Grand Canyon Navajos

This artist rendering depicts a proposed aerial tramway that would ferry tourists from the cliff tops of the east rim of the Grand Canyon to the water's edge of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers below. The plan by the Navajo government is drawing opposition from the National Park Service, environmental groups and even some traditional Navajo herdsmen in the area. (AP Photo/Confluence Partners, LLC/HO)

A tourist attraction that included a gondola to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on sacred tribal land slowly faded away this summer as an agreement between the Navajo Nation and a Scottsdale-based developers expired.

It was a relief for the people still living traditional Navajo lifestyles in the area.

But last week, in an interview with the Navajo Times, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said a new agreement with developers had been reached.

That was news to families that live in the Bodaway Chapter of the Navajo Nation near the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers.

At a meeting during the Colorado River Days in Flagstaff this week, opponents said they still hadn’t seen the new version of the project. Tribal officials have elected only to share the new plan with chapter leaders — not residents.

“There’s a number of phases this project would have to go through,” said Deon Ben, who is the Grand Canyon Trust liaison for the project. “We’re trying to bring it to a halt before it reaches the next phase in order to create a discussion for the Colorado Plateau community.”

For families that live near the Confluence, it is yet another way they feel cast aside in a process that has yet to enter tribal regulatory channels. An environmental impact statement has not yet been done and the elaborate proposal has not been reviewed by agencies in the Navajo Division of Natural Resources.

“The people being affected don’t know the plans being developed in Window Rock in the president’s office,” said Dolores Wilson of the group Save the Confluence at a discussion at the Museum of Northern Arizona last week. “We have never seen the new (memorandum of agreement).”

Confluence Partners LLC has been pushing the development with the help of former Navajo Nation President Albert Hale, who resigned from office in 1998 amid allegations of misspending tribal funds. Hale is now a member of the Arizona House of Representatives.

Shelly’s office has also been supportive of the development, touting the jobs and economic recovery for an area that has seen little of either for over 40 years. The developers contend their project could bring in as much as $90 million annually and some 2,000 jobs.

The site would include multiple restaurants and a cultural center. After visitors took the gondola, which developers call the “Escalade,” there would be a 1,400-foot Colorado River walk to a restaurant inside the Grand Canyon, as well as a riverside amphitheater with terraced grass seating.

The developers say they hope to start operations at the Escalade in spring of 2015.

Wilson says she was raised just three miles from where the Little Colorado flows into the Colorado River, and the two pass on together into the Grand Canyon. As a girl, she was taught to hold the Confluence sacred. Ceremonies were held. Corn pollen was spread to the wind for the holy beings to pull into the Canyon.

Hundreds of thousands of Navajo and Hopi people also hold the Confluence as sacred. Many clans, including the Wilsons, believe it is the place of emergence for their people.

“I feel like I’ve been forced to become a spokesperson against the Escalade,” Wilson said. “We made our offerings at the canyon. We were told and we were taught that the Canyon consists of holy beings.”

She was 3 years old in 1966 when the Bennett Freeze was signed. Following a Navajo-Hopi land dispute, then Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner Robert Bennett placed a hold on all development within the 1.5 million acres.

It had a crippling effect on the Bodaway area that surrounds the Confluence.  No new building of any kind was allowed.  Homes decayed or were repaired under secrecy.

Wilson’s family lived in a stone home and grazed sheep kept in a stone corral. Many members of the family still hold grazing rights in the area, where they continue to live a traditional Navajo lifestyle similar to their ancestors.

“Where the two rivers meet, it makes life,” Wilson said. “To me, the Confluence affects the whole United States.”

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So when President Barack Obama signed a repeal of the Bennett Freeze in 2009, many in Bodaway were hopeful for development and a resurgence of building. But building efforts have been slow because of tribal infighting over how to spend the funds.

Cash, jobs for locals

Then, in 2012, it was announced that there was an MOU for a massive private-tribal partnership project at the Confluence — on long-sacred land. The scale of the project shocked many of the locals, including the Wilsons.

But if the project was successful and found investors, which has yet to happen, Shelly expects the Escalade to give the Navajo Nation an 18 percent cut. From their revenue, the tribe would give one-third to development in the Bennett Freeze area.

“When the Bennett freeze was lifted, this was one of the first projects aimed at the community’” Ben said. “This community is very isolated and is considered one of the few still undeveloped.”

But because the Bodaway community has lived a largely traditional lifestyle, many are not comfortable with the scale of the project.

And the land likely contains archaeological sites, as well as threatened animal and plant species, which require protection under tribal law. When the Discovery Channel live-broadcast Nik Wallenda’s skywire walk nearby across the Little Colorado earlier this year, tribal law required an extensive study of resources in the area and crews weren’t able to use all the sites they wanted as a result.

It’s also unclear whose land the Escalade would use. Some interpretations of federal law hold that the Grand Canyon National Park boundary is at the high water mark of the river. Others hold that it stretches above the rim of the canyon. The issue has never been settled in court.

Grand Canyon National Park officials have said in the past that they were never contacted by developers.

Some of the land would also likely fall within the boundaries of the Little Colorado River Tribal Park, which is governed by the Navajo Department of Parks and Recreation.

Coconino County Supervisor Lena Fowler of Tuba City declined to be interviewed on the subject, but issued the following response through email:

“The Board of Supervisors has not been briefed on the project, which is on the Navajo Nation. The county will monitor how it moves along.”

Families divided

The prospect of development at the Confluence has divided families in the area. Bodaway residents say it’s not clear if most in the community support or oppose the Escalade. The gondola has proven to be so controversial that many have simply stopped discussing it, despite strong opinions. Others have opted not to step forward and be heard.

And the issue isn’t sensitive only to Navajos living in Bodaway. Tribal members across the Southwest hold the Confluence to be sacred.

Robert Tohe, a Navajo tribal member who works in the environmental justice program for the Sierra Club, said his family is from the eastern portion of the reservation. They still look to the Confluence as a sacred site. He said tribal members in New Mexico would never stand for development at Shiprock, another sacred peak.

He added that the Navajo Nation wants it both ways, as it has opposed snowmaking using reclaimed wastewater on the San Francisco Peaks, which the tribe also holds sacred.

“The tribal government seems to be creating two sets of standards for itself,” he said.

Eric Betz can be reached at ebetz@azdailysun.com or 556-2250.

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