Crossing Borders: The Colorado River - One Ecosystem, Many Managers

Sep 19, 2017

KaVoka Jackson in the Colorado River
Credit Ka-Voka Jackson

As you float down the Colorado River from Glen Canyon Dam to Lake Mead you may not realize that river right, the north side of the river, is owned and managed by the National Park Service and river left is managed by several groups including the Hualapai and Havasupai Indian nations.

Hualapai and surrounding tribes have inhabited the Grand Canyon region since 700 AD. They survived harsh desert conditions using their knowledge of plants and wildlife behavior, for example using their understanding of the seasonal movements of antelope, sheep and deer to procure food.  

Today Hualapai continue to practice sacred ceremonies and collect cultural resources within the canyon. But dams and other development have altered the riparian plant community which now includes many invasive species.

Ka-Voka Jackson, a member of the Hualapai tribe and graduate student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is currently researching methods to remove invasive plants while reestablishing native plants that are culturally important

“To me the Colorado River is really sacred and held really close in my heart because on my reservation we grew up along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon," she said. "And so being able to work in Glen Canyon National Recreation area is a really important because I am closer to home and our ancestral lands did extend as far as Glen Canyon, so we have ties to that area.” 

Tribe and federal agencies have collaborated for decades to manage natural and cultural resources within the Canyon, but cultural and institutional barriers can be much harder to cross than borders drawn on a map.

Ka-Voka and others realized that the perspectives and goals of traditional western scientists often differ from those with local and historical knowledge.

“I think there is a big gap between the traditional ecological knowledge that tribes hold versus the western science, and they don’t communicate," she said. "There is a gap in that communication but I think they could hugely benefit each other. The tribes have been living here a very long time, so they have a lot of knowledge and it’s often not brought into the science world.  There are a lot of reasons for that. A lot of people who hold this traditional knowledge don’t necessarily want to give it to the western scientists because they don’t want it to be exploited, it can be sold as a product, or they don’t want it used out of context. We hold a lot of this knowledge very close. I don’t want to pressure these knowledge holders to give up their knowledge, but I do want them to carefully use it in a way that can benefit everybody.”

Ka-Voka describes one of the paradoxes Native Americans face when trying to preserve cultural resources.

Former Hualapai cultural resources director Loretta Jackson-Kelly explained the dilemma tribes face when trying to preserve ecosystems and landscapes while also protecting their sacred significance.

In establishing traditional cultural properties, you want to make sure that is it written and that someone can come back and reference what it means for the tribe," Jackson-Kelly said. "But at the same time when you release confidential information - that is esoteric knowledge of tribes that is held sacred then you cannot release that type of information. A lot of the tribes have this conflict in management because  how can you manage a resource and justify its preservation when you can’t release the significance of that resource.”

Jackson-Kelly worked with the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program, an organization - and process - designed for the cooperative integration of dam operations, recreation, and resource conservation. Tribes throughout the region, the Bureau of Reclamation and other stakeholders have worked since 1991 to implement strategies that will preserve both cultural and ecological resources.

Hualapai on an annual resource monitoring trip learn about the river's water quality.
Credit Ka-Voka Jackson

“When we work with the scientists, you know western science is based on what you learn in academics," she said. "Whereas from a Native American perspective we didn’t have universities and we didn’t go to college. This was all handed down to us through experience, from generation to generation through oral histories, and oral stories. We have already gone through all the experiments over time to arrive at this point. Regardless of whether we have degrees or not, because we are a land-based people we have studied the land."      

Since Glen Canyon’s construction, an annual monitoring trip is conducted by each tribe in the region, to assess archeological and botanical resources. These river trips serve to inform scientists and river managers, but they also are an opportunity for the Hualapai to continue the tradition of passing ecological knowledge from one generation to the next. Ethnobotanist for the tribe, Carrie Cannon, described the significance of these trips.

“To me the goal is more about the sharing of traditional ecological knowledge so that the knowledge tribal members possess about the landscape doesn’t disappear, or fade away, or die out," Cannon said. "There have been all these things that have happened in our history where essentially Native Americans have been forced to assimilate, and join the mainstream, but tribal people have their own language and ideologies and their own unique way of looking at the world.  Even the taxonomic systems are different than the Linnaean western science system. The names for plants tell you something about the plant - they tell you a story, so even embedded in the language is ecological knowledge.”

I spoke with ecologist and member of the adaptive management group Larry Stevens, about how he views the differences in perspective of western scientists and those of indigenous people.

“As big schism has actually appeared - in the west, we tend to think of managing for conservation and restoration towards a pristine condition without human influence," he said. "Indigenous tribes and Asian cultures, as far as I can tell, feel that man has a role in managing, our human purpose is to improve nature - very different than the western perspective.”

Royal Arches Spring, Grand Canyon
Credit Larry Stevens / Spring Stewardship Institute

Stevens and the Spring Stewardship Institute have worked with communities across the globe, including tribes of the southwest to assess the integrity of spring ecosystems, which are universally recognized as an important, socio-economic resource.  Through the development of standard protocols and a password-protected database, they have created a tool, which allows the Hualapai to assess water resources without having to share the exact locations of the springs.

“If they are concerned with some issue of groundwater quality, or declining aquifers, or species of concern with neighbors, they can talk in the same language about it. That’s the beauty of this database is it allows neighbors to talk about springs with a common framework.”  

Collaborations between the federal government, state agencies, ecologists and tribes had a rough start, but through many heated arguments and discussions, tribal knowledge has been included in the management of Grand Canyon resources. For example, all parties influenced groundbreaking research to use experimental high flow releases to help manage riparian habitat along the Colorado.

As tribes and managers face a future of increased temperatures and increased water demand, collaborative approaches to resource conservation will be the norm. 

The UPR Original Series "Crossing Borders" is a yearlong storytelling project between UPR and the USU Office of Global Engagement - providing services for international students and scholars; and facilitating study abroad opportunities for students and faculty. Details found here