Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Tribal co-management of U.S. National Parks (Part I): Canyon de Chelly National Monument

The National Park system is often portrayed as the United States’ crown jewel, the one thing that we have that no other country does. Frederick Law Olmstead, the mind behind Central Park (and the Wooded Island near where I grew up), set the stage for the National Park System in 1865 as Chairman of the Board of Commissioners for the development of Yosemite. Though at the time Yosemite was just tract of land gifted by the Federal government to the state of California for the purposes of “public use, resort, and recreation,” Olmstead saw it as a place for ordinary people to contemplate the natural world to maintain perspective on industrialization. Yosemite became a template for the rest of the National Park System.

Today, the United States has 425 National Park sites managed by the National Park Service (NPS). Those 425 parks constitute 3.5% of the land in the United States. Today, only four of those 425 National Park sites are co-managed with Tribal Nations. They are Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Grand Portage National Monument, and Big Cyprus National Preserve.

Olmstead’s idea of a National Park completely ignored the people already living on the protected land. In managing our National Parks, the NPS has largely done the same. Each blog post in this series will cover the co-management of one of the four parks that works with Tribal entities.

Canyon De Chelly National Monument

N.B. The Diné are the sovereign people of Canyon de Chelly and the surrounding area. The federal designation for the Diné’s government is the Navajo Nation. To avoid confusion, I will use the term Navajo Nation or Navajo Council when referring to the Diné government but will otherwise refer to the people as the Diné. 

Canyon de Chelly (photo courtesy of Professor Lisa Pruitt)

There are approximately 80 Diné families with the right to live in Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Canyon de-SHAY) National Monument. Traditionally, they grew corn, squash, and had orchards. Rising temperatures and drought conditions have made it harder to farm recently. Today, most families spend only part of the year in the Canyon.

Canyon de Chelly is in Chinle, Arizona, in the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States. The park encompasses three main canyons as well as approximately one half-mile of land on the edge of each canyon. Canyon de Chelly National Monument is unique because it is situated entirely on land owned by the Navajo Nation. National Parks are typically created on federal land by Presidential proclamation pursuant to authority conferred upon the executive by the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument was established in 1931 by an act of Congress, predicated on a Navajo Council agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. At the turn of the 20th century, non-native peoples were moving west and looting the archaeological and religious sites in Canyon de Chelly, some of the most significant Anasazi and Hopi Pueblo sites in the country. White archeologists were prominent advocates for federal preservation of the Canyon, though the Navajo Nation was reluctant.

In 1925, at a meeting with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the Navajo Council agreed to accept the establishment of a national monument in the Canyon, so long as it would not interfere with any Tribal rights, specifically the right to graze, run tourist services, and restrict entry to the Canyon.

In the final agreement, the Navajo Nation would retain all land and mineral rights, including oil and gas, surface use rights, and would be given preferential treatment in furnishing animals for the use of visitors to the monument. The National Park Service would maintain, preserve, and restore cliff dwellings in the canyon, as well as other areas of historical and scientific interest, and would have the right to construct trails, roads and facilities that may be necessary for visitors to the Canyon.

However, none of the new NPS employees appointed to the Canyon de Chelly were Diné, and by 1934 the Navajo Council passed a resolution requesting that the NPS relinquish their rights to the monument. The NPS and the Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to sort it out, but administrative conflicts persisted.

The NPS authorized the Thunderbird Ranch, a property near the Canyon owned by non- Diné people, to house and serve park visitors. The hotel increased traffic to the Canyon, prompting the Diné living there to argue that their right to provide horses for those visiting the park included the right to run businesses, like the hotel, that enabled tourists to access the park. The NPS was not moved. 


A sign at Canyon de Chelly National Monument (photo courtesy of Professor Lisa Pruitt)

In the winter of 1951, a Norwegian tourist got lost in the Canyon and ended up breaking into two hogans (traditional Diné houses) belonging to a Diné family who lived in the Canyon in the summer. He stole shoes and an overcoat, which he ended up burning by falling asleep too close to the fire. After he was rescued, the Diné family whose hogans he had broken into were upset and demanded repayment for the overcoat. The issue was resolved when the Catholic mission the Norwegian was staying at paid for the coat.

Minor though that incident may seem, it reflects the kind of discomfort that the families living in the Canyon must have felt as an increasing number of tourists came onto their homelands on roads and trails built by the NPS.

More significantly, in 1951, the NPS opted to plant Russian olive and Chinese elm trees in the park to control erosion, despite suggestions that plants indigenous to the area, like cottonwood, might work better. The plants grew well and quickly, to the point that they threatened the archeological sites in the canyon. In 2005, the NPS and the Navajo Nation began working together on the Cooperative Watershed Restoration Project to remove invasive tamarisk and Russian olive trees. The NPS stated that:

aggressive infestation by tamarisk (Tamarix ramosissima, T. chinensis, and their hybrids) and Russian olive (Elaeaganus angustifolia), in combination with intensive historic grazing and tour operations within the riparian corridors of the canyon floor, have created the need for an integrated and collaborative approach to managing all resources (natural and cultural) within the Canyons and their associated watersheds.
The issues identified above are ones that the Diné people living in the canyon have been complaining about since at least the 1950’s and are likely largely because of the NPS actions. The use of tamarisk and Russian olive trees to combat soil erosion was effective. However, the density of the tamarisk root structures made streams cut deeper into the ground. The native plants are less effective at erosion prevention, but allow “braided meandering” that better preserves the characteristics of the canyon.

Relations between the Park Service and the Navajo Nation continue to be rocky. However, as Indigenous land management methods gain greater attention for their ability to help us adapt to and combat climate change, the Park Service is encouraging greater Tribal involvement.


Katie Eng said...

Thank you for bringing attention to this! It was eye-opening to learn about the complex history of the National Park Service’s management of Canyon de Chelly National Monument. It is clear that the initial establishment of the monument did not fully consider the rights and perspectives of the Diné people. I was shocked but not surprised to learn that none of the early NPS employees appointed were Diné. This lack of representation likely contributed to the conflicts with park management, such as planting invasive species despite the availability of native alternatives. The Norwegian tourist incident just highlights the intrusion and discomfort Diné families must feel as tourism increases on their land. I hope NPS continues to work together with indigenous communities to ensure the land is preserved with respect.

Caitlin Durcan said...

This was an extremely interesting read! I was unaware of the implications that Canyon de Chelly is having on the native people who live there. It does not shock me that the NPS opted to plant non-native trees against the suggestions of those who have lived and cultivated this land for generations. Hopefully one day there can be Tribal involvement in all decision-making as it would benefit all of us.

Laretta Johnson said...

This was such a fascinating read! I had never heard about co-management of national parks before, although I have come across it in other contexts. While the plan and execution is clearly far from perfect, I wonder if a similar approach (but that better centers tribal interests) should be implemented in other national parks. Last fall, I attended a workshop in Yosemite hosted by a cultural park ranger whose ancestral homelands included the Yosemite Valley. She noted that although some of her grandparents were born within park boundaries, she and her family and other tribal members were not allowed to continue living there. Meanwhile, many non-Native park employees have access to housing within the park. A co-management plan that included allowing members of the tribes who traditionally lived in the valley access to live there again seems like an achievable starting point for increasing tribal sovereignty in the park.