Slice of Life: Janet Cohen, Grand Canyon's tribal liason

Grand Canyon National Park’s Intertribal liason Janet Cohen. Clara Beard/NHO

Grand Canyon National Park’s Intertribal liason Janet Cohen. Clara Beard/NHO

Tell us a little about your job as the park's tribal liason. What area tribes do you work with?

This position is a new one. It doesn't mean that work in this position hasn't already been happening, but we've been able to really focus and expand our work and get a lot more accomplished with a full-time position. So I am a one-woman program.

There are 11 traditionally associated tribes that we work with. Some are more active than others, out of that 11 there's a group of five that are Southern Paiute, and they like to meet together and speak as a collective usually. There's one of those tribes, the Kaibab band of Paiutes, they usually coordinate and we work mostly with them. Other tribes we work a lot with are the Zuni, Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai and Hualapai. We also do some work with the Yavapai-Apache nation who is down in Camp Verde, but they're a little less active in our consultations.

Which tribe would you say you work with the most?

We work with the Navajo Tribe a lot, and mostly the Historic Preservation Department. It's really up to the tribes. So what I typically do to initiate a project where either there's a legal aspect of compliance to provide and opportunity for tribes to weigh in on a project, or it's something we just really want input on because we think they'd have an interest and can help us better manage a park resource or provide interpretive materials. We contact all 11, and then it's usually a subset that's interested in any kind of project.

So you'd say that you consult with the Navajo Tribe most?

I wouldn't say that we consult with the Navajo more than the others, at all. In fact, Zuni is incredibly active right now, even though they are one of the furthest away, they still retain really important and cultural ties to the Canyon, as do all the tribes.

Could you give me some examples as to what the Zuni are active in right now?

Sure, there are a couple of things. Outside of my program, a number of the tribes are active in the Adaptive Management program, that is really the management of the Colorado River and the dam and the Zuni is one of them. But also, the Zuni is active in a couple of our compliance projects. One is the Glen Canyon Dam fish management plan. We have an environmental assessment out for review, and a memorandum of agreement that the state historical preservation officer in the park does. The tribes are all invited signatories. The Zuni have been very interested in that. So they've been talking to us a bit about that.

They are also helping us with our Backcountry Management program. All the tribes have weighed in. We're going to do some signage at Ribbon Falls, because that is the area the Zuni believe they emerged from into the Canyon, and into the world.

We do the legal compliance part, but really a lot of what we try to do is outside of that box, recognizing that for the tribes' own benefit, we want them to maintain those strong connections to the Canyon so we want the park to be a more inviting place for the tribes to come back to. And it's not only for their benefit, it's for ours as well. We think that enriches the visitors and us and helps us better understand the land we're managing, to better understand their relationship to it.

What are some special projects you're working on?

We're taking a group of Havasupai elders down to Indian Garden, which is part of their traditional homeland that they were essentially forced out of by the Park Service. Also, we recently had a big meeting at the park that included representatives from all the tribes, which we're calling a new "inter-tribal advisory council."

What are some of the more sensitive issues, the ones that are perhaps more challenging to mediate?

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, work is always sensitive, because you're dealing with human remains that were removed from their original resting locations. It's the one area where this is some larger politics, if you will, at play among the tribes, Hopi and Navajo in particular, because of their long term land disputes.

We have three tribes that share a boundary in the park, Havasupai, Hualapai and Navajo and in two of those cases, with the Navajo and Hualapai; we do have a boundary dispute about where the actual line is. But we all understand and agree that if that gets tied up in lawsuits it's going to be hard for everybody and the best thing we can possibly do is work together in those areas and share some responsibilities and agree to disagree, but continue to work together. And that is what is happening, mostly.

Tribes would also like to collect some plants and some minerals for ceremonial or traditional purposes, and that's something that I think over the years we will be able to provide more of, but not right now. And that's a challenge and frustrating because of course, we recognize their interest in it and would like to be able to do that, but you have to follow the law.

All of the prayers and ceremonies that they're doing in their home communities, many of those are about the Grand Canyon, because they emerged here. They're asking for rain or protection and it's not just for their communities, it's for all of us and the Grand Canyon landscape that's so sacred to all the tribes.

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