Developers behind a proposed tourist destination in a sacred part of the Grand Canyon say they’ve secured approval from the Navajo Nation chapter where the development would take place, an important step mandated by Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly.
But even with that approval from the local chapter, many people doubt the developers have enough support to move forward. For starters, the development is planned for a site within Grand Canyon National Park—the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers—that is considered sacred by the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni tribes. For the Hopi and Zuni people, it’s the site of their sipapu, or place of emergence. Hopi Cultural Preservation officer Leigh Kuwanwusiwma expressed outrage at the proposal as soon as it was unveiled this spring. And according to an October 5 press release issued after a Hopi Tribal Council meeting, Hopi leaders have unanimously approved a resolution stating “their position to strongly oppose the development of a commercial initiative at the Grand Canyon called the ‘Grand Canyon Escalade.’”
Grand Canyon Escalade’s main draw would be the “Escalade” Gondola Tramway, carrying tourists from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim to the Canyon floor. Once there, visitors could walk along a 1,400-foot elevated river walk to the confluence, eat at a restaurant, or visit an amphitheater and terraced grass seating area overlooking the Colorado River. The development would also include a Navajo cultural center and retail and art galleries. Publicity materials claim the project will yield 2,000 jobs at full build-out and generate $50 to $95 million annually for the Navajo Nation. Navajo grassroots activists and neighbors of the project say local attitudes about it are sharply divided, creating tension in the community and pitting neighbors against one another. Several members of one grassroots group formed to oppose Escalade marched last week from the confluence to Navajo governmental offices in Window Rock, to make their opposition known.
At an October 3 meeting at the Bodaway/Gap Chapter House, near the site, 59 people supported a pro-Escalade resolution, and 52 people were against it. The meeting had been rescheduled from the previous week due to a shouting match between opponents and proponents of the plan on September 26. The new resolution rescinds two prior resolutions in which members of the chapter had opposed the development, and authorizes up to 420 acres on which it could occur.
Further, according to the resolution, “The Bodaway/Gap Chapter directs and requests that all governmental entities, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, county, state and local governments and agencies, assist in carrying out the intent and purpose of this resolution and in the designation of land for utilities, roads and all communications right of way.”
Albert Hale is an Arizona state senator, a former Navajo Nation President and a partner in the development group Confluence Partners, LLC that’s behind Escalade. He says the October 3 chapter resolution represents the support of people living near the confluence, and that petitions his partnership has been circulating have garnered thousands of signatures in favor of the proposal, a few hundred of them from among the chapter’s 900 registered voters and the rest from neighboring communities. “We have all those positions that have been taken that are favorable, so we’re moving in accordance with the MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] that was signed a year ago with the Navajo Nation,” Hale said. “It outlines certain things they’re to do, and certain things we’re supposed to do, such as education. We did all of that, and gained that support from the local community.”
But Sarana Riggs, a Navajo and founding member of the new anti-Escalade grassroots group called Nxt IndigenousGeneration [cq], has attended the Bodaway/Gap Chapter meetings, and she says any claim of support is dubious. “This project has divided the room straight down the center,” she says. “You see it at the chapter meetings. You walk in through the east door. You do literally have a north and a south side. Primarily, the ones that are for this development are all the south side of the building. The ones that are against it or don’t know, they’re on the opposite side.” She says that community meetings “people [are] yelling at each other, trying to hush each other up. You actually start to feel that panicky feeling, like something might happen.”
Delores Wilson, Navajo, is a member of the Save the Confluence group that organized last week’s march to Window Rock. She says most of the support is coming from reaches of the Bodaway/Gap Chapter far from where the development would occur. “I grew up at the confluence. I think if you speak to anyone that has grown up in the area, we are attached to the land. Our umbilical cords are still buried there. The area is a sacred site.”
The Navajo Nation Council also remains unconvinced of the chapter’s support. “One thing that worries me is that [the groups are] beginning to approach this committee separately,” said Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie, according to a legislative press release issued after a September 20 presentation by the developers to the Resource and Development Committee.
According to the statement, the division within the community of Bodaway/Gap was unsettling and worrisome for Tsosie, who stated that the negligence of the teaching of k’é was not “the Navajo way.” The concept of k’é means peace and harmony.
At the time, council delegates urged the groups to work together, as well as with the Navajo Medicine Men’s Association, to mediate and address the concerns of both parties.
Escalade opponents allege that dealings at the chapter level have been shady, with Confluence Partners members prematurely claiming the support of the Hopi Tribe and Grand Canyon National Park as well as Navajo tribal members.
So far, Grand Canyon officials haven’t been in the loop.
“We have not been approached by the developers or the tribe yet, and would look forward to having that dialogue,” says Grand Canyon spokesperson Maureen Oltrogge.
Wilson also complains that Hale and his partners have been eliciting support for the project by promising jobs to locals in exchange for their signatures on petitions. “There was a job fair held by the Confluence Partners about a month ago,” she says. “They have the means to bribe people.”
Hale says a development like Escalade could help address a dire need in the area of the confluence, where stark poverty is the norm. The so-called Bennett Freeze, backed by the federal government for four decades until it was lifted in 2009, prevented all manner of construction in the area surrounding the proposed development. “A lot of people don’t have running water, paved roads or they are living in dilapidated homes,” Hale says. “This is one way to address that situation.”
But Wilson says there are many other solutions to explore. Development could happen along Highway 89, she says. “The majority of the traffic goes through on Highway 89. And this project can be moved elsewhere in the river, more to north.”
Duane Tsinigine, the Navajo Nation Council member who represents Bodaway/Gap and four other chapters, says he remains neutral on the Escalade proposal. “I’ve just got to support whichever side prevails,” he says, adding that he’s aware of a plan by one anti-Escalade activist to bring an initiative to the Bodaway/Gap Chapter, in the hopes of getting the issue considered on a Navajo Nation-wide special ballot just after the New Year.
Tsinigine says if the pro-development interests succeed, he’ll present legislation to the proper oversight committees—but he’s not counting on it passing. “I don’t see Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department supporting it. I don’t see the Historic Preservation Office supporting it. And right now the Hopi tribe is solely against this.” Meanwhile, he says, the controversy has brought to light a misconception among Navajo youth that he’s eager to clear up. “A lot of the young people think that’s Navajo Nation’s emergence,” he said of the confluence where the development is proposed. “Our emergence is … east of Shiprock, near Farmington. The young people need to know that.”
But Riggs, the Nxt IndigenousGeneration founder, says the confluence is nevertheless special to Navajo people. “There are many oral traditions about what that sacred site is about. For each tribe, it’s different,” she says. “For us, during the Long Walk, when people were hiding from the soldiers, that was one of the areas where they hid. It’s rare to hear these stories. It’s sad to hear what happened. Some people didn’t make it.”