Paleo-Indians and hunter-gatherers roamed Grand Canyon thousands of years before Columbus stumbled onto the New World. These indigenous peoples lived lightly on the land, hunting game and gathering wild plants, leaving behind few clues to their passage. Then, some time after the beginning of the first millennium a.d., people in the Grand Canyon region began experimenting with agriculture. Other cultures moved into the region: Trade relationships and subsistence strategies shifted. Canyon farmers moved or returned to hunting and gathering. Although they left their masonry villages behind, including the ruined pueblos at Tusayan  and Walhalla Glades , their descendants continue to live in the region today.
Many contemporary Native American cultures continue the traditions of their ancestors, farming and herding inside the canyon or along its rims, gathering plants for medicines or basketry, weaving rugs from sheep’s wool, or making silver and turquoise jewelry. Some may live far away, but their histories are part of the canyon’s history, and for them, the landscape has deep cultural significance.
Thirteen villages lie east of Grand Canyon on the Hopi Reservation, 1.5 million acres completely surrounded by the larger Navajo Nation. Most villages sit at the foot or top of three rocky peninsulas known individually as First, Second, and Third Mesa, or collectively as the Hopi Mesas. Settlement increased after a.d. 1100 as people migrated from Homolovi, Chavez Pass, and other ancient sites. The Third Mesa village of Oraibi, established in 1150, is considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States.
According to Hopi stories, their ancestors climbed up to this world, the fourth, on a reed. They were met by Masaaw, who told them to leave their footprints as they journeyed through this world in search of its center. On arriving at the mesas, each group contributed a duty or ceremony to the community, creating cohesiveness among clans. Collectively, the clans became known as Hopituh Shi-nu-mu, the peaceful or well-mannered people.
But life wasn’t always peaceful. In 1540 members of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s expedition ventured north from New Spain in search of fabled cities of gold. Hopi men drew a line of sacred cornmeal on the ground, but the Spanish crossed it. Hopi guides led the Spanish to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Unable to find a way across the Colorado River, the Spanish expedition left, disappointed by the value of the lands they had claimed.
Later, New Spain sent colonists and priests, who established missions at all the Southwestern pueblos, from the Hopi Mesas to the Rio Grande villages. Priests entered kivas, destroying ceremonial items and forcing villagers to build churches. In 1680, nearly 100 years before English colonists in the East would rebel against British rule, the pueblos revolted against Spain. When the Spanish returned in 1692, many people from the Rio Grande pueblos took shelter at the Hopi Mesas, and villages grew. One Hopi village allowed the Spanish to reestablish a mission, sparking strife among the clans. In 1700 the village was destroyed and burned. Nearly 200 years would pass before any missionaries would return to Hopi lands.
By this time, Anglo photographers, artists, and anthropologists had “discovered” the Hopi Mesas. Ceremonies grew crowded with curious onlookers, many of them toting bulky box cameras on tripods. The U.S. government started sending agents in 1870, and a boarding school opened in Keams Canyon in 1887 with the goal of “reeducating” Hopi children. Hopi farms were plotted into allotments. Traders arrived with manufactured goods and food staples. The government mandated missionaries to go to the pueblos, parceling them out among different faiths.
Hopi villagers split between those who were hostile or friendly to government interference, with Oraibi village at the center of the storm. Oraibi splintered, and factions moved to Hotevilla, Bacavi, Kykotsmovi, and Moenkopi. Many ceremonies became closed to outsiders. Over time, some ceremonies were lost as the number of clans dwindled. Even so, Hopi remains the most traditional of all the Southwest’s pueblos.
The Hopi calendar is divided between social and kachina ceremonials, the latter held late December-July. If you are fortunate enough to visit during an open ceremony, keep in mind that these are spiritual events, not entertainment. The basket dances held by women’s societies in September and October are often open to the public and highlight one of the oldest art forms on the mesas. Basketry, weaving, and pottery are ancient crafts with forms, symbols, and techniques going back to prehistoric times.
Pottery began to be used by Ancestral Puebloans when they settled in villages and raised food crops that required long simmering, such as beans. The first pottery was utilitarian and simple in design. As villages grew and skills became more specialized, pottery designs evolved and flourished. Today, Hopi potters still make pottery the way their ancestors did: by coiling and scraping to shape the pot, then firing it over open embers.
The Hopis’ ancestors left Grand Canyon centuries ago, but clans continued to journey to the canyon to mine salt and trade with the Havasupai. The Hopi name for the Grand Canyon means “salt canyon.” Although the Hopi didn’t live at Grand Canyon during its pioneer period, several individual tribe members lived and worked in Grand Canyon Village. One was famed Tewa potter Nampeyo, who demonstrated her artistry at Hopi House. Another was painter Fred Kabotie, who assisted architect Mary Colter with Desert View Watchtower and other projects. His mural on the Watchtower’s first floor tells the story of Tiyo, who, according to Hopi oral history, navigated the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.
By the time the pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower, Spain had already explored and colonized the Southwest. The first nonnative to “discover” the region was not Spanish but was a former slave named Esteban. He and three others were survivors of an expedition that landed off the coast of Florida in 1528, following the gulf and wandering west on foot. Eight years later they met a group of Spanish slavers, who delivered them to the viceroy of New Spain.
They had a fabulous story to tell of golden cities they’d heard about in the north. The viceroy assembled an exploring party led by Friar Marcos de Niza, with Esteban as an advance scout, to locate these cities. At the Zuni pueblos, Esteban’s luck ran out. Some say he offended the men with his overly familiar behavior toward the village women. Others say it was the women’s curiosity and interest in Esteban that offended Zuni’s warriors. In any case, Esteban was killed, and Marcos de Niza wisely decided not to approach the hilltop pueblos any closer. He claimed the land for Spain and returned to Mexico City, confirming that fabulous cities of gold did indeed exist.
Months later, in 1540, the viceroy dispatched an expedition led by gentleman Francisco Vásquez de Coronado. At Zuni, Coronado discovered not seven cities of gold but six villages of mud adobe. (Marcos de Niza had observed the hilltop pueblos from a distance, and perhaps the sun’s angle turned the adobe walls to a golden hue.) Nevertheless, Coronado moved in for the winter, commandeering several rooms, displacing the residents, and appropriating stores of food while sending scouting parties to the Hopi Mesas and other areas.
Coronado and his soldiers eventually returned to New Spain without the riches they’d sought, but in 1598 Juan de Oñate arrived with farmers, priests, livestock, and a soldier escort. Colonists settled along the Rio Grande River, and priests moved into the pueblos. During the years of revolt and reconquest, the Zuni left their villages and took refuge on Dowa Yalanne, Corn Mountain, before returning to the village of Halona, where Zuni Pueblo stands today.
The 450,000-acre Zuni Reservation is home to about 10,000 people, most of them residing in Zuni Pueblo, making it the largest of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos. The Zuni people, who call themselves A:shiwi, observe an annual ceremonial cycle that includes the winter Shalako activities. The Shalako are 10-foot-tall beings who visit selected Zuni households in December, ensuring continued blessings.
Many Zunis are artisans, creating fetishes, jewelry, basketry, and pottery. Modern Zuni silverwork includes a variety of styles and techniques but is best known for delicate needlepoint and petit point turquoise designs, as well as exquisite inlay depicting birds, Shalako, and other designs.
Fetishes have been carried by Zunis since prehistoric times for use in prayers and ceremonies and also for protection. Modern fetishes (more accurately known as carvings because they haven’t been ritually blessed) may depict snakes, foxes, bears, or other animals. It is likely that Zuni individuals carried fetishes during the Zunis’ migrations eastward.
The Zunis consider Grand Canyon to be the place where their ancestors emerged into this world. From this place of emergence (which some say is the inner canyon’s Ribbon Falls), they traveled for generations. Their migrations roughly trace the path of the Little Colorado River. The people left behind rock art, potsherds, and villages until they reached the middle place, Zuni Pueblo.
The Havasupai have called the rims and waterways of Grand Canyon home for at least 800 years. Their oral tradition links past events and village life to features in the landscape. One of the many stories Havasupai people associate with their canyon home refers to the twin pillars of reddish stone they call the Wigleeva. According to most versions of the story, if the stone pillars should ever crumble and fall, the walls of the canyon will close in and destroy the tribe.
Traditionally, the Havasupai hunted in the forests and plains along the rim and farmed within the canyon during summer months, raising corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and later, peaches. Many of the inner canyon trails used by hikers today were established by the Havasupai. Indian Garden, the popular resting point along Bright Angel Trail, was once a Havasupai community.
In the 1880s, the tribe was restricted to a 500-acre reservation at the bottom of Havasu Canyon, a mere fraction of their traditional lands. The limited agricultural land, bounded by the canyon’s stony cliffs, barely supported the tribe, and many Havasupai sought work outside Supai Village. Grand Canyon pioneer William Wallace Bass relied on Havasupai guides to establish his mining and tourism activities. Other Havasupai found work with the Santa Fe Railway and Fred Harvey Company at Grand Canyon Village. Many worked for the National Park Service, helping construct the Kaibab Suspension Bridge across the Colorado River.
In 1975, an act of Congress restored 185,000 acres on the plateau to the Havasupai. The present 188,077-acre reservation encompasses Havasu Canyon and plateaus along the South Rim west of Grand Canyon Village. The village of Supai, reachable only on foot or by horseback or helicopter, lies within the walls of Havasu Canyon (also known as Cataract Canyon). The village is home to 450 people, more than half the tribe’s total population.
For decades the Havasupai have welcomed visitors to their edenic canyon home, where pools lined with deposits of travertine limestone reflect cerulean blue skies and gorgeous waterfalls tumble from rocky cliff sides. Tourism has become the tribe’s main source of income, and the Havasupai have struggled to maintain the delicate balance between tradition, ethnic identity, and economic reality.
In recent years, floods have damaged the village and canyon several times. The residents of Supai Village had barely recovered from the 2008 flood that destroyed Navajo Falls when disaster struck again. In October 2010, heavy rains flooded Havasu Creek, damaging homes, bridges, campground, trails, and causing the evacuation of visitors. The tribal council declared Havasu Canyon a disaster area. The U.S. government granted the tribe’s declaration, estimating $1.63 million in damages. Obviously, the loss of tourist facilities has had a devastating economic impact on the Havasupai, but imagine the emotional and spiritual costs of such devastation to a landscape alive with cultural meaning.
Traditionally seminomadic hunter-gatherers, the Hualapai once roamed over 5 million acres from the canyon south to Bill Williams Mountain, west to the lower Colorado River, and east to the Little Colorado River. Like the neighboring Havasupai, they migrated seasonally, occupying upland plateaus in the winter, returning to inner canyon springs and tributaries in the summer. They participated in a vast trade network with other tribes in the region, trading beads, shells, mineral pigments, and buckskins for salt, wool or cotton blankets, and horses.
When gold was discovered near Prescott, Arizona, in 1863, miners, settlers, and soldiers poured into Hualapai lands. The Hualapai responded fiercely to the incursion. They signed a peace treaty in 1868, and afterward many Hualapai warriors assisted General Crook’s Army as scouts. In 1874 the U.S. Army was ordered to relocate the Hualapai to a reservation 150 miles south. The removal sparked a deep sense of betrayal among the Hualapai. On the reservation, starvation and disease ran rampant, and the Hualapai petitioned the government to return their lands.
In 1883 the Hualapai tribe was granted a small reservation along western Grand Canyon. They adopted ranching, lumbering, and wage labor. In 1947, lands that had been given to the railroad were returned to the tribe. Today, the Hualapai Reservation includes 1 million acres along 108 miles of Grand Canyon’s rim, south of the Colorado River and west of the national park boundaries. The Hualapai call it Hakataya, or “the backbone of the river.”
The Hualapai are closely related to the neighboring Havasupai, and also to the Yavapai, Paipai, Maricopa, and Mohave tribes, all Yuman-speakers with common ancestors from the lower Colorado River. (The word pai means “people.”) The Pai tribes are linked by the river, reflected in many of their traditions and histories.
According to the Hualapai creation story, the earth was once covered by floodwaters. Only one old man escaped, and a dove brought him instructions from the Creator. Following the instructions, he used the horn from a mountain sheep to dig a hole (some say this became Grand Canyon), and the water drained away. Later, the Creator made two brothers who took the canes growing beside the river and breathed life into them so that they became human. The older brother guided the people to Grand Canyon and taught them what plants to gather and where to find water and game—all that they needed to know to survive in this rugged landscape.
Today, the Hualapai population is approximately 2,100, about half of them based in Peach Springs. The small town along Route 66 acts as gateway to neighboring Havasu Canyon as well as to Grand Canyon West, the tourist center the Hualapai opened in 1988. The tribe has continued to find the means to survive and adapt—enterprises include timber and ranching, hunting permits, river running, helicopter tours, and most famously, the Skywalk. The Skywalk’s construction was controversial, even among tribe members. Some believe that it is an affront to nature, and that those who benefit from it the most are the Las Vegas businessmen who developed it. Others see the Skywalk as an investment in the tribe’s economic future, another way to draw visitors to Grand Canyon West, where they can share the tribe’s legends and lifeways with others.
Many of the names on the canyon’s landscape—Kaibab, Kaiparowits, Shivits, Tuweep, and others—are derived from Paiute (Nuwuvi) words. Paiute ancestors migrated east from the Great Basin deserts to the Colorado Plateau about eight hundred years ago. Seminomadic Southern Paiute bands lived along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where a wide range of environments, from desert to forest to meadow, provided diverse resources throughout the year. They cultivated garden plots, hunted game, and gathered wild plants on some of the most isolated land in North America.
Like many of the region’s native people, generations of Southern Paiutes saw their territory reduced in size over time. Their traditional lands once extended as far west as California and east to the San Juan River. One Paiute story hints at a migrating population as it describes the creation of Grand Canyon:
A Paiute chief mourned his dead wife until the god Tavwoats told him that she was living in a land far away and that he would take the chief to see her if he would cease to mourn. The chief agreed, and Tavwoats blazed a deep trail westward through the mountains. The chief followed, and he saw his wife living happily in a warm desert. Tavwoats ordered the chief to keep the land a secret, and after they returned, he poured water into the deeply furrowed trail, creating the Colorado River to guard the land to the west.
Many Southern Paiutes were captured by Navajo and Ute raiders and sold as slaves to the Spanish. To avoid capture, Southern Paiute bands moved away from traveled areas along the Old Spanish Trail, a move that furthered their dependence on hunting and gathering. As Mormon pioneers began arriving in the Arizona Strip country in the mid-1800s, they claimed water sources at Pipe Spring and other locations, water that once support game and crops.
When John Wesley Powell, head of the newly formed Bureau of Ethnology, returned to document the region’s native peoples, the Kaibab Paiute (Kaivavwits) band, the last of the canyon’s hunters and gatherers, was still practicing a foraging culture. He recommended that the remaining Paiutes be removed to reservations.
During the latter half of the century, ranching, mining, and timbering continued to impact the tribe’s resources. Diseases flourished. Game vanished, crops withered, and the people starved. By 1913, when the Kaibab Paiute Reservation was at last established, the band’s population was decimated. Today, the Kaibab Paiute’s 250 members are spread among five villages on a 121,000-acre reservation about 50 miles north of Grand Canyon. The reservation encompasses Pipe Spring National Monument, where the tribe operates a visitors center with the National Park Service. Tourism is their major source of revenue.
From the powerful spires and buttes of Monument Valley to the sweeping sandstone walls of Canyon de Chelly, the landscape of the Navajo people is a rich repository of oral history. Navajo creation stories tell of a great flood. To drain the waters, Humpback God used his cane to draw the Colorado River, forming Grand Canyon. Other Holy People, including Salt Woman and Talking God, are said to dwell in Glen Canyon and Grand Canyon.
The Navajo Nation borders Grand Canyon National Park on the east, where sheep pastures extend to the very rim of Marble Canyon. The reservation is the largest in the United States, sprawling 25,000 square miles across northeastern Arizona, western New Mexico, and into Utah. Even so, the reservation is far smaller than the territory the Navajo once controlled.
Navajo ancestors, Athabascan speakers, migrated to the New World and settled in what is now Alaska and Northwestern Canada. About a millennium ago, they ventured south, carrying little with them but the bows they used for hunting. When the Diné (“the people”) arrived to the Four Corners area sometime before a.d. 1500, they encountered the pueblo tribes, whose settled lifestyle included corn agriculture. As the Diné adapted to their new homeland, they too incorporated corn into to their repertoire of survival. Life was relatively peaceful, but for all Southwestern peoples, this was the eve of change.
In 1540 Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led an expedition to the Southwest in search of the fabled seven golden cities of Cibola. Coronado left without the riches he sought, but in 1598 Spanish colonists came to stay. Don Juan de Oñate arrived with farmers, priests, servants, and an army escort, trailed by oxcarts and thousands of cattle, sheep, and goats. The Spanish introduced peaches, livestock, metalwork, and horses. They gave, but they also took away.
New Spain’s mines and ranches spurred an extensive slave trade, especially among the Navajo, who were difficult to convert and difficult to control, since they did not live in large, easily targeted villages like their Pueblo neighbors. Fierce raiding and shifting alliances ensued between colonists and Native Americans. One colonist estimated 5,000-6,000 Navajo slaves lived in New Mexican households, but hundreds of thousands of colonists’ cattle, sheep, and horses lived in Navajo herds. The Navajo became such accomplished horsemen they were known as the Lords of the Earth.
Indian lands once claimed by Spain were won by Mexico and later ceded to the United States. Treaties were signed and broken, and raiding continued, followed by harsh punitive expeditions. The Civil War left settlers vulnerable, and frontiersman Kit Carson was appointed to defend them. Carson’s campaign against the Navajos focused on destroying their herds, fields, and orchards. They sought refuge in places like Canyon de Chelly, Wupatki, and Grand Canyon.
Within a matter of months, in January 1864, Navajo leaders agreed to go to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, a treeless plain with alkaline water, land traditionally claimed by the Comanche. The hardships of the campaign and the grueling 400-mile winter march to Bosque Redondo are known as the Long Walk. Those who didn’t die or escape suffered four years of poor food, smallpox, Comanche raids, and crop-destroying hail and floods.
Navajo leaders argued eloquently for return to their homeland. In 1868 the Navajo went home, although tightened boundaries excluded much of their original lands. In exchange for agreeing to stop raiding settlers, the Navajo received rations, and later, sheep and goats. Herding became the foundation of the Navajo economy, and Anglo traders were awarded contracts to supply goods such as coffee and flour.
As tourism to the Southwest increased, trading posts offered a ready market for traditional crafts, another economic opportunity for the Navajo and other tribes. A few trading posts still dot the reservation. Cameron Trading Post, now owned by tribe members, is the nearest to Grand Canyon. The post stocks many items for locals but specializes in Navajo weavings and silver as well as work from other regional artisans.
The political center of the Navajo Nation lies southeast of Grand Canyon in Window Rock, Arizona. The population of the “Big Rez” is 250,000, making the Navajos the largest Native American nation in the country. Although ranching and herding continue to be important, the nation’s revenues also stem from mineral resources and tourism. The journey along the edge of the reservation to Grand Canyon involves incredible scenery: the Little Colorado River gorge and Painted Desert near Cameron, the colorful Echo Cliffs en route to the Gap, and long views of the San Francisco Peaks, one of four sacred mountains that mark the traditional boundaries of the Navajo homeland.