Rainbow Bridge, Utah – Tsé’naa Na’ní’áhí

Rainbow Bridge’s Navajo name is Tsé’naa Na’ní’áhí – (Rock Span)
or Na’nízhoozhí – (Span or Bridge)


Rainbow Bridge, Utah - Tsé'naa Na’ní’áhí

Rainbow Bridge is the world’s largest known natural bridge.

From its base to the top of the arch, it is 290 feet-nearly the height of the Statue of Liberty-and spans 275 feet across the river. .The top is 42 feet (13 meters) thick and 33 feet (10 meters) wide.

The dark, vertical streaks onthe sandstone, called “desert varnish,” are composed of iron oxide or manganese. Many believe these particles leach from the rocks; others believe that minerals are blown as dust particles and settle on wetter areas of rock. Afternoon sunlight makes the colors especially brilliant.

The existence of this famed rock span was known to the Paiutes and Navajos long before its discovery by Anglo-Americans.

That discovery was shared by two veteran Southwestern scholars–Dr. Byron Cummings and William B. Douglass–who were united, albeit briefly, by John Wetherill, a famous Southwestern trader and explorer in his own right.

On August 11, 1909, the group began their trek to the bridge.

They were guided by Ute Mountain Ute Jim Mike, a member of the Douglass party who had supposedly heard about the bridge from the Navajos, and by John Wetherill, trader and self-taught archeologist.

Along the way they were to meet up with Paiute Nasja Begay, and Navajo Dogeye Begay.

Finally, late in the afternoon of August 14, the weary riders reached their goal.

William B. Douglas party, including Navajo Ute, and Paiute Indians

William B. Douglas party, including Navajo Ute, and Paiute Indians, celebrate their discovery of Rainbow Bridge, Utah, as they eat watermelon in Paiute Canyon, 1909. – Photo by By N. Judd

To the Navajo people of the Southwest, Rainbow Bridge is not just a unique geological feature.

Navajo stories tell of a male and a female rainbow person coming together in perfect union, and being frozen in time.

This rock rainbow is particularly special because it is the only rainbow that can be viewed from both sides (Luckert 22-3). It is the site of ritual offerings, sacred ceremonies, and other religious practices.

Glen Canyon is home to several other sites of religious significance for the Navajo people, including a sacred spring, several rock beings, and the union of the feminine Colorado River and the masculine San Juan River.

However, these sites have all been covered by the waters of the manmade Lake Powell, disrupting Navajo spiritual practice (Luckert 24). One major concern of the Navajo is that the rock people are being drowned by Lake Powell.

Additionally, sacred offerings cannot be placed at the union of the Colorado and San Juan Rivers, as it is covered by water, which prevents the Navajo from properly conducting ceremonies that protect them from harsh weather and disease (Luckert 25).

Perhaps of more pressing concern than any of these other issues is the increasingly large presence of tourism in the Glen Canyon area. Because of the tourists, the Navajo people are not able to communicate with the spirits around Rainbow Bridge during the day, but the ceremonies cannot be conducted at night after the tourists have left because of the decrees of the spirits (Luckert 92-3).

Tourists are also often quite disrespectful of Navajo beliefs. Despite the posting of various signs asking them to avoid doing so, many tourists approach and walk under Rainbow Bridge, things that are expressly forbidden in the Navajo tradition.

A Navaho Creation Myth about Rainbow Bridge told by Frank Goldtooth

One day the Twins were playing and they came to a canyon facing the north which is now Paiute Canyon. They could not get across when a worm came along and stretched his body across the canyon.

It was a shooting worm, wó nal?’ilí, and it later became Rainbow Bridge. According to this bridge, all bridges have been made in the same way. The worm did this himself for he had power.

After they were almost grown, both Twins lived at Navaho Mountain. They ran around Navaho Mountain four times from the east to the west and from the south to the north. When they had finished, they were full grown.

Works Cited:
Luckert, Karl W. Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge Religion. Flagstaff: Museum of Northern Arizona
Navaho Legends by Matthews, Washington,- Navaho Legends.
Harrison Lapahie Jr. – lapahie.com
Sacred Land, Sacred View – Robert S. McPherson

The Four Navajo Sacred Mountains

Mount Blanca (Tsisnaasjini’ – Dawn or White Shell Mountain – East
Mount Taylor (Tsoodzil – Blue Bead or Turquoise Mountain) – South
San Francisco Peaks (Doko’oosliid – Abalone Shell Mountain) – West
Mount Hesperus Dibé Nitsaa (Big Mountain Sheep) – Obsidian Mountain – North

Navajo People Website Links:

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