Two Indian nations disagree on a development at Grand Canyon

When Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly went public earlier this year with a plan to develop the East Rim of the Grand Canyon for tourism, the backlash was swift and strong — especially from the neighboring Hopi Tribe.


The East Rim of the Grand Canyon overlooks the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers. A proposal for a major development on Navajo Nation land at the site has sparked controversy. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

“It can’t happen,” said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, Hopi cultural preservation officer. “That’s all I can say to the Navajo Nation: you can’t do it.”

Shelly signed a memorandum of understanding on Feb. 17 with the Phoenix-based development group Confluence Partners, LLC, formerly Fulcrum, LLC. Early plans include a resort hotel, a restaurant, a tramway leading to a gondola and an RV park. The development would be set within sight of the place where the Little Colorado River flows into the Colorado River, an area known as the confluence and considered sacred to the Hopi, the Navajo and other tribes.

“It’s beautiful,” Shelly said of the proposed development, in late March. “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.”

Shelly promised that “a lot of collaboration” would happen in the coming months and years, as plans for the tourist park move forward. But that might be a tall order. The unveiling of the plan elicited a guarded response from Grand Canyon National Park spokesperson Maureen Oltrogge, and concern from an annual gathering of Grand Canyon river runners in the weeks that followed. Since then, no new celebratory announcements have come out about the plan.

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 in the vicinity of the proposed resort. 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 Kuwanwisiwma. “The tramway goes right into the heart of the Hopi Nation.”

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 called 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, Ariz.

“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.

Oltrogge said Grand Canyon National 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.”

Save the Confluence

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.

A news item on the web site of a local activist group called Save the Confluence reports that the Navajo Nation’s Bodaway/Gap Chapter, which borders the proposed development, recently voted 42 to 0 to reject it.

Navajo Nation spokesman Erny Zah pointed out that the report has appeared nowhere else; emails to Save the Confluence asking for confirmation were not answered by press time.

Francis Martin, a member of Save the Confluence, 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 Hopis and Navajos 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 eying the land alongside them.

Several of them, Martin included, have banded together in 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.”

From June 2012.