The road is long, washboard rough, and dusty, yet cars and busses, lots of them, are moving in both directions. Joshua trees are abundant but the country is dry and typical of high deserts in this far western edge of Arizona. As the Grand Canyon approaches helicopters can be seen in the air. Despite the helicopters and abundance of traffic it’s still a surprise, shock really, to reach the canyon rim and find a long row of helicopters and a parking area filled with busses and cars.
The Hualapai people, working in conjunction with outside interests, have developed a tourism business that brings anywhere from 1,500 to 4,000 people a day to this out of the way location, hundreds of thousands each year. It has provided many jobs and provides a significant part of the tribal income. Despite that, not everyone is in favor due to its impact on the reservation portion of the Grand Canyon, some sovereignty issues, and possible contractual obligations.
The big draw is the famed Skywalk that was completed in March of 2007. The tribe owns 108 miles of the Grand Canyon and the Skywalk was built out from the rim with a glass walkway so that visitors could look directly down, through the glass, to the canyon walls and toward the canyon bottom. The greatest drop directly below the Skywalk is about 800 feet. That’s enough to give most people a sense of the jitters and cause others to change their minds and not take the walk at all. The walkway is 65 feet wide and extends 70 feet outward from the canyon wall.
A sign posted near the entrance says the platform can support 7.1 million pounds and withstand an 8.0 earthquake. That’s reassuring but some will still back away at the last minute.
Alleen Davis, a Hualapai guide, started here in 1992 and notes that new buildings have been constructed, tours are now better, and food has changed over the years. “We’re open the year around,” she said.
Hualapai artists have booths set up along the rim. Neil Jackson is one of them. He remembers back in the late 1950s and 60s when his dad ran cattle here and the family would join him. “We’ve seen how it’s changed when they started this place,” he said. “It changed very fast. In the 80s they started Grand Canyon West. In the 1990s they built the terminal and airplanes started coming in.”
“The income for the tribe is very great. It really helped us out a lot. We didn’t depend on the government any more. The money we’re getting from here helps everybody,” he commented.
Wilfred Whatoname does media relations work. “You could say I’m like an ambassador for the corporation,” he says. He sees tourism as a very positive thing. “It’s something to be proud of. You have to have that. We’ve brought back the pride that we’d lost. Hopefully that will be sustained into future generations.”
“There’s a certain pride we feel in providing this experience for all the visitors. People say the Grand Canyon is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. That is true but this portion of the Grand Canyon is home to the Hualapai and that’s why it makes it so special for us.”
Whatoname estimates that about 65% of the employees of Grand Canyon West are Native Americans. “We employ people from surrounding communities as well. We have what we call Indian preference but we’re also an equal opportunity employer.”
The tribal lands here hold more than the Skywalk. Indian Village is one of those other opportunities which provide visitors a chance to learn more about Native people. “They’ve seen what Hollywood has put out, that the Native has been seen as savage. That’s what they expect when they get here,” Whatoname says. Indian Village shows different types of historical Indian housing: teepees, adobe houses, wickiups. “They know the tipi but don’t realize each tribe had its own unique dwelling. We try to educate the visitor as well. It’s really popular.”
Colin Daviau also works in public relations for the tribe and verifies what Whatoname says. “Cultural experience is just as important as the skywalk. People instantly are going to gravitate to the 4,000 foot bridge above the Grand Canyon but ultimately there is more to the destination we’re always trying to get people to see.”
“The basis of the whole project is establishing a future,” Daviau continued. “The tribe came to a conclusion that tourism is really the direction of the future, that’s going to lead to a successful future. It will pay for roads, for schools, for everything the tribe does. That is the ultimate goal, not just a tourism destination. It’s really a future for our people.”