decent paycheck in America, free passes to visit their ancestral lands be too much to ask? Would showing an awareness of what our people sacrificed in the name of westward expansion and national security be a form of reparation?
Deborah Taffa teaches creative nonfiction at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of the memoir, “Whiskey Tender.”