Mum’s been the word on a controversial proposal to build a huge tourist destination in the Navajo Nation’s part of the Grand Canyon, near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. But indications are the idea is still on the table.
Confluence Partners, LLC, the development group that includes Arizona State Sen. and former Navajo Nation President Albert Hale, has gone silent in recent months, a sharp contrast with a months-long advertisement campaign last year.
And plans have not been submitted for review by any of the Navajo Nation agencies that would be tasked with approving them. The project hasn’t been discussed at all with tribal government officials since December. But ambition hasn’t waned, according to Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly.
“The partner group has been making progress, and they’ve been indicating that to us,” Zah said. “Right now it’s low-key, and it seems to be out of the public eye. They said within the coming months they’ll be more public in the progress that they’re making.”
And that will be a good thing, as far as Zah is concerned: “We would like to hear what they are doing and how they are integrating the community issues and desires into their overall plan.”
Grand Canyon Escalade, as it’s been named, would span 420 acres near the confluence, just east of Grand Canyon National Park. Its centerpiece 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 riverwalk 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, retail stores and art galleries.
According to promotional materials, the project is expected to create about 2,000 jobs, most of them for Navajo tribal members. It would cost $120 million in the first phase, with the Navajo Nation providing all off-site infrastructure and Escalade, a company managed by Confluence Partners, paying for all on-site development. On completion, Escalade is projected to generate $50 million to $95 million annually for the tribe.
Conceptual plans for the development were released last spring and elicited praise from Shelly, who said it’s about time the Navajo Nation sees some revenue from the Grand Canyon, alongside the National Park Service.
Shelly signed a memorandum of understanding in February of last year that paved the way for collaboration between the Navajo Nation and Confluence Partners, formerly called the Fulcrum Group. At that point the advertising campaign, including the web site and prominent ads in local newspapers, was forging ahead without any formal approvals by the Navajo Nation as a whole and no formal consultations with neighbors – among them Grand Canyon National Park and the Hopi Tribe.
“Pedestrian friendly arcades will allow visitors to access Artisan Studios and Galleries along the Canyon rim,” says a web site for the project, at grandcanyonescalade.com, “which will offer not only shopping but the ability to interact with Native American artists and artisans, dine at restaurants with unparalleled views, learn about the Navajo and Native Americans by touring the Cultural Center, and spend the night at a Canyon-side lodge.”
But alongside the media blitz, Navajo traditionalists and the neighboring Hopi Tribe raised their own campaigns.
Almost immediately, a group called Save the Confluence formed from a “coalition of landholders and grazing permit owners on the western Navajo Nation” who are opposed to the development proposal, according to their website, savetheconfluence.com.
Early on, Hopi Cultural Preservation Officer Leigh Kuwanwisiwma also had strong words against Escalade: “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.”
And months after the plans were unveiled, the Hopi tribal government issued a firm resolution against the concept.
“One of the major sacred places of Hopi Tribal origins and religious beliefs is the Grand Canyon, known to the Hopi as Öngtuvqa, including the area of the confluence. It is believed to be a place where many Hopi ancestors lived and their spirits still dwell there including many cultural resources that support its revered status for Hopi people,” the Feb. 22 statement reads. “Hopi religious leaders and the Hopi people in general strongly oppose this proposed development.”
The Hopi Tribal Council passed Resolution H-113-2012 by unanimous vote to formally oppose the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade project by Confluence Partners, LLC, the statement continues.
Plenty of non-native Grand Canyon enthusiasts have also been up in arms about the proposal. Grand Canyon River Guides, a Flagstaff, Ariz.-based association of guides on the Colorado, came out strongly against it.
“The damage done to this marginal wilderness area will be beyond repair, and corporations, rather than Navajo, will be the beneficiaries,” complained one GCRG member, Geoff Carpenter, in a May 30, 2012, letter to the editor in the Navajo Times. “I’m just a bit puzzled that the proposal has the credibility it does, and that it is even being considered.”
Things looked up for the development last fall, when residents of the Navajo Nation’s Bodaway/Gap Chapter, closest to the site, seemed to have had a change of heart.
Fifty-nine people supported a pro-Escalade resolution, and 52 people were against it, at an Oct. 3 meeting at the Bodaway/Gap Chapter House, along U.S. Highway 89 between Flagstaff and Tuba City and near the confluence. The meeting had been rescheduled from the previous week due to a shouting match between those for and against the plan. The new resolution rescinded two prior resolutions in which members of the chapter had opposed the development, and authorized 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.”
Confluence partners Lamar Whitmer and Hale have declined to answer emails or phone calls in recent weeks. But Hale said earlier that the Oct. 3 chapter resolution il lustrates the support of people living near the confluence. He also said that petitions his partnership circulated last year 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 anti-Escalade grassroots group called Nxt IndigenousGeneration, attended the Bodaway/Gap Chapter meetings, and she said the claim of support is dubious.
“This project has divided the room straight down the center,” she said. “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.” Riggs said community meetings were marked by “people yelling at each other, trying to hush each other up. You actually start to feel that panicky feeling like something might happen.”
Delores Wilson is a tribal member and participant in the Save the Confluence group. She said most of the support came from reaches of the Bodaway/Gap Chapter far from where the development would occur.
“I grew up at the confluence,” she said. “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.”
As of their last public statement, the Navajo Nation Council also was 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 Sept. 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.
Delegate Duane Tsinigine, contacted for this story, said he’s heard no word about the development since last fall. Neither have the grassroots groups poised to fight it.
“We have not heard anything new,” said Wilson of Save the Confluence, “but we continue to be mindful of the proposed development. We are also still having our meetings.”
Although the reports of last year’s strife have reached the executive branch, Shelly remains undaunted in his support of the proposal.
“According to the partners, the local chapter did pass a resolution supporting the project,” Zah said. “I understand that there are people who don’t want the project, but the president will support whatever the voters want. He does support jobs, and economic development on the Navajo Nation.” Zah added that such development should aim to be compatible with cultural concerns.
According to initial timelines, Escalade – if it’s still on track – could be completed by the spring of 2015.