National Park Service
An aerial view of the Grand Canyon.

Native History: Roosevelt Declares Grand Canyon a National Monument

Alysa Landry

This Date in Native History: On January 11, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the Grand Canyon a national monument, placing under federal protection the 10-mile-wide, 277-mile-long and one-mile-deep canyon that for thousands of years had been held sacred by Indigenous Peoples.

Roosevelt, known as the “conservationist president,” arrived in the West at a time when industry and enterprise were destroying the natural beauty, said Janet Balsom, deputy chief of science and resource management at Grand Canyon National Park. Conservation quickly became one of Roosevelt’s concerns, and during his presidency he established four national game preserves, five national parks and 150 national forests in acts that protected about 230 million acres of public land.

President Theodore Roosevelt

Although he failed to make the Grand Canyon a national park, Roosevelt used the American Antiquities Act of 1906 to proclaim the canyon and 17 other sites as national monuments.

“When you think about things like Westward Expansion and exploration of the continent, it was really the Indian lands that were being discovered,” Balsom said. “The railroad came to the Grand Canyon in 1901 and there were several attempts to set it aside as protected land because it was already being overrun with enterprise—with hotels, shantytowns, that all were about expanding the opportunity.”

Roosevelt in 1903 recognized the Grand Canyon as something that needed protection from logging, mining and other damaging enterprises. In a statement he made during a visit to the canyon that year, Roosevelt called on Americans to help preserve the unique gorge that formed during six million years of erosion.

“Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is,” he said. “Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.”

By declaring it a national monument, Roosevelt took the first steps to remove the canyon from the public arena and protect it from development, Balsom said. He also cleared the way for it to become a national park in 1919—three years after the creation of the National Park Service—and for the federal government to help protect tribal lands located within and adjacent to the park.

“The Grand Canyon is protected for all time, so in a way the tribal land is protected,” Balsom said. “We have a responsibility to preserve this place, and tribes, in some ways, look to us to do our job. We have a job to protect the Grand Canyon in perpetuity.”

Eleven tribes, including the Havasupai, have geographic or cultural claims to the canyon. The Hopi, Hualapai, Navajo, Paiute and Zuni tribes have cultural claims to the 1.2-million-acre national park, while the Havasupai tribe actually lives in the canyon system.

In a 2007 interview, Roland Manakaja, a resident of the Havasupai village of Supai, located in the bottom of Havasu Canyon, talked about growing up without a knowledge of the outside world. Although part of the Grand Canyon system, Havasu Canyon is outside the boundary and jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Supai residents rarely saw visitors, Manakaja said. As a youth, he was unacquainted with outsiders or their ways. Even neighboring tribes had no idea there was a tribe living in the canyon, he said.

Quoting a Havasupai prophecy, Manakaja said his people—and the canyon—were destined to be “hidden from the public eye.”

The prophecy states that should the canyon be made public, “the water, the environment would be degraded, devastated, contaminated and polluted for one’s gain,” Manakaja said. “Whoever that one person was had a lot of power, had a lot of money. That isn’t the way it’s supposed to work. It’s supposed to work in a way where the gain goes to everyone—the children, elders, with respect to the past, the present and the future.”

Approximately 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon on a yearly basis, with more than 20,000 of them traversing the last eight miles to the canyon where the Havasupai live. Supai is accessible only by foot, horseback or helicopter.

The National Park Service tries to maintain cooperative relationships with all tribes and uphold Roosevelt’s plea that people do not “mar the … great loneliness and beauty of the canyon.”

Although the park service and the Havasupai tribe operate visitor’s centers, museums and other services for tourists, efforts are being made to preserve the canyon’s sacred cultural histories, Balsom said. A medallion on the floor of the visitor’s center includes the names of all tribes affiliated with the Grand Canyon, she said.

“The tribes helped design it, and everyone who comes to the visitor’s center has to walk over it to see the canyon,” she said. “The medallion represents the continuity of our relationship with tribes and it honors the fact that Indians are the present and the future of this country, not just the past.”

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