Cultural sites are being revealed by a dwindling Lake Powell

More cultural sites have been revealed, presenting new challenges to land managers as well as opportunities for new archaeological research.

As Lake Powell began to fill in 1963, the Sierra Club published a best-selling coffee table book that featured photographer Eliot Porter’s images of Glen Canyon.

The book’s title, “The Place No One Knew,” framed a narrative that would find its way into future conservationist elegies for the Colorado River canyon in southern Utah.

Glen Canyon, the story went, was in such a wild, remote part of the United States that nobody — from lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to Bureau of Reclamation engineers to activists like then-Sierra Club director David Brower — fully understood what would be lost when the Glen Canyon Dam was authorized by Congress in 1956.

But “no one” was a selective term. The first written account of a European to visit the canyon came from the Spanish expedition led by priests Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante in 1776.

The party got hopelessly lost attempting to ford the Colorado River upstream from the future dam site and was forced to eat several of its horses, all while constantly crossing the fresh tracks of the area’s Indigenous residents, likely members of the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe.

In 1869, Major John Wesley Powell encountered the ashes of many campfires in Glen Canyon left by Diné (Navajo) traders who frequented the area.

Humans have hunted, farmed and lived in Glen Canyon for millennia, building multistory cliff dwellings, crafting intricate petroglyph and pictograph panels, and leaving the remains of irrigation systems.

(Jack Stauss) Tribune reporter Zak Podmore stands in a cultural site in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area that was once covered by Lake Powell on Sept. 21, 2022.

And Indigenous people were still living and farming along the Colorado when the Glen Canyon Dam was being constructed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Carol Bigthumb, the owner of Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours in Page, Ariz., and a member of the Navajo Nation, recalls herding sheep along the Colorado River to reach her family’s summer camp as a girl.

“When you were crossing the water, you had to ride a donkey,” she said. “The water went up to the donkey’s stomach.

“We had a hogan down there,” she continued, “a big cornfield and a sheep corral. The river was just right there, flowing. It was so beautiful.”

The family’s farm plot and hogan are now several hundred feet under Lake Powell, along with tens of thousands of cultural sites and burials.

“How would America feel if we decided to flood Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?” asked Hank Stevens, a resident of Navajo Mountain and the Navajo Nation’s representative on the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition.

Traditional grazing lands and ancestral trails were lost under the rising waters, Stevens said, as were countless species, all of which were part of a cultural landscape for many Native American people.

“The only difference is that,” he said, “these species were alive compared to the people that are buried at Arlington Cemetery. We [Navajo people] pay tribute to the landscape and the trees, the vegetation and every form of life. We respect them pretty much like human forms.”

Declining reservoir levels

The population of much of southeast Utah was once higher than it is today, said Erik Stanfield, an anthropologist for the Navajo Nation Heritage and Historic Preservation Department.

“These landscapes were populated, active,” Stanfield said. “You would have looked out across the landscape and seen little fires and villages and people moving around.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Navajo Nation anthropologist Erik Stanfield explores a cultural site near Lake Powell on Sept. 20, 2022.

As Lake Powell has dropped to its lowest level since it was first filled in the 1960s, more cultural sites have been revealed, presenting new challenges to land managers as well as opportunities for new archaeological research.

Stanfield, who previously worked for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, was involved with a study funded by the National Park Service to survey cultural sites that have reemerged from Lake Powell with low water.

“Twenty-five percent of sites that were relocated still had some level of integrity, even if they had been severely impacted,” Stanfield said

Petroglyphs etched into the cliff faces had been partially obscured by Lake Powell’s white calcium carbonate bathtub ring, but many are still visible upon careful examination. Archaeologists discovered fully intact pots dating back over a thousand years that had been exposed by shifting sediments — as well as eroding burials.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ancestral Puebloan pottery sherds found next to litter in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on Sept. 23, 2022.

In most cases, the walls of cliff dwellings have been knocked down by boat wakes, but that doesn’t mean the scientific and cultural value of the site has been erased.

“There may still be cultural deposits in the soils,” Stanfield said, “even if the structure is destroyed. And 25%, if you expand that to the entire lake, is a lot.”

The Glen Canyon Salvage Project

Bill Lipe, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Washington State University, said that while cliff dwellings tend to get the most attention from visitors, the majority of cultural sites in Glen Canyon did not feature free-standing walls, even before Lake Powell.

Lipe was a 23-year-old graduate student in 1958 when he arrived in Glen Canyon to lead a field crew of archaeologists to survey ancestral Puebloan sites that would soon be inundated by the reservoir.

Despite not knowing how to swim, Lipe said he grew comfortable navigating the riffles of Glen Canyon while wearing a life jacket, and he soon learned to pilot a motorized skiff through its waters. He returned to continue archaeological field work in the area through 1961 and eventually wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the area between the San Juan and Colorado rivers.

“It was a challenge,” Lipe said, “and an opportunity to actually make a contribution to knowledge in an area that was just incredibly exciting just to be in.”

(Charles Butler Hunt | U.S. Geological Survey) In this archival photograph from 1939, Ralph Miller examines petroglyphs near the Colorado River before the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam.

The University of Utah-led project was undertaken before a slew of modern laws governing the management of cultural resources were passed, Lipe said, and no tribes with ancestral ties to the landscape were consulted, despite the fact that the federal government annexed lands that belonged to the Navajo Nation into the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and that the area has links to numerous other tribes.

Lipe’s project was an exercise in what is sometimes referred to as “salvage archaeology,” a race against the dam builders downstream.

“By today’s standards,” Lipe said, “the project survey was more like a reconnaissance, rather than being truly systematic, but we did the best we could, [covering] 180 miles of river canyon and the lower parts of the tributary canyons.”

The crews with the University of Utah and a related project led by the Museum of Northern Arizona uncovered evidence of human occupation going back at least 7,000 years. In Lake Canyon, they surveyed a Ute camp that likely dated to around 1915.

(Charles Butler Hunt | U.S. Geological Survey) In this archival photograph from 1939, river runners approach an Ancestral Puebloan dwelling near the Colorado River in Glen Canyon.

Most of their research was focused on sites dated between the third and thirteenth centuries. After the ancestral Puebloan people largely left the area in the 1200s, Lipe said there was evidence that Hopi people continued to revisit the canyon’s shrines for hundreds of years.

Lipe believes his archaeological crew was the second-ever party of Anglos to reach Defiance House in Forgotten Canyon. Before Lake Powell filled, the site was difficult to access from the river, requiring a long hike up a narrow canyon and two difficult scrambles around waterfalls.

The cliff dwelling and kiva are located at just above 3,700 feet in elevation, Lake Powell’s full pool level. The National Park Service stabilized the site, and photos from the 1990s, when Lake Powell was last full, show scantily clad houseboaters posing for photographs on the kiva roof.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Defiance House, an Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling near Lake Powell, was once a heavily visited before reservoir levels dropped. April 27, 2022.

Accessing Defiance House now, with Lake Powell’s elevation over 170 feet below its full level, requires a few miles of hiking along a badly eroded trail, and it sees far fewer visitors than it did a couple of decades ago.

The site is illustrative of the challenges the park service faces when managing cultural resources at Lake Powell, as the most significant visitor impacts track the reservoir’s ever-fluctuating shoreline. Areas that were under 100 feet of water in 2019 now offer sandy campsites, some of which are on top of unmarked cultural sites.

In Slick Rock Canyon, visitors once scrambled up a steep talus slope to access a cliff dwelling, damaging artifacts scattered below the site. In response, the park service built a tall chain-link fence topped with overhanging barbed wire, closing the site to future visitation.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area did not respond to a list of questions about its cultural resource management policies.

A cultural landscape

Lake Powell is adjacent to both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments as well as Grand Canyon and Canyonlands national parks.

R.E. Burrillo, a former Glen Canyon National Recreation Area archaeologist and the author of “Behind the Bears Ears: Exploring the Cultural and Natural Histories of a Sacred Landscape,” said seeing those parks and monuments as culturally distinct would be a mistake.

“The folks living at Glen Canyon,” Burrillo said, “folks living in Grand Canyon and folks living in Bears Ears were in communication with each other. They were moving between those landscapes and were, in some cases, the same people. It’s only now that we separate [those places].”

But the land management designations have a big impact on how the regions are used today.

In Bears Ears, which was designated by former president Barack Obama at the request of the five-tribe Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition in 2016, visitor impacts to cultural resources are an issue, Burrillo said, but they are nowhere near as severe as on Lake Powell.

“People go to the Grand Canyon or Bears Ears to be blown away,” he said. “People go to Lake Powell to party and … scratch graffiti all over it. It’s a combination litter box and party zone, and that’s reflected in the way that folks treat everything there, including cultural resources. My job as an archaeologist in Glen Canyon was to document things getting wrecked.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A campfire ring and graffiti near a cultural site in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on Sept. 23, 2022.

Last year, Richard Begay, manager of the Navajo Nation Heritage and Historic Preservation Department, wrote a letter to the National Park Service requesting formal government-to-government consultations on nine management issues in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Begay cited the park service’s “pattern of relations that lacks responsiveness, meaningful dialogue, and incorporation of tribal views in decision-making processes.”

Stanfield believes Glen Canyon National Recreation Area would benefit from an update to its 1979 general management plan, increased funding for its archaeological team and efforts to improve tribal consultation.

He also said there needs to be more education of visitors about the area’s significance for the hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people from at least 11 tribes whose ancestors once lived in the Glen Canyon region.

Non-indigenous visitors to Lake Powell, Stanfield said, “should come to this place knowing that it is somebody else’s territory, somebody else’s house, somebody else’s land — and be respectful of that.”

For Bigthumb, the owner of the Antelope Canyon tour company, the possibility that Lake Powell could drop even lower — or that the Glen Canyon Dam could be modified to allow for more flexible water management — is no great cause for concern.

The reservoir’s record-low levels have had little effect on her business, which brings hundreds of tourists daily through the spectacular slot canyons near Page that once fed into the Colorado River.

Bigthumb’s 98-year-old mother often gets asked about what the landscape was like before Lake Powell.

“She has all the stories. If the lake is low, it doesn’t bother us,” Bigthumb said, because the elders saw it before the dam. “They say it’s going back to its natural place.”