Working Together to Protect the Grand Canyon

Sarana Riggs

On a recent visit to the Grand Canyon, Kylie Fly meets up with grassroots activist Sarana Riggs to learn about the canyon’s significance for its native people and how they are forming alliances to protect it. Words and Photos By Kylie Fly.

You could feel the energy in the room. She has a powerful presence: calm, reserved, and with a smile that sneaks up on you. Sharing intimate time and space with Sarana Riggs, Chiricahua Apache from Big Mountain, Arizona, was among my most meaningful projects to date.

Sarana works with Save the Confluence, a group of families that opposed the proposed Escalade development and assists families on the east rim of the Grand Canyon. She is involved with organizations like the Grand Canyon Trust working on cultural, historical and environmental protection of the Grand Canyon. She’s worked on issues facing the Navajo and Hopi reservations ranging from uranium and coal to water rights. In the 1950s, uranium mining was equivalent to the gold rush boom of past history. A toxic past was left behind from abandoned uranium mines.

I was lucky enough to spend a few days with Sarana traveling the Grand Canyon and visiting these mining sites to see and discuss issues firsthand and learn how advocates are pushing conservation work forward. Sarana learned early on from her elders and clan family about protecting the canyon from overdevelopment and uranium mining as well as air, sound, light and water pollution. It is a huge task and one that she does not take lightly. Her heart and soul is poured into the work, and that is apparent in both her tangible efforts and visible spirit when meeting her.

Hurricane XLT 2 in GC100 Boomerang Canyon

Photographer Kylie Fly and Sarana Riggs explore the rim of the Grand Canyon. Pictured: Hurricane XLT 2 in Black and GC100 Boomerang Canyon.

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is a special place. With 277 miles of river, the emerald green water of the Colorado River slices its way through the canyon calling over 5 million visitors per year. Theodore Roosevelt, known for his special interest in national parks and the outdoors, said of the park: “The Grand Canyon is the one great sight which every American should see.” It covers over 1 million acres of land and is said to be visible from outer space.

When I asked Sarana about her relationship with the Grand Canyon she replied, “As a Diné [Navajo] woman, there are continuous teachings of our existence through our creation in oral history. Our teachings say that we are created by deities in worlds before this one and through mishaps in those worlds. We emerged from the canyon, and that is our fourth world in which we live. There are many prayers, songs, and teachings that relate to our existence which ties us to the Colorado Plateau.”

Many Grand Canyon tribes have a cultural connection to the canyon through their emergence narratives and eventually return to the canyon. It is their duty to protect and preserve the sacred place they call home.

There are 11 Traditionally Associated Tribes (Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Havasupai, Hualapai, Yavapai-Apache, and five bands of Southern Paiute represented by the Kaibab Paiute who all collaborate with the NPS on issues that affect each of the tribes and the park) whose ancestry is tied to the Grand Canyon. For these tribes, being tied to the Grand Canyon is the sacredness of all living entities on, within, and among the land.

When on the land, you are in the presence of its reverence in all its forms. The animals, the rocks, the water—there is a sense that you are being watched by all living entities. You are a visitor there. As I walked on sacred soil and learned of its significance there, I felt the sensation pulse through me. It is more than just land—it is a living and breathing heritage of its people.

Sarana Riggs

Pictured: Hurricane XLT2 in Black.

Sarana Riggs

Throughout the year, the Navajo and Hopi people are planting, harvesting, and taking care of animals. In the winter while the world sleeps, animals hibernate and the land rests. This is a time for storytelling, sharing cultural knowledge, and reinforcing oral history. Questions arise during other seasons, and answers come when the weather turns cold in the wintertime. It is a beautiful sentiment that speaks to the connection to and sacredness of the land and the feeling is prevalent when present.

I also had the special opportunity to speak with Anne Mariah Tapp, an environmental lawyer based in Flagstaff, Arizona. She echoes the sacredness of the Grand Canyon saying, “I remember being incredibly captured by the immensity and colors of the canyon. Intact wild remote landscapes have always felt nurturing to me, perhaps because it seems that no matter what energy I bring, there is enough space for it to be absorbed and transformed.” Sharing the oral history and why we need to protect these sacred lands many call home is vital to continuing the work in the conservation space.

Hurricane XLT 2 in GC100 Boomerang Canyon

Pictured: Hurricane XLT 2 in GC100 Boomerang Canyon.

The Grand Canyon

Sarana and Anne Mariah met at the Grand Canyon Trust, where Anne Mariah was previously a staff attorney and the Energy Program Director. They created an instant bond through their shared knowledge of uranium mining from the past to the present.

“Anne Mariah has been a mentor in many ways and I value the knowledge and work that she does in protecting the Colorado Plateau,” Sarana says. The two have been colleagues in the common goal to protect the Colorado Plateau.

When Anne Mariah started working for the Grand Canyon Trust, her early days in litigation work involved uranium mining and commercial development in the Grand Canyon—allowing her to quickly gain an understanding of the incredible amounts of threats facing the landscape that she loved.

Legal work involved less time in the canyon and more behind a computer. But with a bit of luck, she was adopted by an amazing group of Grand Canyon backpackers exploring off-trail routes in the canyon since the 1970s. Since then, she’s started her own practice where she consults with Tribes and environmental groups around efforts to protect culturally-significant landscapes.

“The Grand Canyon and the people who care about that place have collectively been important teachers in my life,” Anne Mariah shares. “They have taught me to be patient while pushing myself, to ask questions and listen to the answers, to accept that the most meaningful things can happen very slowly, to make time with the people you care most about, and to spend that time in beautiful places. Lean into the community with your best self.”

Hurricane XLT 2 in GC100 Boomerang Canyon

Always gripped, I never slipped in my Hurricane sandals.” Kylie Fly wears the Hurricane XLT 2 in GC100 Boomerang Canyon. 

Through her work in conservation, Anne Mariah says it opened her eyes to the privilege she has experienced in her life growing up in a wealthy white family. She recognized the opportunity to lend her education and skill set to work for Indigenous people facing environmental challenges.

“I find that I’m more inspired by changes from the status quo in conservation—whether that is in approach, different faces of leadership, or building broader alliances. Colonial and patriarchal systems-based, all or in part, on the financial exploitation of the environment, have resulted in a climate crisis and severe damage to individual landscapes, including the Grand Canyon.” Anne Mariah urges, “The crisis is so severe at this point that a radically different approach is needed to really find enduring solutions to protect landscapes.”

From spending time with Sarana and seeing the severity of the mining on sacred lands to speaking with Anne Mariah about the legal side of the issue, what is a meaningful solution? How can we move the work forward and lend our hand in advocacy? Anne Mariah shares her view that “part of the solution involves looking to different leaders, including the Indigenous people who have stewarded these lands the longest. It requires a collective willingness to embrace a lot of hard change and to lean into challenging institutional perceptions of what leaders look like.”

Sarana Riggs

Sarana Riggs stands outside one of the many uranium mines near Tusayan, AZ in the Kaibab National Forest area. Her work at Grand Canyon Trust aims to keep uranium mining out of the Grand Canyon. 

The Grand Canyon is a place that promotes healing and reminds us to be in balance. There is a certain reverence that can be felt by any visitor that demands mindfulness. For many Indigenous nations, their connection and lineage with the canyon runs deeper. If we don’t combine forces to protect the canyon, the Indigenous people’s identity is lost. Inherited teachings, prayers, songs and all that traces back to who they are in history are forgotten.

To protect and preserve their identity, Sarana explains, “We have to keep teaching and educating not just our relations, but the people who visit the canyon to help them understand why we protect this place from mining, developments, air tours, extreme recreational activity and other things which impact the ecosystem as a whole.”

This can be done by doing your research to learn the history of Indigenous people who live in and around the Grand Canyon. Organizations like the Grand Canyon Trust provide anyone an opportunity to learn, take action, and support the important work while respecting the Native peoples. Become a member and you’ll receive news and calls to action through the email list surrounding current issues. Get involved. Feel the energy in the room and join the coalition to preserve and protect native land.

Sarana proudly states, “We are still here. We are not ancient. Just because you do not see tribal villages in the park when you’re visiting Desert View, does not mean we do not have an investment or presence here.”

Kylie Fly and Sarana Riggs at the Grand Canyon

Photographer Kylie Fly and Sarana Riggs.

Hurricane XLT 2 in GC100 Boomerang Canyon

Kylie Fly wears the Hurricane XLT2 in GC100 Boomerang Canyon.

The Grand Canyon

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