The overwhelming brobdingnagian Grand Canyon: Te Aitanga a Pōkai Whenua 2

Powell Point panorama, Grand Canyon, Arizona

I did not take this photo. I’m not much of a photographer, and I most certainly could not imagine capturing the Grand Canyon in a way that came close to expressing what it is like to be there.

We left Las Vegas at 12.15am in the hope of getting to the Canyon before the sunrise. We failed in that aim, but it did mean that as I drove up U.S. 64 from the Interstate 40 at sunrise, I witnessed an immense landscape of grasses and sparse trees embraced by a sky of indigo, blue and pink. There is no equivalent sense of scale in Aotearoa, nowhere the land truly has no end, where Ranginui never left the embrace of Papatūānuku.

The First Nations’ stories of the Grand Canyon are in many ways tragic, and echo our own experience of colonisation and confiscation. To date, I have heard snippets of the stories of three tribes associated withe Canyon: the Havasupai; the Yavapai; and the Hopi. All three had vast lands to wander, in which to hunt, grow crops and build a life. In the course of the colonial powers expanding across the continent, warring with each other, and the foundation and establishment of the USA, these three tribes got pushed out of their traditional lands into smaller and smaller pockets of reservation.

The salient point for my liberal, green friends, is that the robbery of these particular indigenous people occurred in large part because of the recognition of the outstanding environmental and heritage features of the landscape; the Havasupai couldn’t be left to their meagre allotments in the bottom of the Canyon for fear they might move an artifact left by their ancestors that an archaeologist found to be significant. All that I read today are the same arguments that are rehashed in DOC and the Historic Places Trust – feel free to be the spiritual guardian, but don’t have the temerity to want to be co-managers.

The Grand Canyon Village is a big operation. Buses are moving people on tours constantly, every 15 minutes. Facts are rattled off apace. Nicnacs fly out of the shop. All admidst the wild beauty of roaming elks, native fauna, and the Grand Canyon itself. Geology has never looked so attractive. Time and again, the bravery of those first explorers is noted and lauded. Indeed the photo above was taken at a monument to the first explorer to map the Grand Canyon: John Wesley Powell. He did it with one arm (he lost the other in the Civil War), which is admittedly pretty badass.

The first known traverse of the Grand Canyon. It has a nice ring to it. Unfortunately, it’s a hollow ring as it blithely ignores the history and stories of First Nations people. They have little or no place in the Grand Canyon except as helpers to their better white leaders. I can imagine this is how the Sherpas feel whenever they say Sir Ed’s name in lights.

But that is why we are here. Together, the Fourth World is strong. When we see ourselves and our God in the stranger, we form a global community of learned indigenous people. And in the spirit of that wisdom, my complaints are really petty when you are standing on the side of one of the wonders of our world. We are so small and insignificant at those times; we are reminded of our rightful place in relation to our environment, our mother, our elder.

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