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Growing The Grand Canyon: Sacredness Of The Space Debated

Laurel Morales
The confluence, or the place where the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers meet, is considered sacred to many and an opportunity for economic development to others.

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Growing The Grand Canyon: Sacredness Of The Space Debated

Growing The Grand Canyon: Sacredness Of The Space Debated

Laurel Morales

Hopi Chairman Herman Honanie listens as Hopi cultural preservation director Leigh Kuwanwisiwma talks to Zuni, Navajo and Hopi people who want to preserve the confluence site.

Developers are negotiating with the Navajo Nation to build a $150 million tourist destination on the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon. But Navajo leaders are divided over whether to allow desperately needed economic development on a place many believe to be sacred.

At the end of a long dirt road about a hundred miles north of Flagstaff you come to a precipice, where the land drops away 3,500 feet to the place where the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers meet at the floor of the Grand Canyon.

Developer Lamar Whitmer took one look at this stunning view and saw opportunity. He envisions a gondola ride, two hotels, a restaurant, cultural center, amphitheater and elevated walkway along the river’s edge. Whitmer believes the project would keep Navajos from moving off the reservation to find jobs.

“If they’re going to sustain their people and preserve their culture they have to create some jobs,” Whitmer said. “Fifty percent of the Navajos are living off reservation now. The ones that stay have one of the most impoverished, if not the most impoverished, place in the state.”

The Grand Canyon Escalade proposal, as they’re calling it, promises the tribe 3,200 jobs, a road, infrastructure and at least eight percent of gross revenues. The tradeoff: 420 acres of land considered holy by many tribal members.

But Whitmer said it is not a documented sacred site.

“Navajo and the Hopi in their litigation with the federal government have spent significant time, 50 or 60 years, cataloguing significant sacred sites,” Whitmer said. “There are no significant sacred sites within the 420 acres.”

Laurel Morales

Renae Yellowhorse, Save the Confluence spokeswoman, stands on the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon.

“I’m not going to accept it,” said Renae Yellowhorse, Save the Confluence group spokeswoman. “For people to come in and say, outside people, to tell me where I pray, and where my grandparents have prayed, and where my great-grandparents have prayed, that to tell me that is not sacred, they can’t tell me that.”

On a recent breezy morning Yellowhorse sent her prayers out to the wind, which she said carried them to her ancestors at the place where two rivers meet — the confluence.

“Where the waters come together that’s where life comes from and then when we go back after we finish our life journeys that’s where we go back to,” Yellowhorse said. “These are clan stories, these aren’t stories that are in any books.”

In addition to the Navajo, the Zuni and Hopi also believe the site is sacred. The Hopi Tribal Council led by Chairman Herman Honanie has passed a resolution opposing the development.

Laurel Morales

Hopi Chairman Herman Honanie says, "when I think about the history the emerging of the Hopi people from the Grand Canyon and as we return back in that selfish way I say it’s ours and we must let it remain as it is."

“Right now as I’m looking at it at the confluence it is just surreal,” Honanie said. “It’s just majestic. It’s...why would anyone want to alter it in any state whatsoever, minute or grand? This belongs to the people. And I feel in some way that’s why it was created.”

But a former Navajo president is in favor of the development, along with many other tribal members including Brian Kensley. He said this portion of the Navajo Nation has been neglected for too long. For five decades the federal government prohibited development on this land. Now that the freeze is lifted, Kensley sees Escalade as a chance for a better life.

“Of course it’s a majestic area,” Kensley said. “It’s an origin area, an oral tradition area. It’s a seventh wonder of the world in our backyard, but I would like to share that sacredness with other outside people.”

The developers are hopeful they will find a compromise and the Escalade attraction will open in 2018.

Laurel Morales was a Fronteras Desk reporter in Flagstaff from 2011 to 2020.