Water Under the Rainbow

Traditionally, archives keep water out of their collections, but for Joe Carithers we’re going to make exception.

Joe Carithers was a conservationist from Tucson and, as a new graduate assistant, my first assignment is to process his papers.

Photos of Joe Carithers from the Joe Carithers Papers at the University of Arizona Special Collections Library.

Within seconds of opening the first box of items I came across a small vial of water.

Water vial from the Joe Carithers Papers at the University of Arizona Special Collections Library.

The water was collected by Carithers in 1960 when he visited Tsé’naa Na’ní’áhí (Rainbow Bridge) on the edge of the Navajo Nation.

Rainbow Bridge. Image courtesy of NavajoPeople.org.

The massive stone structure is comprised of two forms of sedimentary rock ‘carved’ by water and is part of a set of locations sacred to the Navajo, Hopi, Paiute, and others. In the late 1950s, the Glen Canyon Dam was constructed, creating Lake Powell and simultaneously submerging many sacred sites. The dam remains a point of contention for Native communities. Carithers collected the water from small pools beneath Tsé’naa Na’ní’áhí a few years prior to completion of the dam.

Cropped image of a Joe Carithers’ manuscript, wherein he describes collecting the vial of water from Rainbow Bridge.

Native communities of the region have asked hikers and park employees not to walk under Tsé’naa Na’ní’áhí, but this request is often ignored. This vial an example of that. Sometimes, archival materials represent these kinds of conflicts and it’s the archivist’s job to carefully maintain and provide context. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to think through these challenges here at Special Collections and hopefully, through processing Carithers’ papers, provide a resource to both conservationists and Native communities who want to understand a difficult period of history for the region.

You can learn more about Tsé’naa Na’ní’áhí through the National Parks Service Rainbow Bridge Oral History Project.


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