Jim Mike remembers the first time he saw “the big bent rock with the hole in it” 74 years ago. He was back at the Rainbow Bridge in the wilds of Utah not long ago, his frail body portaged by attentive white men and sheltered from the fierce sun by umbrellas. The occasion was one more step forward in settling ancient accounts with the Indians of the West: the 102-year-old Paiute was finally being honored as the man who actually discovered the famed natural stone formation.
According to Jim Mike’s still crisp memory, he had happened upon the 309-foot-high bridge around 1900 while searching for grazing land. He was awed, but the hunt for pasture was more pressing and he gave the eroded span little more thought until 1908, when he heard that a surveyor named Douglass was in the area mapping other natural bridges. Jim Mike signed on as a guide for $50.
Their first attempt to relocate the bridge failed because of bad weather, but the following year the party set out again. In mid-exploration, however, it met a second group of bridge-hunters headed by a university professor. Somewhat grudgingly the two forces joined. When they eventually did find the Rainbow Bridge, a member of the professor’s party rushed forward to become the first white man to cross under it. In the accounts that followed, the professor’s group—and his guide—received most of the credit.
Several years ago, however, a local rancher took up Jim Mike’s case, and a detailed historical inquiry into the expedition was launched. Jim Mike emerged as the legitimate discoverer. The ceremony last month made it official.
Mike’s journey to the site this time was considerably more comfortable than the one in 1909. Since the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam downstream in 1963, the Colorado River has backed up under the bridge to form Lake Powell, and Park Service rangers were able to ferry Jim Mike to within a quarter-mile of the dedication site. In deference to his age, he was carried the remaining distance in an aluminum chair—although four years ago he made the journey on foot. Once there, he watched the unveiling of a plaque in his honor, and endured in silence the usual rash of white man’s speeches. Then he was given a letter of commendation and a crisp, new $50 bill as “back pay.” Because of the conflict at the time of the 1909 discovery, Jim Mike had never been paid for his services as a guide.