June 27th, 11:30am

As you depart the Human History museum, a voice on Zion shuttle’s audio program greets you in the Paiute language, and tells riders about Paiute expressions in the Zion Canyon. That’s the voice of Benn Pikyavit, Paiute elder, and park ranger in Pipe Spring National Monument, located on the Paiute reservation in Northern Arizona.

The story of Pipe Spring goes that, on his way to the Grand Canyon, Park Superintendent Stephen Mather’s car broke down near the Pipe Spring fort. He spent the night here, and was charmed by the people and buildings that blanket the landscape. After his trip, Stephen worked to preserve Pipe Spring as a monument to early life in the American West. Today, Pipe Spring’s programs and exhibitions tell visitors of the way of life of the early Mormon settlers and Paiute tribes in this area. For us who were seeking this history, a day trip meet Benn at Pipe Spring was a welcome excursion.

As a park ranger, Benn works to preserve the legacy and culture of his people. On the day we met him, Benn had spent all morning working with a local school group to teach them not only how to harvest and weave baskets from a yucca plant, but to preserve the Paiute etiquette of telling a plant what it will be used for before taking its life, to ensure that a plant’s spirit will help or heal properly. In Paiute philosophy, the spirits of plants, animals, humans, rocks, mountains, and water are all intertwined, and each has a significant purpose to the connectedness of life in this land.

Although we were looking for stories, we caught Benn in the wrong season to tell them. While yes, storytelling has always been a vital way to share values and lessons, a person who tells these ‘winter stories’ in the summer is sure to be visited by a rattlesnake. Benn, whose hearing isn’t so good, didn’t wish to encounter this snake he might not hear. So we spoke instead about other aspects of the culture and of place: the importance of Panguitch Lake as a place of gathering and renewal each spring, and of the Pah Tempe Hot Springs near Hurricane as a sacred place where the earth offers healing. He also challenged the common story that the Paiute were afraid of the Zion Canyon, saying that Paiutes had been living alongside the spirits for centuries - why would they be afraid? While this fear was passed down even by his own grandmother, Benn shares this myth was perhaps created and perpetuated by early Mormon settlers.

Benn sent us on our way, with advisements on which texts of Paiute stories were “mormonized” (told through the lens of Mormon settlers), and which would be more authentic. We thank Benn for his patience with us, and for the guidance that brings us closer to a true history of the Paiute people.