The jubilant announcement of a Navajo Nation plan to develop the East Rim of the Grand Canyon for tourism is getting a chilly reception from tribal residents of the area, the Hopi tribe and Grand Canyon National Park.
But Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly is undaunted in his enthusiasm – and promises that “a lot of collaboration” will happen in the coming months and years, as plans for the tourist park move forward.
The president signed a memorandum of understanding on February 17 with the Phoenix-based development group Confluence Partners, LLC, formerly Fulcrum, LLC. Early plans include a resort hotel, restaurant, a tramway leading to a gondola and an RV park. The development will be set within sight of the place where the Little Colorado River flows into the Colorado River, a place known as the Confluence and considered sacred to the Hopi, the Navajo and other tribes.
“It’s beautiful,” Shelly said. “It’s beautiful if we can get it done. It’s going to bring money, and it’s going to bring visitors here. It’s going to be something to see, something to visit.”
But as word has gotten out about the proposed development, concerns have arisen from both Navajo and non-Navajo neighbors.
Sipapuni, Place of Emergence
Some of the strongest concerns about the development plans have come from the Hopi Tribe. With the help of the National Park Service, the Hopi maintain, use and protect a Hopi Salt Trail leading to the Colorado. The Confluence is also the site of their Sipapuni, or place of emergence.
“Sipapuni and the Confluence are some of the most sacred areas to the Hopi people,” said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, Hopi cultural preservation officer. “The tramway goes right into the heart of the Hopi Nation. It can’t happen. That’s all I can say to the Navajo Nation: you can’t do it.”
Kuwanwisiwma said the development proposal has been a topic of discussion in both the Hopi villages and during session last week of the Hopi tribal council.
“The council is supporting the religious leaders,” he said. “They’re opposed to it. Clearly the Hopi people and the government are united.”
But so far, he added, the discussions have been among the Hopi people – not between the Hopis and the Navajos.
“We found out through the media, like everybody else,” he said. “There was never any consultation with the Hopi people. It’s surprising that they never raised an eyebrow to consider Hopi interest in the area.”
And Kuwanwisiwma said part of the sentiment at Hopi includes dismay at what he calls a “political irony” on the heels of vehement public protests by the Navajo and other tribes against snowmaking for a recreational ski area on sacred mountains near Flagstaff, Arizona.
“On one hand, the Navajo Nation is very visible in trying to protect the San Francisco Peaks, saying it’s sacred land,” he said. “On the other hand, they should consider this area very important.”
Balancing Sacred and Sovereign?
Shelly laments that the Navajo Nation depends on federal dollars for so much of its operations. “We need revenue,” he said. “We need to create revenue for ourselves, and be independent.”
He pointed out that billions of dollars are spent “when Grand Canyon tourists go through our homeland. We receive very little of it.” The East Rim development, as it’s proposed, would bring 2,000 jobs for Navajo people and yield $70 million a year in gross receipts, he said.
“I want to make sure that our Navajo Nation sovereignty is intact,” Shelly added. “The National Park Service has been there for years. It’s our turn.”
Shelly said he suspects Grand Canyon National Park staffers may be opposed to the development if they fear it would draw business away from the popular South Rim. But so far, that concern isn’t coming up.
Maureen Oltrogge, spokesperson for Grand Canyon National Park, said the park hasn’t yet been involved in talks about the proposed development; officials there also got wind of the plans through the news media – but at this stage, that’s not so unusual.
“I would anticipate that they would be contacting us soon,” she said, “and we would look forward to having a dialogue with the Navajos about what they’re proposing and lay out any concerns we have.”
Martha Hahn, chief of science and natural resources at the park, said at first blush, her concerns are about park resources.
“This area within the park is proposed wilderness,” she said. “We manage it as wilderness until Congress makes a final determination.”
Ecologically speaking, Hahn pointed out that the Little Colorado River is the last remaining stronghold for the Grand Canyon population of humpback chub, an federally endangered fish.
“Also, the area is significant in regard to natural quiet and dark skies,” she said. “We have registered this particular region of Grand Canyon a having the darkest skies in the lower 48 states.”
Hahn said seeps and springs emanating from the area flow into the Grand Canyon, and any additional water use raises concerns about water quality and supply.
Jan Balsom, Grand Canyon’s chief of cultural resources, added that Park official have long collaborated with the Hopis and other tribes to limit travel in the Confluence area because it is so significant to Native people.
“We manage how many people go there from river trips, by how we schedule launches,” she said. “There’s a no-camping restriction for backcountry and river users. That’s based partly on tribal concerns and consultations.”
Shelly said the Navajo Nation’s development plans also aim to protect the sacred sites in the area.
“There will be a walkway along the canyon rim,” he said. “There will be nobody gong in; it’ll be fenced off. There will be no visitation to the sacred site. We’re always in favor of supporting sacred sites.”
Consultations Coming Next
Shelly said the next stage of planning the East Rim development is to sit down with all neighbors of the proposal.
“A lot of study needs to be done,” he said, “a lot of collaboration. The people who reside on that land, the Park, the Hopi, we need to sit down. We’re not forcing ourselves on this land. We want everyone to take part.”
Shelly might have the hardest time discussing the plans with some of his own people – the residents of the area where the development is slated to take place.
Francis Martin, for example, is a Navajo tribal member who grew up in the area of the Confluence.
“That’s where we were raised, right on the east side of the Grand Canyon,” Martin said. “To us it’s like our back yard. We have our livestock out there. We don’t want anybody to disturb that area. It’s a nice place. Some of the areas there are sacred.”
The area slated for development was once part of the Bennett Freeze, disputed land where the Hopi and Navajo both claimed ownership. Until the Freeze was lifted in 2009, people couldn’t even build homes. Now, residents are starting to move back into the area – only to find there are developers eyeing the land alongside them. Several of them, Martin included, have banded together in a small citizens’ alliance called Save the Confluence, which opposes the commercial development. The group hosted a visit last year by President Shelly, and they say they feel betrayed at his apparent shift in stance about development in their back yards.
“We took him out there,” Martin said. “We took him out to the edge of the cliff where they wanted to start the development. I think he did a little prayer and he even sprinkled some of his corn pollen.”
Martin said Shelly at that time agreed that the area is sacred, and promised to oppose any development – so now they’re baffled that he’s signed an agreement paving the way.
Shelly said his earlier position was misunderstood – that he never promised there would be no development. He believes the Confluence residents are misguided in thinking that development would start right away. In reality, he says, it could take years.
“I’m going to hold a meeting with them and show them the process,” he said. “They think the construction is going to start tomorrow. But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”