Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive

Water is Alive: Navajo Connections to the Colorado River


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Water is Alive: Navajo Connections to the Colorado River


In Navajo belief systems, water is alive and a vital part of a healthy landscape. When Glen Canyon Dam blocked the flow of the Colorado River, a landscape that holds deep meaning in traditional Navajo spirituality was completely transformed.

For some, impounding the Colorado River behind Glen Canyon Dam was a wildly successful technological advancement. But for people in the Navajo Nation, it was an act of violence to the land. As early as 1922, when federal agreements aimed to fairly divide waters of the Colorado among Western states, the Navajo tribal government was excluded from the negotiations. Even as the river flowed through their lands, no guaranteed water right was allotted to the Navajo Nation. And when the Glen Canyon Dam was later built in the 1960s, the resulting reservoir dramatically impacted Navajo well-being.

For the Navajo people, water is a living being. Tribal leader Hank Stevens explains that “every living thing has to have oxygen. Even water has to have oxygen. If it doesn’t have oxygen, it won’t flow.  And if you look… at running water, you’ll see little bubbles in it.” The Navajo name for water is "The One That You Can See Through" and as Stevens tells it, damming the Colorado River significantly impacted the spirituality and health of the Navajo people. He talks about the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado Rivers as a convergence of male and female life forces and a site for offerings and ceremonies. Since the impoundment of the river and creation of Lake Powell, these sites are inaccessible to Navajo who wanted to make offerings there. 

“We never really had any type of health problems or anything like that,” Stevens says, “until, in recent years, some of our [people] have become diabetic and [are] dying of heart attacks... If you look at the rivers, that impoundment is pretty much like a blockage in your artery. Both rivers were ... the main arteries of the land. But once you stopped it and held it back… Those are some of the things that some of our traditional people are looking at as to why some of our people are being exposed to some of these health problems.” 

The long-term exclusion from water development decisions has been devastating for Navajo people. And while Glen Canyon Dam blocks the flow of the Colorado River, a landscape that holds meaning in traditional Navajo spirituality is forever transformed.


By Megan Weiss for Utah Humanities © 2022


Image: Glen Canyon Dam, 1966, F. Finch, US Bureau of Reclamation. At the 1922 meeting of the Colorado River Commission, federal representative Herbert Hoover remarked that, “the Indian question is always prominent in every question of the West… you always find some congressman … who will bob up and say, 'What is going to happen to the poor Indian?' We thought we would settle it while we were at it.” Hoover’s idea of "settling the Indian question," in relation to Colorado River water was excluding the Navajo Nation from negotiations. As water development decisions such as the Glen Canyon Dam demonstrate, this exclusion had negative impacts on the Navajo Nation for generations. Image courtesy Utah State Historical Society.

See William D. Back & Jeffery S. Taylor, “Navajo Water Rights: Pulling the Plug on the Colorado River,Natural Resources Journal 20 no. 71 (1980); Oral history with Hank Stevens at Naatsis’aan, Utah, conducted by Jed Rogers on October 29, 2018; Heather Tanana and Ted Kowalski, “Tribal water resilience relies on water management resources, training support,” March 24, 2022, Salt Lake Tribune, accessed June 2022.


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