The beautiful red walls of the Antelope Canyon have appeared on social media feeds everywhere as tourists and Instagram influencers share their trips to the desert hot spot. But what most don’t see on social media are the Navajo people whose history runs deep through the land that is now considered a destination.
“It’s changed so much,” Siera Begaye, a Navajo woman who grew up in Page, Arizona, tells Yahoo Life. “Our natural homeplace has turned into a place for economic growth.”
The mother-of-one, who identifies herself as being from the Diné clan, recalls growing up just down the road from the LeChee community and attending an elementary school with majority Native children. She also remembers roaming the many canyons that surrounded her, including the Antelope Canyon.
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“I grew up going to a number of them,” she says. “I’ve even gone to different canyons where we would have to go and ask permission from the families who live in that area. A lot of times, our elders only speak Navajo. And so I’m not as fluent in Navajo, but we would always have a friend that knew and would translate and talk to them for us.”
Despite being taught to treat the land and those who live there with such respect, Begaye would see people outside of the community not doing so as she became a tour guide of Antelope Canyon and witnessed a “disconnect” when it came to the actions of tourists. She recalls a particular set of instances where it was apparent that visitors didn’t take into account the sacred traditions of the Navajo people.
“There have been times where people have come in with their relatives, cremated, and have brought their ashes down into the Canyon and put their ashes everywhere in the Canyon, as people are walking by. And for us it was a hard pause, like, ‘What is happening? What is going on?’” she explains. “We as Navajo people, we view death as a very sacred time and moment. And a lot of times, our pregnant women or babies aren’t allowed to go to funerals because it’s such a strong energy.”
Begaye goes on to say that most tour guides at the Canyon are traditional Navajo people who immediately took caution and had the area shut down.
“The spirit was placed in here, and it could affect us. It could affect our lives, our well-being, you know, we could get sick from this. So we had to call in different Navajo medicine people to pray about this,” she says. “So that was like one of the things that I feel like made me very frustrated. Dominant culture thinks that one thing is OK, but coming into a space where you’re a guest, that’s not OK.”
Despite many obstacles that the Navajo people are currently facing — including health care, police brutality and domestic violence against women — Begaye says that one of their biggest undertakings is educating others about Native culture.
“It’s really hard when people just don’t care or aren’t willing to change or aren’t really willing to look at the facts,” she says. “I feel like that’s what a lot of indigenous people want is just, you know, acknowledgement of what we’ve been through, what we’re continuing to go through.”
As a social media influencer herself with over 20,000 followers on Instagram, Begaye is cultivating an online community for young indigenous people. She’s also become an ambassador for the Indigenous 20-Something Project — a movement with the mission of bringing health and wellness to the next generation of Native people — and other organizations aimed at storytelling among Native women.
“I want to be an influence to my community,” she says. “The main thing is just wanting the best for my community.”
AR experienced produced by Jon San.
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