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Ooh and awe: The science behind our fascination with the Grand Canyon

February 25, 2019

ASU psychology professor's research into awe reveals discoveries about the emotion's function in everyday life

Editor's note: This story is part of an ASU Now series celebrating the centennial of the Grand Canyon National Park.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt called it "the one great sight which every American should see." In 1919, perhaps in recognition of that sentiment, a national park was established to preserve its splendor for generations to come.

Today, not only Americans but more than 5 million tourists from around the world make the trek to the Grand Canyon every year. As they gather at lookout points, veritable moths to a flame, audible gasps can be heard echoing up and down the rim — the awe of the canyon.

This reaction is practically universal, transcending age, culture and socioeconomic factors. At Arizona State University, Associate Professor of social psychology Lani Shiota is an expert on the emotion of awe. In her research, Shiota is working to uncover the secrets of the emotion — including its very purpose — and she has made some interesting discoveries.

For starters, awe is something that is almost certainly uniquely human.

“The capacity for awe relies on something that humans are certainly best at, and that is taking a mental map of things and people in the world and forming an internal mental representation of those things,” Shiota said. “It’s a huge part of how we survive.”

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

For centuries, humans have relied on mental maps of the world based on prior experiences to guide us safely through new and unexpected situations and territory. So, when we encounter something we’ve never seen before, it is in our best interest to absorb as much information about it as possible, to be able to add it to our internal mental schema and be better prepared for something like it in the future.

Researchers are still learning how the emotion of awe allows that to happen, but what they theorize is that it alters our information processing.

“When we're in an awe state, part of what our minds are telling us is that prior experience doesn’t necessarily apply here. So what we think it's doing is promoting a cognitive and behavioral state — and perhaps even a physiological state — that makes it easier to take in information,” Shiota said.

“So you stop moving. Your attentional focus shifts from yourself, your day-to-day priorities, whatever was on your mind just beforehand, to be entirely focused on this awe-eliciting thing in front of you, whatever that may be.”

To listen to some ASU students’ experiences of the Grand Canyon is to hear compelling evidence to prove that theory.

Ethan Hetrick, a junior in physics, has visited the canyon many times. When asked how it makes him feel, he replied, “My senses kind of get clearer. … It’s almost like I’m more aware of what I’m experiencing in that moment. I can see a little bit sharper; I’m aware of the sounds that are going on around me.”

Sunrise at Mather Point

Dawn breaks over the canyon at Mather Point. Photo by Craig Zerbe/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the laboratory, Shiota has tested the effects of awe on information processing by exposing subjects to an awe-inducing stimulus, then having them read a story about a romantic dinner and asking them to recall certain details afterward.

She found that people were less likely to add details from their internal mental schemas of what a romantic dinner should include if they had been exposed to an awe-inducing stimulus before reading the story.

For example, when asked if there had been a candle on the table in the story, subjects who had not been exposed to an awe-inducing stimulus often recalled that there was a candle, when in reality, the story made no mention of a candle. People who had been exposed to an awe-inducing stimulus before reading the story were less likely to make that mistake.

“That tells us they're really attending more carefully to the information that was actually in the story,” Shiota said.

Exactly what causes people to feel awe can vary, but panoramic nature views — and the Grand Canyon itself — are high up on the list.

“The most commonly accepted definition of awe in literature right now involves encountering a stimulus, something very large, very vast or with very vast implications that doesn't map onto knowledge that we have already interpreted about the world around us,” Shiota said.

But people have also reported art, music, dance and social interactions as awe-inspiring.

“Anything that challenges their conception of the world,” she added, “or presents them with something new and complicated and difficult to take in, but valuable.”

And yet there are those few outliers who are more resistant to feeling awe. Shiota suspects it could be any number of reasons, such as overexposure to a certain stimulus or one’s willingness to admit — either consciously or subconsciously — that they are unfamiliar with something.

For those who do experience awe, the emotion isn’t just a mental experience. In her lab, Shiota has been able to measure people’s physiological response to awe-inducing stimuli. Unlike other positive emotions that cause arousal in the form of increased heart rate, dilated pupils and other such symptoms, awe appears to have a calming effect.

“It is one indicator that when people describe their body feeling suddenly calm and soothed in this experience, that there's something biologically real about that,” she said.

Top photo: Grand Canyon South Rim view at golden hour under a stormy sky with tourists at a lookout point taking pictures and selfies. Photo by Susan Vineyard/Getty Images/iStockphoto

 
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Native American view of the Grand Canyon's centennial celebration

February 25, 2019

Indigenous peoples historically have been disrupted by the American government and left to fend for themselves where the Grand Canyon is concerned

Editor's note: This story is part of an ASU Now series celebrating the centennial of the Grand Canyon National Park.

Most people view the Grand Canyon as a place of recreation; they go there to sightsee, hike, raft and camp. 

But the people who have lived there for millennia see it differently.

Native Americans view the Grand Canyon through myriad lenses: As a land tied to their place of origin. As a place to be both feared and revered. As a place of opportunity. As an inspiration for cultural expression. As a locale that is their history. As a holy site.

And they view it territorially among themselves.

All these elements run as deep and as wide as the canyon. 

Feb. 26, 2019, marks the centennial celebration of the Grand Canyon as a national park, but the anniversary does not mark the same experience for all peoples affected. 

“It’s the 100th anniversary of the U.S. claiming the Grand Canyon, which for indigenous communities is a moment of displacement, denial of heritage rights and political oppression,” said Theresa Avila, assistant professor of art and curator at California State University Channel Islands and the former manager of ASU’s Simon Burrow Transborder Map Collection. “We’re victims of a limited understanding of our own history as the United States, which has traditionally denied and omitted indigenous communities’ significance in the story of our country and in the process denied their presence, contributions and rights.”

Avila will be a presenter at the Mapping the Grand Canyon Conference on Feb. 28-29 at ASU’s Tempe campus. In her presentation, “Tracing the History of Native American Communities in Relation to the Grand Canyon”, she will address how historical representation of indigenous communities in relation to the Grand Canyon are typically grounded in the colonization of the Americas.

“Historically the narrative of the Grand Canyon has been presented to us through the lens of European explorers and U.S. westward expansion as Manifest Destiny," Avila said. "However, the story of the Grand Canyon is not just about the celebration of nation building; it is also about colonial practices that have historically eradicated indigenous ways of being while also creating mechanisms for the denial of their civic rights and social justice.”

Uranium mine

The Orphan Lode Mine is located on the edge of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, about two miles west of Grand Canyon Village. A former "rich grade" uranium ore mine, productive from 1956 to 1969, and a present-day highly contaminated radioactive waste site, the mine was opened in 1893 by Daniel L. Hogan as a copper claim and converted to the mining of U308

Chaos in the canyon's backyard

Archaeologists generally agree that ancient humans have been living in and around the Grand Canyon for approximately 10,000 years. Native American inhabitance of the Grand Canyon dates roughly to 200 B.C., when the Ancestral Puebloan people (commonly known as the Anasazi) lived within the boundaries of the Four Corners region and migrated toward the Grand Canyon. It was around this time that the Anasazi also migrated from the east and existed within the canyon. The Anasazi Granary, carved in the Redwall Limestone near the foot of the Nankoweap Trail, is an example of ancient seed- and food-storage facilities that can still be seen today. 

Though still murky to historians, it’s believed the Anasazi collapsed as a civilization around A.D. 1110. 

When the Anasazi vanished, other Native American tribes moved into the canyon and began to live there year-round, migrating between the inner canyon and upper plateau. Hardships began to emerge in the mid-1800s. The new frontier brought with it brutal wars, conflicts, murders and forced relocation as settlers moved to the West, put down stakes and mined the land for gold, silver, copper, zinc, asbestos and uranium. 

Treaties and relocation efforts by the U.S. government were not advantageous to American Indians, forcing them to other regions where they had to start over again. Those decisions have caused economic hardships for tribes for centuries.

“Of the 374 total U.S.-Indian treaties, 229 of these agreements involved the Indian nations surrendering tribal lands and 99 treaties promised reservations in exchange,” said Donald L. Fixico, Regents’ and Distinguished Foundation Professor of history. “Today there are 327 reservations and nearly 600 federally recognized tribes, and 22 of them live in Arizona.”

The two most prevalent tribes that reside on reservations at the Grand Canyon today are the Havasupai and the Hualapai. The canyon is also described as the place of emergence for the Navajo, Hopi, Paiute and Zuni. Today, Grand Canyon National Park recognizes 11 affiliated American Indian tribes from Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and UtahThe 11 federally recognized tribes are the Havasupai, Hualapai, Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Paiute Indian Tribes of Utah, Shivwits Band of Paiute, Moapa Paiute, Las Vegas Paiute, San Juan Southern Paiute and Yavapai-Apache..

While the Navajo, Havasupai and Hualapai reservations border the Grand Canyon National Park, these ancestral boundaries were overlooked by federal managers who often shortchangedIn the case of the Hopi tribe, they were shortchanged approximately 3.5 million acres of land. these tribes when taking their land.

After nearly a century of government policies aimed at assimilation and diminution of tribal government, the 1970s brought major change. The federal government began to support tribal self-determination, and in 1975 the Grand Canyon Enlargement Act transferred hundreds of thousands of acres back to the tribes.

In the 1990s the government started including tribes in park management decisions. This helped pave the way for the hypertourism — though some would call it hyperexploitation — that we see today at the Grand Canyon.

Skywalk

The Grand Canyon Skywalk is a transparent, horseshoe-shaped cantilever bridge and tourist attraction in Arizona near the Colorado River on the edge of a side canyon in the west of the main canyon. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Two sides of tourism

The Grand Canyon we know today might appear to exist just as it did thousands of years ago, but around its periphery a new landscape has emerged: hotels, tourist shops, sightseeing companies and eateries. Helicopters constantly hover overhead, and sightseeing boats cram the water at the western end. River trips are capped at 25,000 individuals a year, and a surge is expected in 2019, with a waiting list of close to 1,000 people

For decades, tourism at the Grand Canyon was relatively stable, with approximately 5 million visitors annually. But with more people travelling from around the world these days, those numbers have increased substantially. In 2017, the National Park Service announced the Grand Canyon drew more than 6.2 million visitors. 

Brian Skeet, a student worker in ASU’s Center for Indian Education who grew up in the Grand Canyon National Park, visited home last summer and noted a big uptick in tourism.

“During the summer it’s nonstop, and tour buses are stacked one right behind the other,” said Skeet, who is Navajo. “They say they want to reduce pollution in the area, but I don’t see how it can be done when those buses are continually running. If you lose respect for nature, you will ultimately pay for it.”

But for now, tribes in the area are looking at various ways to capture some of those tourism dollars. 

Some are better poised than others.

The Hualapai reservation encompasses about 1 million acres along 108 miles of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. Occupying part of three northern Arizona counties — Coconino, Yavapai and Mohave — the reservation’s topography varies from rolling grassland to thick forests to rugged canyons.  

Known as the “People of the Tall Pines,” the Hualapai run two main tourist attractions: Grand Canyon West resortGrand Canyon West resort offers tour and meal packages that includes rafting, boating, horseback riding, helicopter tours and zip-lining. and the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass-bottomed walkway that extends 70 feet out past the rim of the canyon. These two attractions draw close to a million visitors a year. 

In the 1990s, the Hualapai spent $1 million on a casino. However, the site was too remote, and a majority of tourists came to see and experience the Grand Canyon, not gamble. Less than a year after opening the casino, the Hualapai shut it down. 

The Havasupai, also known as the “People of the Blue-Green Water,” live on 3 million acres near the South Rim. The arrival of the Havasupai is set at around A.D. 1300, and they are known to be the only permanent, continuous inhabitants of the Grand Canyon. It's called “Wikatata” in their native tongue.

Cowboys and miners disrupted their way of life in the late 1800s, and in 1866 a three-year war commenced between the Havasupai people and the U.S. Army. 

President Rutherford B. Hayes deeded 38,000 acres to the Havasupai along Havasu Creek in 1880, but two years later reduced their ownership to just 500 acres. When Grand Canyon National Park was established in 1919, they were relegated to a reservation at the southwest corner of the park. In 1975, litigation resulted in 185,000 acres being returned to the Havasupai. 

village of Supai

The village of Supai, at the western edge of the Grand Canyon, is at the bottom of 3,000-foot deep Havasu Canyon and accessible only by foot, mule or helicopter.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Today the tribe has about 700 members whose livelihood largely comes from tourism as well as income from selling their gaming rights to other tribes. More than 20,000 people annually visit the village of Supai, either hiking there, riding mules or traveling by helicopter down into the canyon.

The Hopi Tribe, made up of 12 villages on three mesas spread out over 1.5 million acres, currently has a population of 12,000 people. The Hopi reservation is remote and rural and completely contained by the Navajo reservation, which limits its economic development options. It is one of the most underdeveloped and most vulnerable populations in the United States; the tribe's position became even more precarious with the shutdown of the Mohave Generating Station in 2005.

According to a 2016 economic report, the plant accounted for 88 percent of the Hopi Tribe’s General Fund. The tribe’s only constant revenue source today is coal sales to Peabody Energy, but they continue to lag behind other surrounding communities and rely heavily on federal funds for support. To recoup some of the lost income, they are currently looking at harnessing other alternative-energy sources, such as solar and wind development, plus eco- and cultural tourism, gaming, light industrial and manufacturing and traditional Hopi farming. 

Conflicting opinions within tribes

The Navajo Nation, covering 16 million acres spread throughout Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, is land rich and cash poor. Many Navajo suffer from severe poverty, addiction, suicide and crime, and a third of the households have incomes of less than $15,000 a year, according to the Arizona Rural Policy Institute. So when outside developers approached the tribe in 2009 with a proposal for a mega-resort, tramway and RV park located on 420 acres of tribal land on the east rim of the Grand Canyon, some members of the Navajo Nation Council eagerly embraced the idea. But not Russell Begaye, the former Navajo Nation president.

“When my grandchildren come, I want them to see this place the way my ancestors saw it,” he told a journalist. “We don’t want this area developed — we do not want to see Disneyland on the edge of the canyon.”

The Grand Canyon Escalade would have carried 10,000 people a day to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, a site sacred to the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and other Native people of the Grand Canyon region who came there to pray. 

“For the Hopi, the Grand Canyon is where our people emerged,” said Trevor Reed, a Hopi and associate professor of law with ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “It also holds the ruins, the shrines, the petroglyphs and the markings of our tribes and others. It’s a remarkable place, and the Escalade project was so off-putting for many reasons.”

The project, which was scheduled to break ground in 2015, promised to create 2,000 on-site jobs and 1,500 more indirectly. The tribe was asked to initially invest $65 million for infrastructure for roads and electrification, and were promised between $40 million and $70 million annually. Deswood Tome — special adviser to then-Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, who backed the project at the time — told National Geographic, “If the National Park Service and the Hualapai Tribe and other entities are making a profit off the Grand Canyon, who are they to say the Navajo Nation cannot do that?”

It was a legitimate question, but the answer was far more complex than he could have anticipated.

It didn’t take long for detractors and those opposed to the Escalade project to coalesce. Resolutions objecting to it were passed by the Hopi, Zuni and All Pueblo Council of Governors, and a coalition of local Navajo families who had maintained homes for generations near the confluence collected dozens of resolutions from chapters, tribes and other groups, along with thousands of petition signatures, against the development.

There was infighting among tribe members, and some heated meetings about the project were held. It caused strife and animosity among family and friends, and the Navajo Nation police abruptly ended a September 2012 meeting as tensions spiked among attendees.

“Nobody was hurt and nobody was arrested, or anything like that. It was just out of precaution,” Erny Zah, then spokesman for the president and vice president of the Navajo Nation said to media at the time. 

Farina King, an assistant history professor at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma who received her doctorate at ASU, said Native American tribes have been historically disrupted by the American government and left to fend for themselves where the Grand Canyon is concerned. That has often resulted in infighting among the tribes.

“There isn’t always consensus, and some of these issues have been ongoing for years,” said King, who is from the Navajo Nation. “There’s also internal dynamics that make this a sensitive issue, and people don’t always like to have their dirty laundry out there, too. It’s all a matter of diplomacy and trying to understand all of the different perspectives of history.”

Supporters of Escalade and developers scrambled to find a tribal council person to sponsor their bill, and when they did the Navajo Nation Council voted 16-2 against the project. At least that was the official version.

According to Trevor Reed, the unofficial version is that the Hopi, who view the confluence as a “final spiritual resting place” and have several archaeological sites in and around the Grand Canyon, made a special plea to the Navajo Nation before the vote.

“Hopi Chairman Herman Honanie actually went and spoke to members of the Navajo Nation tribal council in Window Rock about a compact the two tribes have to preserve each other’s sacred sites,” Reed said. “It was an interesting moment because the Hopis and Navajos haven’t always gotten along. In fact, most of our time together in this area has been pretty contentious. But these two tribes came together to preserve our history.” 

Window to Canyon

A picture taken through the window of the iconic Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto

Keeping the canyon grand

The Grand Canyon’s natural structures, ecology, species and waters continue to face new threats. 

In 2016, conservationists and environmental groups pushed back against an Italian developer — the Stilo Group — that wanted to build a resort, commercial space and thousands of new homes in Tusayan, a small town two miles from the park’s main entrance at the South Rim. To get the water the project would require, the Stilo Group wanted to punch through to one of the area’s aquifers. Opposition groups also charged the proposal would disrupt wildlife, snarl traffic and damage sites Native Americans hold sacred. 

The plan was eventually rejected by the U.S. Forest Service for its “untold impacts to the surrounding tribal and National Park lands,” said Heather Provencio, supervisor of the Kaibab National Forest, in a press release at the time. 

Several uranium mines currently operate within the watershed that drains into the Grand Canyon National Park. In October 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a review of a case centered on mining around the Grand Canyon despite a 20-year ban put in place in 2012 by the Obama administration. 

“There are people who want to open up uranium mining, and that seems increasingly possible under this present administration,” Reed said.

Such mining operations, he adds, are a potential threat not just to the Havasupai, whose sole source of drinking water is at risk, but everyone who lives in the Western states and relies on the Colorado River. Uranium mining may disperse chemicals that pose a risk to plants and animals as well, Reed said. 

“The Grand Canyon is still a very fragile place,” he said.

Accordingly, in observing and celebrating the centennial of Grand Canyon National Park perhaps it’s best to end with the stirring words of two people regarding that natural and sacred wonder of the world — one white, the other Native American.

“Leave it as is,” urged President Teddy Roosevelt in 1903. “You cannot improve upon it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

Addressing the National Park Service in 1975, Havasupai Tribal Chairman Lee Marshall was equally direct and eloquent. “I heard all you people talking about the Grand Canyon,” he said. “Well, you’re looking at it. I am the Grand Canyon.”

Top photo: The amazing view of Havasu Falls from above the falls after a long hike through the desert. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto