Navajo grazing permit leaseholders Marie and Ernest Peyketewa and Franklin Martin talk about the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade project at the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers.

BODAWAY-GAP — Leonard Sloan stood at the canyon’s edge and prayed. He spoke in Navajo and English, facing east, hat in hand, words floating into the abyss. He had left his house in Cedar Ridge in the dark as a rooster crowed, driving dirt roads on the western Navajo Reservation as the sun came up, passing cattle and horses, sheep camps and corrals, until he arrived at the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers.

A gentle breeze came from below, and the sound of water. A raven clucked above. Then voices and laughter. A couple of tourists had ventured on a nearby point, and the sounds from their campsite drifted across the way. Sloan kept praying. The confluence, where the Little Colorado empties into the mother river, is sacred to the Navajo and other tribes, who say yelling or throwing rocks into the Canyon are inappropriate. Yet the intrusions have become more common, ever since a proposal to build a resort on the east side of the Grand Canyon began to draw new attention to the area.

The heart of the proposal, known as Grand Canyon Escalade, is a 1.6-mile gondola tram ride that would drop 3,200 feet into the Canyon, taking visitors from rim to river in about 10 minutes. Phase 1 of the $230 million project would also include commercial and retail space, a Navajo Discovery Center, multimedia complex, wastewater treatment plant, river walk and administrative building. Future developments would include hotels, an RV park and a general store.


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The project is one of many conservationists say could desecrate the region and transform the Grand Canyon from a national park to an amusement park.

It has divided the region from the start. Shouting matches have broken out at the Bodaway-Gap Chapter House as towns, neighborhoods, even families have split over the Escalade. Some say the project will bring jobs and economic investment to a part of the state where both are in short supply. Others say it is the wrong project, the wrong developer with the wrong deal. Still others say the confluence should be left alone.

“Because of the confluence there are so many people at each other’s throats,” said Sloan, recently elected vice president of the Bodaway-Gap Chapter, a geographic area of the Navajo Reservation near the confluence. “Deep down inside me I think the Escalade is a bad idea. … But now as an official I have to look at both sides.”

The project could come to a vote in the Navajo Tribal Council this month.

Centuries of tradition

Ernest Peyketewa Sr. scooped up lambs and set them inside a pen. About 100 animals milled about the corral — white sheep, brown ones, black, about a dozen long-haired goats. His wife, Marie, fed a lamb with a baby bottle, set it down, moved on to the next.

When the lambs were separated, Ernest opened the gate and the flock scattered up a hill with a few dogs tagging along. He started the pickup, drove a dirt road and parked not far from where the herd fed.

Throughout the day, Marie stepped out to drive the sheep, following the herd, in her mother’s footsteps, her grandmother’s. It’s a tradition that goes back centuries, and while it is fading, the region has remained relatively undeveloped, in part because of a decision that goes back to the 1960s.

Grand Canyon at risk

The Peyketewas talk about tribal tradition, the region’s history. Ernest can point to a handful of prayer sites, walk down the hill not far from the herd to point out a pair of red hand prints on a small overhang. Pueblo clans have lived in this region for thousands of years, painting and scratching the rock, walking an ancient trail to a salt cave, leaving prayers and offerings along the way. The Hopi believe humans emerged from a place near the confluence called the Sipapu.

The Navajo, too, have historic ties to Grand Canyon. They have lived near its edge, dropped inside to hide from American soldiers during the Long Walk, when thousands of Navajos were marched to New Mexico. Hundreds died along the way.

The Navajo and Hopi have bonded often over the years through trade and even marriage, Peter Iverson writes in “Dine: A history of the Navajos.” Marie recalls Hopi ladies riding through the area on donkeys with fruit and piki bread. But the two tribes have had their share of conflict, too, and decades ago, a series of land disputes escalated until 1966, when Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett ordered a halt to economic development in the western Navajo Reservation.

The Bennett Freeze, as it came to be known, shut down businesses and home construction in the area, and the western Navajo Reservation slipped into an economic time warp that lasted four decades. The freeze made it illegal to fix a leaky roof, though people could probably get away with it if they didn’t tell anyone, Sloan said.

When the government lifted the freeze in 2009, the Navajo began to talk of rebuilding. Not long after that, the Escalade developers made their pitch.

A gondola into the Canyon   

Lamar Whitmer said he first floated the Escalade project in the mid-1990s with former Navajo Nation President Albert Hale. His experience with the Hualapai tribe and the Grand Canyon Skywalk on the Canyon’s West Rim gave him some expertise in tribal economic development, he said. But the Escalade never got off the ground, and it remained dormant until the freeze was lifted.

As plans simmered, and with jobs already scarce, two of the biggest employers in the region, a coal mine and the mine’s primary customer, the Navajo Generating Station near Page, announced they would close soon.

“I think the power plant shutting down really drives home the point that they need to diversify their economy and they need to develop tourism,” Whitmer said. “And there’s no way they can really develop tourism without capitalizing on the Grand Canyon market. Because that’s the big piece of tourism in Arizona. Seven million people. … a million at Grand Canyon West and 6 million at the park. Right now they’re driving by. There are a lot of Navajos that think we’ll just put something up on Highway 89 and they’ll stop. Well, for what?”

Whitmer said the Escalade project is the answer. Over the past five or six years, Confluence Partners, the company formed to back the project, has worked to gain support, presenting the idea over and over at chapter houses, committee meetings and to anyone else who will listen. The pitch starts with one premise: The confluence is the right place. Now is the time.

Navajo land pushes up against the park’s eastern border, where the Colorado River loops north and south through Marble Canyon. The scenic view there is not enough of a draw, Whitmer said, despite the fact that 5 million to 6 million people visit the North and South Rims each year for overlooks, hikes, cultural sites and other ranger-led programs.

Without a tram, Whitmer said, “the economics don’t work. The tram’s the big economic engine.

“I mean an overlook, it’s just not the same. When people get to the Rim the first thing they want to do is, ‘How do I get to the bottom? You mean I actually have to hike for three hours?’ ” Whitmer doesn’t say much about the time he hiked into the Canyon, a trip with the Boy Scouts when he was a teenager, other than to say it was hot.

“I think it was the end of June,” he said. “When you’re that age, you don’t know any better.”

The project, he said, will focus on Navajo culture, with storytellers sharing winter stories in the winter, for example, then changing it up each season. Whitmer said that may allow the Escalade to attract an untapped market of winter visitors.

“We’re most committed to the Navajoland Discovery Center so we can assist the Navajo people in telling their stories and preserving their culture,” he said.

A chapter divided

Navajo tribal member Clyde Wilson said some people in the Bodaway-Gap chapter opposed the project immediately. Most people listened, but they had questions.

Some of those questions were related to the developers. The chapter learned that Whitmer had been indicted on three counts of theft and one count of fraudulent schemes in 1992. Prosecutors claimed he paid himself $40,000 (some accounts say $45,000) while serving as chairman of the Maricopa County Sports Authority, though the position was supposed to be voluntary. He was later acquitted.

One of his partners in the project, Albert Hale, was once president of the Navajo Nation, but left office under a cloud, facing potential criminal charges for misspending tribal funds and allegations of having an affair while in office, according to newspaper reports.

And then there was the deal itself, which looked to some like it was designed to do one thing: make the investors a lot of money.

To begin with, the tribe must put up the first $65 million; where that money would come from is not clear. A one-page letter buried inside a bill before the Tribal Council indicates that the money might come in through a deal with Sacred Mountain LLC, owned by Joe Bergen. Information about the company, which claims developments in New Guinea and Ghana, Africa, is hard to come by. On a LinkedIn page, Bergen lists Beacon Hill, near Kansas City, Mo., as one of his projects, but a builder and architect with Beacon Hill had never heard of him. (Whitmer said he didn’t know much about Sacred Mountain, and that someone in the tribe suggested the company.)

If the tribe fails to come up with $65 million, Confluence Partners may arrange for financing, but the tribe would be on the hook for the interest, plus a 10 percent fee, payable to Confluence Partners.

Meantime, the Navajo Tribe will receive 8 percent to 18 percent of the profits. Outside investors will get the rest.Nobody will be allowed to build a business within 15 miles of the project. And the deal obligates the tribe to a 25-year commitment, which will be followed by two automatic renewals of 25 years.

In spite of these potential problems, some still support the project because of the jobs the developers have promised.

Opponents say the number of jobs has been inflated, and so has the pay.

According to a memo from the Navajo Office of the Attorney General, during initial negotiations, developers indicated Doppelmayr, an international firm that specializes in gondolas and similar projects, would design the tram. Later, the developer distributed materials that named Sundt Construction and other firms were named as “project team members,” even though Navajo law requires that Navajo firms be given preference. (In another part of the bill, the partners say they are bound by Navajo hiring practices.)

Those against the development have formed a group called Save the Confluence, which has gathered more than 31,500 online signatures opposing the Escalade and keeps tabs on the project.

The split has pitted neighbor against neighbor in this rural community.

“We’re all related,” Frank Martin said. “We’re cousins. We’re brothers.”

Grazing leases

Before any work can start on the Escalade project, the developers must find support from the people who live at the confluence, who work the land, whose traditions define this place.

Marie Peyketewa recalls growing up close to the confluence, using donkeys to move the sheep, eating a breakfast of fried potatoes and tortillas before catching the bus to school, reading by the light of a kerosene lamp. She remembers her grandmother, who also grazed sheep in the area, telling her not to go to the confluence unless she had a reason.

The region is dotted with small homes, RVs and sheep camps, with cattle and horses and corrals. And prayer sites. Not all prayer sites show up in maps “because the medicine men didn’t want them on there,” said Ernest, who learned Hopi traditions from his grandfather.

He looked at the herd. The sheep had turned, moving in a long loop, over hills and into washes. Ernest and Marie followed, the day turning warmer. The herd moved into a small canyon, where the sandstone pinched in and water gathered in a rocky depression. The canyon eventually descends into the Little Colorado River, which Ernest can point out by calling up Google Earth on his cellphone.

The sheep drank. A dog swam out into the murk. There were two black lambs, a goat with a single horn that made it look like a unicorn.

Sheep culture is fading because many Navajo would rather raise cattle, which can be left alone for a couple of weeks at a time, Marie said.

Sheep wander and stray. Coyotes eat them, rustlers steal them, snow covers the range, summer rains wash out roads and fill narrow canyons. Marie talks about a herd of goats getting swept away in a flood. You must guard against disease and bloat, she said, pick out the sick ones and do what you can. Then there are the lambs. Eagles snatch them and ravens peck their heads; just last year they lost three or four lambs this way.

The herders face cold, heat, their commute is long and help is far away. Marie took over the herd after her mother had a couple of bouts with hypothermia out there. Ernest recalls blowing out his vehicle transmission during a winter storm. The sheep were loose, snow so bad he couldn’t see, it was dark and he followed the edge of a canyon. They found the herd later, but struggled just to stay warm that night.

Under tribal law, Confluence Partners must get a waiver from local grazing lease and home-site holders, and “that wasn’t done,” said Larry Foster, a former Navajo council member and political adviser working with Save the Confluence.

Yet Whitmer insists nobody lives out there, that there is not a single house within 10 miles of the confluence. He laughed when asked about families living in the area.

“There’s the families we were dealing with originally who claimed to have grazing leases at the site, and they could never produce the leases,” Whitmer said.

In 2012, grazing-permit holders submitted a petition to the Navajo Land Administration Department in Window Rock with 35 signatures opposing the Escalade. Most provided their grazing-permit numbers, and those who didn’t said they could provide them later.

In 2016, lease and permit holders provided another petition, again providing permit numbers.

“There are quite a few people that have grazing rights,” said Franklin Martin, who showed his permit to The Arizona Republic a few weeks ago.

He sat in a hotel lobby in Page, where he cited the Navajo Treaty of 1868, which states that “if bad men among the whites, … shall commit any wrong upon the person or property of the Indians” … the government will “proceed at once to cause the offender to be arrested and punished. …”

“We’re still being taken advantage of,” he said.

Just paving a road on the western part of the reservation could affect local people who raise cattle, sheep or horses. Marie Peyketewa said if the road is improved, she expects to see more people driving off road, more parties, more rustling, the sheep blocked off from water. Ernest said that some bikers killed a sheep and drove away last year.

“They’re going to have buses, cars, RVs, you name it,” he said. “It’s going to really, really, impact this place.”

A bill moves forward

The Escalade project languished when one of its primary backers, Navajo President Ben Shelly, left office, but it found new to life in August, when council delegate Benjamin Bennett introduced a bill, and it has been making its way through the Navajo Nation Council.

About 50 people filled the room during a council work session on the bill at Twin Arrows Casino Resort in November. They wore cowboy hats, turquoise jewelry, long skirts, jeans, baseball hats, suits and a few Save the Confluence T-shirts. Casino security guards and tribal police moved in and out of the room.

Hale made his pitch in Navajo, dropping the occasional English phrase, with graphics that outlined the tribe’s grim economic future — shrinking revenue, the coal mine and power plant closing, joblessness, crime, soaring youth incarceration and suicide rates, Navajos leaving the reservation. This was followed by a video, another graphic showing a circle of tourism that sees about 24 million visitors each year. There were charts and graphs, projections, statistics, and a catchphrase straight out of Hollywood: “If you build it, they will come.”

Whitmer sat in a dark suit, blue shirt and yellow tie. A few Navajos sympathetic to the project took turns speaking, but members of the public were told they could only submit questions in writing. After about an hour, Renae Yellowhorse, of Save the Confluence, stood and faced the lawmakers:

“These are lies and you are not listening to the truth,” she said. Security rushed in, led her to the back door, and she raised a fist on the way out:

“Save the confluence!” she cried. “Save the confluence!”

Hale continued as if nothing had happened, detailing the millions of dollars in revenue that he said would pour into the tribe’s coffers. He talked about the project’s restaurants, motel, an RV park, store, boutique hotel, until a council member said, “I thought this was going to be an open discussion.”

“I feel this is one-sided and unfair,” said another.

“Build it in your backyard,” said yet another. “We don’t have to develop the sacred areas.” Other council members weighed in with questions about taxes, sacred sites, tribal law and terms of the deal. Some wondered if the tribe weighed other options or got a third party to study the proposal. They talked about the need for jobs, to protect the Canyon.

Whitmer said after the meeting he thought it went well.

Members of Save the Confluence met in a casino restaurant and talked about how the entire process had been like this  — one sided, with inflated promises of jobs and economic benefits and attempts to brush aside grazing rights, the question of sacred sites and other matters. Hale has done most of the talking.

“We should have put him in jail,” Frank Martin, whose family has grazing leases in the area, would say later, recalling Hale’s departure from office.

Most people agree the region needs jobs. But some wonder if the Navajo can have tourism without bringing in outside developers. The Bennett Freeze, as tough as it was, showed the resiliency of the Navajo people.

“I grew up during the Bennett Freeze era and we survived,” said Delores Wilson-Aguirre.

“I think it made us a little tougher,” Sloan said in an interview later.

A couple of months after the meeting at Twin Arrows, the tribe’s Resources and Development Committee reviewed the bill at Bodaway-Gap Chapter House and the room filled with tribal members, out-of-town visitors and a few journalists.

Walter Phelps, a councilman from the west side of the reservation, talked about the need for jobs in the area, and about the tribe’s proud past.

“We were ranchers, we had cattle and sheep,” he said, tens of thousands of them. He slipped into Navajo and a young man translated: In the old days, a man would be known for how many horses he had, and how many wives.

The crowd laughed.

The smell of fry bread had filled the room. Bags of popcorn were passed around, followed by fry bread and spaghetti or bowls of stew, and the talk continued until the committee voted 3-2 to table the matter, allowing the bill to move forward. That was the most favorable vote it received in three committee meetings, after losing 4-0 in the Law and Order Committee and 3-1 in Budget and Finance.

Next up is the Naabik’iyati’ Committee, in which the entire council will debate the bill. After that the bill could be voted on by the full council in its spring session, which begins April 17. If passed, the bill would likely be vetoed by President Russell Begaye, which means the council would have to vote again, Foster said.

“The president and I have always stated that we don’t support the project in the way it is being proposed,” Navajo Vice President Jonathan Nez said in September.

“I come from the west part of the Navajo Nation … and I’ve been saying all along that we need to keep the Grand Canyon pristine,” Nez said. “If people want to experience it they should, like people have for generations, experience the beauty and the sacredness of that place,” Nez said. In other words, they should walk, ride a horse, a mule, a donkey. Or stand on the edge, look out. Pray.

Just another investment opportunity?

President Theodore Roosevelt once stood on the edge of the Canyon and told Americans to leave it alone, that man could only mar it. But that was easier said than done. When people visited the Canyon, with no garbage pickup, no restrooms, no rules, they trashed the place.

The National Park Service eventually took over management of the park. The agency is required by law to protect natural resources, but also to make those resources available to the public. Those goals frequently clash, but the balancing act has worked as a kind of check and balance over the years. Today, developed parts of the South Rim can get crowded and noisy, with the occasional traffic jam, but the rest of the park is quiet and uncrowded.

“The South Rim is a necessary evil,” said Rich Rudow, who has hiked thousands of miles in the Canyon. The Park Service, for all its faults and challenges, manages a variety of experiences — hikes, overlooks, river trips, mule rides — and plays a critical role in protecting the Canyon.

Without that context, the South Rim looks to many like a giant gathering of people with money to spend, a mall with a view, a place to make a buck. It’s easy to see how the Navajo might look at the Canyon and its tourism as just another outsider business, especially when seen through the filter of the Confluence Partners L.L.C., with its charts and graphs and income projections, a circle of tourism, millions of dollars just driving by and the promise, “If you build it, they will come.”

“These developers don’t have to adhere to the idea of conserving the place for the future, and that’s the problem,” Rudow said. Developers see millions of visitors not as a drain on park resources or an intrusion on natural quiet, but an investment opportunity, and “their only responsibility is to their shareholders,” Rudow said.

American Indian tribes were frequently shoved aside to create many national parks, but the Hualapai, Navajo and Havasupai, who still live in and around Grand Canyon, have long memories, and “their story is intimately woven into the landscape itself,” said Kevin Fedarko, author of “The Emerald Mile.”

“What’s happening right now is kind of justified, when you think about it,” he said. “We, as a society at large, we kicked these people out of their homes, we told them they had no business being inside these places, we wrote them out of the picture. And we didn’t lift a finger to help them.” Historians have begun to insert tribal stories back into the narrative, and, moving forward, the tribes “need to be part of the conversation,” Fedarko said.

The Navajo have been slow to embrace tourism, but the evidence suggests they’re getting better at it. A Navajo-owned hotel at Monument Valley offers great views, and it’s easier to pick up a recreation permit on the west side than it was 10 years ago. Groups such as NavajoYES build trails and promote outdoor recreation programs for tribal youth.

If the Navajo pass the bill, lawsuits will almost certainly follow. The Hopi have passed a resolution against the project. The Zuni and All Pueblo Council of Governors have passed similar resolutions. The border between National Park Service land and the Navajo Reservation is also in dispute. Groups such as Save the Confluence or the Grand Canyon Trust are not likely to back down either.

If the council votes it down, it is likely to return someday, like the uranium mines outside the park that keep reopening, the ones that conservationists call zombie mines.

“If the developers lose this battle, they’re not going away,” Rudow said.

Leonard Sloan left the Canyon behind and headed back to town for a meeting, through a labyrinth of dirt and clay, the skinny roads that cover the western part of the reservation. Wild horses ran to water and cattle grazed. To the south, it was about time for Ernest and Marie to turn the sheep out of the corral. This is Navajo land. It is covered in dirt roads, ancient trails, the footsteps of those who came before, prayer sites, red hands on stone, wild horses, sheep and long-haired goats.

“I hope we can work things out as a community,” Sloan said. “It’s going to be hard, but I hope we can get back to the way we were before the Escalade.” On the way out, he ran into Clyde Wilson, who was on his way out to his piece of land, located about three miles from the confluence. Wilson doesn’t like how the issue has divided the community either, but he didn’t back down an inch. He’s against the Escalade.

“We live here. This is our land. Now, they want to take it back.”


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