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Drawing From the Well of Painful Pasts


What a boat ride in the Grand Canyon can teach companies about engaging with histories they would rather avoid

Grand Canyon dory at Lee's Ferry

Before 1963, Glen Canyon must have been one of the natural wonders of the Americas. Like the Grand Canyon downstream, Glen Canyon was sculpted by the Colorado River into dramatic spires, grottoes and gorges—“a portion of earth’s original paradise,” in the words of author Edward Abbey.

But it was also called the “place no one knew”—unappreciated, until it was too late, even by ardent environmentalists. In 1963, a hydroelectric dam was constructed at Glen Canyon and the gorges filled like a bathtub to form what would be known as Lake Powell. The horror of this event emboldened environmentalists to successfully fight back against similar designs on the Grand Canyon.

One of the leaders of that fight, Martin Litton, learned a crucial lesson: That people would not stand up for natural spaces unless they knew, in their bones, what was at stake. In 1972, he launched an outfitting business—an early example of a social enterprise—that offered visitors an intimate appreciation for the Grand Canyon. Those who signed up for his two- or three-week trips were treated to an unforgettable float down the Colorado and through its rapids, not in motorized rubber rafts but in graceful, oar-powered wooden dories. The dories were like the small and stout ocean-going vessels used by fishers, but adapted for use on river trips carrying paying passengers and supplies. “A dory is made for people to be in,” Litton once said.

Litton had the appearance of Ernest Hemingway and the mien of Steve Jobs. He seemed to intuit a subtle process that engaged travellers emotionally, intellectually and physically, one in which people emerged from the river disturbed but not dispirited by what was lost in Glen Canyon, and motivated to protect the Grand Canyon and other wondrous natural sites from the same fate.

Lessons from Litton 

Litton died in 2014 at age 97 but researchers Brett Crawford (Grand Valley State University) and Tina Dacin (Smith School of Business) were fascinated by his leadership and what he accomplished with Grand Canyon Dories. They felt his experiences held lessons for inspiring a new generation of people to be environmental stewards, and for organizations to use painful events from the past authentically.

Working with Diego Coraiola (University of Victoria), they pored over 60 interviews with Litton and other river guides collected by the Colorado River Runners Oral History Project, among other research. From that, they were able to unpack Litton’s methods.

First, they found that the Grand Canyon dory experience was able to superimpose the past onto present experiences. Litton brought the Grand Canyon to the people through magazine articles, books and videos. And he brought people to the base of the canyon, so they could experience the grandeur and run the rapids of the Colorado. Not only were the trips designed to provide an enlightening experience of the canyon, but they were skillfully used to sensitize people to past environmental destruction by highlighting the loss of wild spaces.

Second, a retelling of stories was hardwired into the dory experience. Guides related the same stories around campfires and at significant locations along the river, such as where Marble Canyon meets the Grand Canyon—the spot where a dam was to be built before it was blocked by Litton and his fellow warriors.

This was not left to chance. Litton and his team organized training programs that brought multiple generations of guides together. It ensured the experiences of old-timers lived on and were incorporated into the portfolio of stories available to the guides.

And third, the researchers describe a process of “reincarnating” past destruction into present-day objects. The most obvious example from Litton’s experience was the christening of dories with the names of natural wonders that had been destroyed. But travellers were also encouraged to memorialize their experience by creating beads made from river mud and fired in coffee cans over hot coals; the fire beads were cherished reminders of their trip. The guides made sure to pack twine just for the purpose of stringing up beads for necklaces or bracelets.

How firms can draw on the past

Crawford, Dacin and Coraiola point out that Litton’s Grand Canyon Dories “used history-at-large to build community and protect a still existing natural wonder” rather than to seek a competitive edge, although their approach made them stand out among other tour outfits on the Colorado River.

They say organizations can adopt similar techniques to draw on past events meaningfully—and not merely events from their history. Activist groups with social missions are obvious candidates. Startups and other entrepreneurial ventures without a history can also use the past to build community and serve a larger purpose. 

Other researchers, for example, have noted how Ontario’s nascent craft brewing industry built a collective identity and community by reviving fragments of the province’s brewery history that had been discarded, including the return of small-batch brewing and old product styles, and the reinvention of the tavern as a link in the distribution chain.

The challenge of using the past to create corporate meaning in the present is riskier for organizations with skeletons in their closets. It is far easier to forget, misremember or cherry-pick from past entanglements that may be tainted. German companies, in particular, have long struggled to reconcile their involvement in the Nazi regime. Volkswagen set the standard for how it can be done sensitively. In consultation with victims and their descendants, the firm created memorials and historical publications, ran employee training programs at Auschwitz and made reparations.

In contrast, most organizations faced with similar challenges are more concerned with managing legal or financial liabilities and stockholder interests. Tobacco companies have a long history of denying or obfuscating the harmful effects of their products. Their elaborate and expensive efforts only compounded their legal liability and led to a loss of revenue and social legitimacy.

In Canada, no organization has more history to contend with than the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was incorporated in 1670 and has played a leading role in Canada’s colonial development. As research has shown, the company first recognized the commercial value of its history at the turn of the 20th century, when executives made historical documents available to independent writers who wanted to turn out romantic accounts of the firm.

Since the mid-20th century, however, HBC has been repeatedly confronted with accusations that the firm systematically exploited Indigenous peoples. HBC leaders only began making serious efforts to address these accusations with the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, when they licensed Indigenous artisans to sell their original designs. Today, the company’s record is mixed. One study concluded that while HBC continues to engage with Indigenous peoples, “its historical narrative retains settler-colonialist elements, and heritage branding has never ceased.”

Learning from trauma

Brett Crawford says organizations are on much safer ground when they draw from difficult past events for which they bear no responsibility. “Otherwise, they’re just putting a target on their back.” He adds: “Litton talked about his lost battle at Glen Canyon, but he wasn’t the one who put up the dam.”

At the best of times, it is not easy for organizations to engage with history. Narratives can be contested, past events reinterpreted. But the researchers learned from their study of Martin Litton that it’s important to not look away, difficult though it may be. Dacin points to the experience of Indigenous peoples who went through the government-sponsored residential school system. “We try to push trauma away so we don’t have to face it every day,” she says, “but there’s value in keeping it alive.”

This is particularly important now, given the wobbling of democracy and the existential issues raised by catastrophic climate change. For anyone trying to communicate the need for change, to shake people into action, the challenge is not merely to counter misinformation but to avoid despair or fatalism. And to do that requires looking hard at our failures as society, to see the Glen Canyons of our past for what they are, to feel what has been lost and gird ourselves for the fight ahead.

In his new memoir, Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World, climate activist Daniel Sherrell writes, “I no longer believe that grief and resistance are mutually exclusive: I think the former is necessary to the latter, that honest sorrow is perhaps the only thing that makes a real fight even possible.”