Katie Lee: the Desert Goddess, Renegade Folksinger and Glen Canyon Activist #tribute

Adding to the variety of artifacts (including my recently re-surfacing essay “Damn the Dam”) about Glen Canyon, which turned into the “home” of Lake Powell, comes this tribute, link assortment and film preview featuring legendary Ms. Katie Lee, the famed model/singer/activist environmentalist who made a noteworthy trip into the canyons – many of which were never documented/explored – with photographers, shortly before the destruction, dam building and subsequent flooding.

Ms. Lee passed away in Nov. 2017 at 98 years old and remained a fiery personality advocating for the wildness of lands until the end.

As such, I’ve assembled a round-up of links about her extraordinary life which follows this film preview and blurb – consider reading all to learn of this exceptionally beautiful renegade.


Source: ‘DamNation’: “Desert Goddess” Remembers Arizona’s Glen Canyon

When the Glen Canyon Dam was approved in April 1956, a group of archeologists and river runners set out to document more than 250 culturally significant sites and 125 side canyons that would be flooded by the project. One of those river runners was Katie Lee, a folk singer and Hollywood starlet turned activist. As she describes, “We would go around a corner, and spread out before us would be this incredible site … Everything was in the right position; everything was perfect.”

In this excerpt from the award-winning documentary DamNationfilmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel interview the “desert goddess.” Now in her 90s, Lee reminisces about walking naked through the enchanting landscape—”It was absolutely the most natural thing in the world”—and the significance of what was lost in the flood. “I don’t think Eden could have touched Glen Canyon,” she says. DamNation was produced by Matt Stoecker and Patagonia, and the full-length film can be seen through Vimeo on Demand.


Outside Magazine: Katie Lee, Our lady of Glen Canyon

“Katie Lee was a notoriously blunt woman. I had been in her living room, in Jerome, Arizona, for just ten minutes last summer before we covered sex and death. I had noticed a model sitting on a shelf—a small white dory with the name Mexican Hat Expeditions painted on its side. It was a replica of the crafts on which, half a century ago, Lee first forayed through Grand Canyon and Glen Canyon, places for which, right up until she passed away in November 2017, at 98, Lee would be the fiercest of advocates and the most lyrical of chroniclers.”

KNAU/ NPR: Remembering Katie Lee, ‘Goddess of Glen Canyon’: 1919-2017

“But when the federal government announced plans to build the Glen Canyon Dam and regulate the Colorado River, Katie Lee’s mood changed from joy to anger. She felt the flooding of Glen Canyon was a crime against nature, humanity and history. She never recovered from it.

“The way I describe it is an aneurism, an aneurism. It’s a stoppage of the blood in the body, and that’s what they’re doing to our rivers with these dams, what we’re doing to our planet, I mean, you cut off all the blood in your body, you die. You cut off all our rivers and we’re gonna be out of here. We can’t survive without them,” Lee said.

During the last few years of her life, Katie Lee became an icon of activism for young people discovering her work and life for the first time. She told them to fight hard even though she had no trust in the current administration to protect wilderness. And Katie Lee admitted she was tired of watching things she loved be destroyed for development. She was ready to hand things over to the next generation.

“I’m glad I’m checking out, baby. I mean I can’t stay here much longer at 97 years old. And I’d just as soon be gone when the total fascism takes place. I did the best I could, but I hope we don’t give up. I hope we get mad. And I hope there’s a (expletive) revolution,” she said.”

Tucson.com: Western Women: Katie Lee spent life in awe of Glen Canyon, fought its demise

In 1954 she made her first river trip through Glen Canyon and was captivated with the beauty of the sculptures and the allure of ever-changing waterways. She discovered the majesty of formations such as the Music Temple edifice, where her own voice surrounded her and echoed off sandstone arches. She preferred bathing in the buff in the cool pools to “feel that water running over my body, and feel the sand pickin’ away at my skin, and feel a rock, and getting in step with the stone.”

Since her first trip down the Colorado, Katie knew the Bureau of Reclamation planned to dam Glen Canyon to provide irrigation and hydroelectric power for Western states. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Colorado River Storage Project Act authorizing, among other irrigation projects, the damming of Glen Canyon.

Katie vehemently opposed Glen Canyon Dam, inundating Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who approved the project, with letters of protest. She wrote songs of protest and demanded the pristine waters of Glen Canyon be spared. But on Oct. 15, 1956, the first dynamite charges blasted an ugly hole into the walls of the canyon, and the water began to drown the intimate inlets and massive sandstone structures of Glen Canyon.

Arizona Daily Sun: Singer, Arizona activist Katie Lee dies at 98

Lee served on the advisory board for the Glen Canyon Institute, which advocated for draining the Lake Powell Reservoir.

High Country News: Memories of the ‘goddess of Glen Canyon’

Naseem Rakha: I did not know Katie Lee. I never met her and had never seen her in anything but pictures and films. But I wanted to know her. More than that, I wanted to be her.

I wanted to be the woman who explored Glen Canyon before the blood flow of the Colorado was stanched by the tourniquet of a dam. I wanted to be the one who wrote odes to that chasm, songs, poetry. I wanted to author books about my desperate love for a place, and the raw anger that comes from seeing the sacred desecrated by those who feed on greed: white-faced savages willing to devour anyone or anything that may try to step between themselves and a buck. I wanted to be the woman whose face was bronzed by desert sun and chiseled by desert wind. Eyes wide open to the vastness of desert skies. I wanted to be the one with a passion so deep, so thorough, so complete, that it propelled my movement from one day to the next, fiercely fighting for all I know to be pure and right and beautiful.

Book: Glen Canyon Betrayed Perfect Paperback – August 15, 2006
by Katie Lee

Originally published in 1998 as All My Rivers Are Gone, Katie Lee’s beloved homage to Glen Canyon in now back in print with new photographs, an index, and a fiery new afterword by the author.

Utah Adventure Journal: Remembering The Goddess Of Glen Canyon- Katie Lee

There’s a rumor in Jerome that river runner and rabble-rouser Katie Lee celebrated her 80th birthday riding naked on her mountain bike through town. “But that’s not true,” smiled Katie as we sat barefoot on her back porch. “I was only 78.”

Edward Abbey inspired a generation of Southwestern environmentalists with his fiction, memoirs, short essays, and pithy pronouncements. He died at 62. Katie Lee took Abbey’s beliefs to heart. He wrote, “Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active, and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound men with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: You will outlive the bastards.” Katie did. She passed on this fall at 98.

Pert, vivacious, 5’ 4”, blonde and shapely, Katie Lee was everything women in her generation were not. After World War II, American women were supposed to stay home, keep the house dusted, the refrigerator full, the floors mopped and eagerly await husbands returning from work. By 1957 an American baby was being born every seven seconds. “Stand By Your Man” was a top Country & Western song. Katie Lee would have none of it.

Arizona Highways: IN MEMORIAM: KATIE LEE, 1919-2017

At 98, though, Katie lived. She inherited the mantle of conservation that activists like Edward Abbey and David Brower laid out for later generations. The author of five books, she was a beautiful poet, a lyricist, a diarist. Her folk-singing career took her around the world, and her beauty and talent won her a successful early career in Hollywood.

NY Times: Katie Lee, Folk Singer Who Fought to Protect a Canyon, Dies at 98

Eloquent and blissfully profane, Ms. Lee joined conservationists like David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, and the writer Edward Abbey to try to stop construction of the 710-foot-high Glen Canyon Dam in Northern Arizona, which opened in 1963. She became part of the chorus of environmentalists that ever since has demanded that the canyon be restored.

The only impediment to her blowing up the dam, she would say, was that she did not know how.

One of several albums Ms. Lee recorded. The folk singer Burl Ives once called her “the best cowboy singer I know.” CreditJ.P. Roth Collection via NYTimes

Vid short: Kickass Katie Lee

The inimitable Lee has been in many films, but the short doc Kickass Katie Lee, made by Beth and George Gage (the creators of Bidder 70), takes a different, more personal look at this indomitable spirit.

Naseem Rahka: Goodbye Katie Lee

Katie Lee’s preeminent love was lost when the waters backfilled Glen Canyon. Acre foot by acre foot, the place that held her passion was drowned. But from those slack waters bloomed a voice which was as hard as rock and as powerful as water. After losing her Canyon, the native Arizonan spent the rest of her life fighting for the places that needed to be fought for — the secret coves, the ancestral lands, the pinnacles, the cliffs, the bluffs and arroyos of the desert Southwest. And, of course, she fought until her very last day for the destruction of what her license plate labeled the DAMN DAM. Anger was her fuel. She wrote five books about the land she loved and the river she lost. She wrote songs, she had friends and lovers and a voice that never held back. Most people know Katie Lee from her cameo in the documentary, DamNation. In it, she shared photos taken of her during her final trip through Glen Canyon — her bare body pressed against its walls or straddling a crevasse. “It was the most natural thing in the world,” she said of posing “buck naked” for those photographs.

Library NAU: Katie Lee – Goddess of Glen Canyon, 1919-2017

Katie’s License Plate, “Dam Dam.”

Katie donated her extraordinary collection of photographs, writings, songs & music, letters, and journals to the Cline Library Special Collections and Archives. It may be one of the most important collections documenting Glen Canyon prior to and following the damning of the Canyon. An online finding guide to Katie’s collection is available as well as selections of photographs and recordings from her collection via the Colorado Plateau Digital Archives. Prior to her passing, Special Collections and Archives developed an exhibit about Katie’s life and passions titled Naked Truth: the Katie Lee Exhibit.

Adventure Journal: HISTORICAL BADASS
Activist, Singer, Writer, and “Desert Goddess” Katie Lee Dies at 98

Raucous and passionate, Lee began her life as an activist after that trip, fighting against the dam that would be completed in 1963. She wrote songs, articles, and three books about it, working to bring down the “damn dam” as she called it (she immortalized the nickname on her license plate). Of Floyd Dominy, head of the Bureau of Reclamation during the Glen Canyon Dam project, Lee said, “I’d have cut his balls off if I’d have met him. Or I’d have somebody else do it.”

She never gave up fighting against the Glen Canyon dam, saying in interviews into her 90s that, if she knew how, she’d blow the thing up herself.

“You know I never dream about it? It’s because it’s on my mind all day long, every day. I don’t need to dream about it,” Lee said in a National Geographic interview in 2014. “What was lost? Eden. I don’t think Eden could have touched Glen Canyon.”