Through Whose Eyes
Should We View Grand Canyon?


   Brad Dimock correctly asks [The News, 7:1] whether or not the physical baggage that river visitors bring with them influences their personal experience of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. He makes a good case for a casual relationship. Brad’s question is more complex than it appears, because things other than the quality of the food and the presence of a tent influence a river trip.

   A river experience is largely a function of the visitor’s cultural perspective of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon; what might be called a visitor’s cultural baggage. Humans see nature through their culture which includes norms, values, and beliefs. Social science research shows that the natural environment is transformed by human perceptions becoming sociocultural phenomena called a symbolic landscape. In a recent issue of Rural Sociology, Tom Greider and Lorraine Garkovich wrote an article entitled “Landscapes: The Social Construction of Nature and the Environment” where they said landscapes are created by humans conferring meaning to nature; giving the environment definition and form from a particular angle of vision and through a special filter of values and beliefs. Landscapes reflect us.

   Of course this is a complex way to say that nature exists in the minds of people, but once said we must reexamine Brad’s essay. There he states, “in our well-meaning endeavor to cushion the wilderness we have begun to bring the very things with us that we went on the river to escape.” He argues that the thinner the material veil between the visitor and the river, the more authentic the experience. This assumes that the river and Canyon are really a wilderness and getting back to the wilderness is why the visitor is there. Some people have other perspectives of the environment.

   Over the past few years our UofA research team has accompanied Southern Paiute people into the Grand Canyon along 225 miles of the Colorado to learn what they perceive is there and what they perceive is happening due to Glen Canyon Dam water releases. Their report of findings called PIAPAXA ‘UIPI (BIG RIVER CANYON): Ethnographic Resource Inventory and Assessment for Colorado River Corridor is now being released. These Indian people do not see the river and Canyon as a wilderness, but instead as a homeland in which they lived and died for more than a thousand years. The rocks, plants, minerals, and water of this landscape are alive, self-willed, and understand the Paiute language. The living natural environment is perceived as liking certain types of human interactions and disliking other behaviors. In return for proper human behavior the river and Canyon feed, protect, and support Southern Paiute (and other human) life and culture. To the Paiute people this symbolic landscape is filled with places to farm, hunt, gather, live, and worship.

   The tens of thousands of visitors who annually raft down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon bring many different symbolic landscapes. Is the wilderness a place from which to learn, as Brad suggests, or a wild thing to be conquered? Is the wilderness full of answers to eternal human questions, or a place for dams that generate electricity for distant cities? The visitor’s river experience will be measured in terms of which symbolic landscape is chosen.

   Brad understands the critical role of the Grand Canyon river guide in defining the visitor’s experience. The river guide tells the visitor where they are and what to expect from the trip. Visitors do bring expectations, but these can be broadened by new perspectives shared by the river guide. Is it to be a wilderness they will enter together, or another kind of place? What responsibilities does the visitor have if she enters an archaeology site abandoned in the wilderness, versus the rock foundations of an old homestead that belongs to the contemporary Paiute family of Kwagunt? Should a visitor enter a hematite cave because it is a physical curiosity, or should she remain outside because it is a source of powder used by Indian people in ceremonies? Should a visitor play loud music while camped in an alcove of Grand Canyon, or should she remain quiet and respectful while in places which have echoes that some Indian people believe are supernatural voices? A river guide defines the proper behavior for the visitor, but proper behavior is based on which symbolic landscape they are entering. Can we negotiate diverse views of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon which permits them to be sometimes a wilderness and sometimes an Indian homeland? When the raft enters the water, someone must chose.

Richard Stoffle