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11 tribes are tied to the Grand Canyon. National Park Service wants all of them represented

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Dressed in traditional horned regalia, the Guardians of the Grand Canyon Ram Dancers from the remote Havasupai Falls performed a social circle dance on Sunday at the annual Arizona Indian Festival in Old Town Scottsdale. 

“The mighty warrior became the bighorn sheep,” said former vice chairman of the Havasupai Tribe, Matthew Putesoy Sr., to the beat of a drum. This sacred animal is said to protect those who reside deep within the canyon.

The Havasupai is one of the 11 tribes culturally associated with the Grand Canyon.

“We like to say we’ve worked with all 11 tribes. That’s just not true,” said Dan Pawlak, a cultural demonstration program manager for the National Park Service. 

Each year, Grand Canyon National Park generates nearly a billion dollars from tourism. Demonstrations of tribal arts and crafts are part of that attraction. About 150 cultural demonstrations occur annually.

Funded by Grand Canyon Conservancy, the Cultural Demonstration Program has strived to elevate the Native voices of those tribes since its founding in 2014. The nonprofit has covered costs from travel stipends and supplies to compensation for their time and labor. 

That idea emerged from dialogues with the Inter-Tribal Working Group, and “their desire to see more representation inside the park,” according to Pawlak.

He frequently travels to markets and festivals around the state in search of new demonstrators from harder-to-reach tribal communities.

“It’s difficult, but I think the program has room to grow,” added Pawlak.

Pawlak inherited a database from his predecessor, which has more than doubled since 2021. His latest trip to Scottsdale sought to expand his vast rolodex of Native contacts. Members from all of Arizona’s 22 federally-recognized tribes were in attendance  that weekend. 

He says the agency has predominantly featured demonstrators from Navajo, Hopi and Zuni communities, for a decade now.

The Hualapais, Havasupais, Yavapai-Apaches as well as the Kaibab and San Juan bands of Paiutes of Arizona, in addition to Nevada’s Moapa Band of Paiute Indians and the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe and the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, have been less visible to visitors. 

“So let’s fix that. When I come out to these events, those are the people that I’m giving preference to,” said Pawlak, “because we need to have them in the program to accurately tell the story of Grand Canyon National Park and also themselves.”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.