Glen Canyon Dam Controversy


By Rhianna Pierce:

Throughout American history, the Navajo have faced many land and water battles with the government. One of the biggest trials they have faced has been over the Colorado River. The Navajo have some of the oldest claims to the Colorado River, while also holding the largest claims to the water (Walton). One of the most important struggles they have been facing is over the Glen Canyon Dam. The Glen Canyon Dam has caused problems with the Rainbow Bridge, which is sacred to the Navajo. This can been seen in the history of the Glen Canyon Dam and the Rainbow Bridge, the sacredness of the Rainbow Bridge to the tribe, and what the government is doing to support or oppose the tribe.

The main struggle the Navajo have faced over the Colorado River concerns the Glen Canyon Dam. The dam was authorized by Congress in 1956, and was completed in 1963 (White). The dam has filled a canyon of more than 150 miles, while creating a shoreline longer than the east coast of the United States (Bsumek). This has resulted from the reservoir named Lake Powell (Bsumek). The dam has been hailed as one of the engineering wonders of the world and is the second tallest in the nation, standing at 710 feet, just behind the Hoover Dam (Bsumek). The dam also created the second largest reservoir in the United States, again just behind the Hoover Dam (White). The original plan was to use the dam for hydroelectric power, and as a recreational area (Walton).

However, all of this did not come without controversy. The dam disrupted the free flow of the Colorado River, while making dozens of wildlife and plant species extinct (Bsumek). The area that Lake Powell took over had been spotted with dozens of ancient Indian cliff dwellings and rock structures, and the dam forced many of them underwater (Bsumek). One of the biggest controversies was over the Rainbow Bridge. It was declared a national monument in 1910 by President Taft, but travelers rarely made the difficult trek to see it (White). The Rainbow Bridge has been religiously sacred to many tribes, but none as much as the Navajo (Sproul).

The Navajo consider the rainbow as a part of their creation story (Sproul). They believe that the bridge is an integral part of their emergence into the world (Sproul). In their story of origin, the rainbow was used to cover great distances, and once they returned back to their sacred land, they put the rainbow in the safest place they could think of: Bridge Canyon, which is where the Rainbow Bridge sits today (Sproul). The Rainbow Bridge is seen as that rainbow, and they believe that it was just turned to rock to keep it safe (Loomis).

Originally, the Rainbow Bridge was supposed to be protected by a diversion dam that would have prevented Lake Powell from being able to reach and destroy the monument (White). Congress approved the funds, but before work began on the diversion dam, they reviewed the decision and decided to withdraw funding from the project, seeing it as unnecessary (White). Tourists were able to flood in, along with the water from the river, as the Rainbow Bridge was much more accessible than it had been in the past (White).

In 1977, after the dam was built, the Navajo sued the federal government, saying that the dam was interfering with their religious practices (Ojibwa). The Glen Canyon Dam also made the bridge much more accessible to the public, which the Navajo said interfered with their religious practices, the tourists were not respectful during their religious ceremonies (Ojibwa). They also asked for the monument to be closed during these sacred ceremonies (Ojibwa). The government brushed them off, saying that they had no title to the land, and that the public interest was more important than their religious claims (Ojibwa). The Navajo argued that they do have claim to the land, but, unfortunately, much of their history has been told orally, making it hard to prove that they have been on the land for many years (Sproul).

The Navajo pushed forward with their case, hoping that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act would help them (Ojibwa). In 1980, the Tenth Circuit District Court once again ruled that public interest and the electricity that the dam created was of more importance than the claims of the Navajo, and superseded their religious rights (Ojibwa),. The court also ruled that they could not accommodate the religious practices of the Navajo, or it would make the bridge a shrine, violating the First Amendment (Ojibwa).

In 1993, a management plan was adopted, in which the Navajo and other tribes associated with the bridge were able to express their concerns (Ojibwa). Today, the park service simply asks that tourists do not walk under the bridge, as the Navajo do not walk under it as a sign of respect (Loomis). Unfortunately, the park service cannot enforce this, and many choose to walk under the bridge during tours (Loomis).

In 2000, the Navajo Medicine Men’s Association voted to support the removal of the dam and draining Lake Powell, pointing out that the lake has destroyed many sacred Navajo sites, and interfered with their traditional ceremonies (Ojibwa). The call for removal was not well received, and many medicine men report being harassed by federal officials for using the Rainbow Bridge to hold their religious ceremonies (Ojibwa).

The Glen Canyon Dam has caused many controversies when it comes to sacred and religious sites in the area, especially concerning the Rainbow Bridge. This can be seen through the history and sacredness of these places and the government’s response. The Navajo are still fighting against the government and most likely will for many years to come.

Bsumek, Erika. “Her Program’s Progress.” Not Even Past. Not Even Past, 6 Mar. 2013. Web. 28 Apr. 2017. <>.

Loomis, Brandon. “50 Years Later, Glen Canyon Dam Still Controversial.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network, 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 28 Apr. 2017. <>.

Ojibwa. “Dam Indians: The Colorado River.” Native American Netroots. WordPress, 03 Mar. 2010. Web. 28 Apr. 2017. <>.

Sproul, David. “Rainbow Bridge: An Illustrated History.” Choice Reviews Online 37.07 (2000): n. pag. 7 Feb. 2003. Web. 27 Apr. 2017. <>.

Walton, Brett. “In Drying Colorado River Basin, Indian Tribes Are Water Dealmakers.” Circle of Blue. 14 Mar. 2016. Web. 28 Apr. 2017. <>.

White, Cody. “Concrete and Canyons: Senator Robert Kennedy’s 1967 Family Vacation.”National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, 11 Apr. 2017. Web. 28 Apr. 2017. <>.Glen.Canyon.Dam.360.13293.jpg

About the author: Brian King

Brian D. King lives in Oklahoma and is a writer and blogger who studies and teaches English. He earned his bachelor's degree in Political Science from Brigham Young University, and he is currently working on his graduate degree in English in Oklahoma.

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