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scenic overlook into a large canyon. on the right, a stone watchtower
Desert View scenic overlook at Grand Canyon National Park
NPS Photo
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Transforming the Grand Canyon’s Desert View into an Inter-tribal Cultural Heritage Site

By Alison Steinbach

Grand Canyon National Park is transforming a popular visitor services area into the National Park Service’s (NPS) first inter-tribal cultural heritage site, a place that will center Native American life, culture, and interpretation and highlight tribal communities’ deep and longstanding connections to the land.

With support from the National Park Foundation (NPF), Grand Canyon Conservancy, and other partners, the park is reshaping the Desert View area, a scenic overlook and visitor center at the southeast boundary of the South Rim. The site is becoming a cultural heritage space for visitors to learn about local Native American culture and history, as well as a new economic opportunity for the 11 tribes traditionally associated with the Grand Canyon region.

A paved path weaves through stones. In the distance, a stone watchtower
Work underway at the Desert View Inter-tribal Cultural Heritage Site at Grand Canyon National Park (NPS Photo)
A large stone watchtower overlooks a scenic panoramic view of the Grand Canyon
Designed in 1932 By Mary Colter and constructed by the Santa Fe Railroad, The Desert View Watchtower overlooks the eastern end of Grand Canyon National Park. (NPS Photo)

The collaboration between tribal members and the park at the Desert View area will transform how many visitors first see the park and how they understand local tribes’ past and present relationship to the Grand Canyon.

NPF, with generous funding from supporting partner Pendleton, has supported key elements of this project, including infrastructure improvements, an Ancestral Lands service corps crew, and the design of an orientation area at the main entry to Desert View.

Work underway at Desert View in Grand Canyon National Park
Work underway at Desert View in Grand Canyon National Park (NPS Photo)

The Ancestral Lands crew, comprised of young adults from Grand Canyon’s traditionally associated tribes, engaged in conservation, preservation, vegetation restoration, and cultural programs at the site, all while building connections to their ancestral homelands. Grand Canyon has hosted identity-based Native American crews since 2015, providing youth with cultural connections to land through conservation corps work, trade skill development, and internships.

The orientation area, supported by NPF, will serve as a visitor introduction to Desert View. It is designed with natural materials and imagery provided by tribes with narratives about indigenous cultures and the landscape and will also feature additional cultural demonstration spaces for use by tribal members.

Work underway at Desert View in Grand Canyon National Park
Work underway at Desert View in Grand Canyon National Park (NPS Photo)

Once the project is complete, park visitors and tribal members will have new opportunities to interact with each other, and artisans from the local community will be able to share their history and culture. The site will host cultural demonstrations including weaving, pottery, sculpture, jewelry, and painting, as well as events and exhibits to help visitors hear directly from tribal representatives by way of first-voice interpretation. Desert View will also be a place where tribes can inform visitors about tourism experiences on tribal lands and serve as a meeting point for tours.

Sitting at the east entrance of the park, Desert View and its historic Desert View Watchtower are the first stops for many visitors seeking park information and itching for their initial glimpses of the spectacular canyon stretched out to the Colorado River far below.

Desert View often sees over one million visitors a year, and the new inter-tribal heritage site will engage parkgoers from across the country and world in learning about the region’s diverse cultures and the canyon’s first inhabitants.

Collaboration with Associated Tribes

A person holds up a board, showcasing an array of jewelry, and speaks to someone standing in front of them
Tony Eriacho, Zuni carver and jeweler discusses authentic American Indian crafts with park visitor in the Kiva Room of Desert View Watchtower during a 2015 Cultural Demonstration event (NPS Photo / Maci MacPherson)
a row of three living rooms, defined by partial stone walls within an 800 year old pueblo. Paved footpaths are on each side.
Tusayan Pueblo is the remains of a small Ancestral Puebloan village located 3 miles (5 km) west of Desert View, and Grand Canyon National Park's East Entrance. (NPS Photo / Michael Quinn)

The transformation of Desert View has been in the works for over a decade, kicked off by a collaborative group of NPS staff, nonprofit partners, and representatives from the park’s 11 traditionally associated tribes: Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, Las Vegas Tribe of Paiute Indians, Moapa Band of Paiute Indians, Navajo Nation, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, Pueblo of Zuni, San Juan Southern Paiute, and the Yavapai-Apache Nation.

Those tribes have long-term connections to the park prior to its establishment and consider park resources as key to their development and cultural identity.

The Grand Canyon is deeply significant to Southwest tribes, with three of those federally recognized tribes sharing borders with the park and the others traditionally associated with its land.

Desert View Watchtower Interior
The ceiling inside the Desert View Watchtower at Grand Canyon National Park was painted by Hopi artist Fred Kabotie (NPS Photo)

The planning was undertaken in close collaboration with the tribes, and tribal perspectives and history were built into the creation of programming and exhibit plans for Desert View, as well as plans to support tribal youth employment opportunities at the site and shape how tribes would be visually represented in the area. Tribes will benefit from programming that provides jobs and economic growth through craft sales and the promotion of tourism on tribal lands.

Historic buildings such as the Desert View Watchtower and Civilian Conservation Corps-era bookstore will be preserved and used in new ways by tribes, both reinvigorating the area and improving the visitor experience, with the bookstore serving as a new tribal welcome center.

Grand Canyon Conservancy (the park’s official nonprofit partner), NPS, NPF, and others have played significant roles funding and advancing this first-of-its-kind project, which will benefit the park, tribes, and visitors for years to come. And the project serves as an example for how a national park can collaborate with tribal members in the park experience, enrich the site for all involved, and include Native people to share their stories, benefit tangibly, and continue to be a central part of the land well into the future.

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