LITTLE COLORADO RIVER GORGE, Ariz. - Nik Wallenda, world renowned high wire walker, made history on June 23 for walking a 1,400 foothigh, 1,500 foot long stretch of two inch wide twisted and braided steel cable over the Grand Canyon - but it wasn't exactly the Grand Canyon. And not everyone on the Navajo Reservation supported the event.
Wallenda actually walked over the Little Colorado River Gorge on the Navajo Nation near Cameron, Ariz.
A group of protesters expressed concern over the "circus like" atmosphere of the event. The group included members of the Cameron Chapter, Save the Confluence tribal members, members of the Hopi Tribe and one member of the Supai Tribe who traveled the furthest to support his fellow Navajo and Hopi tribal members in the protest against Wallenda taking such a risk over their sacred land.
Many Hopis and Navajos consider the Grand Canyon and its surrounding areas, including the Little Colorado River Gorge, extremely sacred. The Hopi people consider the area an original emergence home-place. Zuni tribal members also consider this area to be sacred.
Milton Tso, Cameron Chapter president, spoke to members of the media on Sunday at the protest campsite near Cameron.
"Navajos are supposed to cherish life," he said. "But is this how we are now presenting ourselves as Navajos to the world? That we are willing to allow this man to gamble with his life over one of our most sacred places? All for the sake of tourism dollars?
The Discovery Channel event had elderly and young viwers alike all gasping and praying for Wallenda. The tightrope was higher than the Empire State building.
At a media event in Flagstaff before the event, Wallenda told both TV and newspaper reporters that his biggest issue with the walk would be the wind. High winds could cause tension in the cable and updrafts could make the wire completely unsteady.
Wallenda also said holding steady in the wind would be a major factor in his final success. He added only lightning would stop the event.
It didn't come to that, but on-lookers, particularly the Native members in the audience, did express deep concern when Wallenda knelt on the wire, not once but twice during his almost 25 minute walk across the gorge.
Praising Jesus most of the way across the wire and asking "God the Father, Jesus" to sustain him and stop the wind, Wallenda made it successfully across the wire to the relief of not just a world wide audience but also his wife Erendira and his family, including his three children who were waiting on the other side of the gorge at a specially constructed camp site.
The Wallenda event drew crowds of invited guests, state and local media and Navajo Nation officials from Window Rock.
Tso said he wondered if there was a plan B in case Wallenda didn't make it across the gorge.
He wondered who would be held liable had Wallenda fallen off the cable.
"Is the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation or the Navajo President and his Vice President willing to assume such high liability for a media-hyped event that has nothing to do with our culture or our tribal tradition?" Tso asked. "Also no provisions were made for any of the local Cameron people to even participate either personally or communally in this event if they had wanted to. More than half of the Navajos living in Cameron don't even have electricity, so how would they even be able to watch this Wallenda event on a TV that is happening in their own backyard on their own land?"
Tso said nobody from the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department met with the Cameron Chapter to explain the event.
"Neither the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation department, its director Martin Begay or his assistant director, Helen Webster, ever met with us here locally at the chapter, though we have asked them to come to our chapter meetings to explain to us what this event was about and how could we all work together to benefit, if this was truly going to take place. We were only notified about this event less than three months ago," Tso said. "Although Webster did say that she would be getting us a $5,000 check for our local student scholarship fund, we have never seen the check or any follow up activity on her promise."
Webster said in press release statements that one reason for staging the event was to "improve and enhance" the Navajo Nation's parks by bringing attention to the Canyon and gorge to increase tourist dollars on the Reservation.
Webster also said the event resulted in new park amenities.
"When this Wallenda event is over, we will have gotten a new parking lot and a small new road to what could be a new scenic overlook site which we never would have gotten through the regular budget allocation from the Navajo Nation," she said.
Tso said regardless of the improvements, no one included the Cameron Chapter in the planning stages.
"I was hoping our chapter people would have been treated with respect from the Parks and Recreation people because we do have ideas on how to provide culturally sensitive tourism ideas," Tso said. "We have worked in the past with Arizona State University students on the possibility of eco-tourism and we have considered creating some type of Navajo village within the scenic overlook and surrounding area sites."
Tso said there are Cameron Navajo families living in the park area.
"But the Parks and Recreation are telling us that their land jurisdiction is from the paved main road to the end of the gorge, but those families that live on that land... is Parks and Recreation going to assume liability and responsibility for their home site needs, their livestock, their safe water and sewer needs? So far, they have not. I am hoping that this event will be the last of this type of administrative take over from the Parks and Recreation people, that in the future, tribal oversight management will seriously be looked at by the Navajo Nation council so that our entire Cameron chapter people will be able to make their own decisions about what can and will be done in the Little Colorado River Gorge area and that this must be done with full collaborative efforts for all of our benefit, each and every one of us."
Protesters held signs most of the day in the hot sun with many non-Native environmental supporters assisting them. Protesters taped protest signs to a fence line along Highway 64 which leads to the eastern entrance of the Grand Canyon. Tribal flags flew at the protest campsite. Though the Wallenda event went on, it did not deter the tribal and non-Native protestors from expressing their displeasure at the recent Navajo Nation's tourist event.