Photo by Katherine Locke.
THE GAP, Ariz. — Imagine time froze 50 years ago and nothing on your house could be fixed and no development could happen around you; no new roof, no road, no electricity, no plumbing and no infrastructure.
This is what happened in the Bennett Freeze area 50 years ago. In 1966, Robert L. Bennett, then commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), ordered development to stop on approximately 1.5 million acres of land that was in dispute by the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe. During the freeze, which was lifted in 2009, no development or improvement to any homes in the area was allowed.
Now imagine, it is 2016 and you look around at the price that a freeze on all development has wrought. Anyone who lives close to the western side of the Navajo Reservation or the Hopi Nation can see it — that includes anyone traveling up U.S 89 to Page or beyond. The people live without some things that most people take for granted — clean, running water or electricity in their houses. There is no infrastructure, there has been no meaningful development since the freeze was lifted. The people are still suffering.
While there is a pool of money that was supposed to be distributed to families in the area who suffered during the Bennett Freeze, there is conflict about what exactly should be built and whether there is really enough money to go around to all the people affected. And most people in the area are affected. And nothing is being built.
Into that void steps a man, Lamar Whitmer, and his partners, Confluence Partners, LLC. He holds out the promise of new jobs, an influx of money and development to an area that sorely needs it.
Throughout the afternoon Nov. 5, about 40-50 people from Cedar Ridge, Bitter Springs, Hidden Springs, Marble Canyon and The Gap area attended a meeting in support of the project. There are approximately 1,300 registered voters in the Bodaway/Gap Chapter and the 2010 Census said about 2,000 people live in the area.
Former Navajo Nation President Albert Hale called in to the meeting. As did legislation sponsor Benjamin Bennett. A clear view of U.S. 89 is visible from Beverly L. Tsinnijinnie’s home where the meeting took place. She also has a clear view of all the traffic that speeds through The Gap on its way to other tourist destinations. The people in the area want some of that tourist traffic to stop and help those who live in the area with their tourist dollars. The proposed project is one way of making that happen.
The proposal slowly working its way through various Navajo Nation committees was introduced Aug. 29 by Council Delegate Benjamin Bennett (Fort Defiance, Sawmill). If passed, the proposal would approve a master agreement for the Grand Canyon Escalade Project approving a funding application of $65 million by the Navajo Nation to develop off-site infrastructure, authorize the Navajo Nation Hospitality Enterprise to enter into a development and operating agreement, allow for the land withdrawal from the Bodaway/Gap Chapter and approve a non-compete agreement in the project area.
Confluence Partners LLC, from Scottsdale, Arizona, hopes to build a gondola tramway delivering visitors to the canyon floor in about 10 minutes, a river walk in the canyon with an elevated walkway and a food pavilion. The area is located about 100 miles by road from Interstate 40 and Flagstaff, Arizona.
On the rim, Confluence Partners members said there will be a discovery center that will tell stories of tribes’ relationships to the canyon, a multimedia complex and an estimated 47,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, which, in the future, could include hotels, motels, a RV park and a general store.
The project is controversial.
Many people oppose the project, including the Hopi Tribe, which calls the area sacred. The Hopi Tribe also says the project violates the intergovernmental compacted entered into between the two tribes in 2006.
The project is also opposed by a grassroots organization made up of some families in the area called Save the Confluence. Opposition groups also include the National Park Service, the Grand Canyon Trust, the river rafting community and many other individuals worldwide.
Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, said the site would disturb land where Hopi pilgrimages have occurred for more than a thousand years as part of a ritual initiation for Hopi young men. He added the proposed gondolas on either side of the Confluence would go over the top of sites used for sacred ceremonies and construction of the Escalade would destroy Hopi sites.
For those who wonder why anyone would be in support of the project, given the opposition, the people who spoke at the meeting at Tsinnijinnie’s home had a simple answer. Jobs. They emphasized that they are not an educated people. Some have lived in the area their whole lives. They have simple wishes: maybe some running water and electricity to their houses would be nice. Maybe better roads. Most often mentioned, though, was a senior center, where people could live in their golden years, a laundromat so the people could wash their clothes without having to drive to Page, Tuba City or Flagstaff and a market, where they could get fresh food.
The reality of many places in the Bennett Freeze area, an area that spreads 1.5 million acres, is that nothing is close, nothing is easy to fix. Darrick Shorty, a community member, pointed out that if a doorknob breaks on the door, there is no place to quickly run to get a replacement.
“You gotta go all the way to Page, or all the way to Tuba City,” he said. “That little five dollar part is going to start adding up. Now, you need gas money, wear and tear on your vehicle. It starts adding up. That is why we need a laundry here. You’ve got to travel to these other places. Then they wonder, ‘You have a job, why don’t you have running water?’ Because everything costs two, three, five times more than what it should cost us just to maintain.”
The people at the meeting believe the development that Confluence Partners is proposing will make those things possible. And, because of the Bennett Freeze, no one else has proposed anything to help people in the area.
People say the $65 million could be spent on something better but the communities on the western side of the reservation have not seen it. That is something both sides of the argument agree on.
“Shouldn’t they have done it already?” Shorty asked. “My thing would be give us the $65 million and see what we can do. Maybe the Bodaway/Gap Chapter people can set a higher standard and people can look at that.”
People who oppose the project also say the quality of jobs aren’t going to be good for the Navajo people who support the project. But again the people at the meeting said there is a lack of education in the area, which would affect what kinds of job they could have regardless.
“They say, all you’re going to be doing is scrubbing toilet bowls there,” Shorty said. “My sister works as a maid in Page and it’s not guaranteed. Sometimes she’s out of work a few days at a time. She’s got to travel back and forth, why not have one here so we don’t have to do so much traveling?”
Larry Hanks, a community member who has lived in the area most of his life, said that unlike groups who oppose the project, the people in support of the project are a group of people who don’t have much money and are not backed by millions of dollars.
“Here we are, every day people, some of us are on food stamps,” he said, adding that while some of the people are grandparents, they are still young and able. “We’re still young and we want to work.”
Hanks also said the elders do want the hotels and restaurants built within their jurisdiction, the Bodaway/Gap Chapter.
“Right now, our people are due the payment on the chapter,” he said. “The money comes from Window Rock, the money comes from federal government. We are allowed to get free handouts from the government. That doesn’t do much for our self-esteem. Why not work? Why not earn our own living?”
Harley Johnson, 87, has lived in the area his whole life. Through a translator he said his grandma and his mom told him when he was born in the western side of the western agency. The house, which is propped up, was called ‘The House of Three,’ and where the salt meets together, both of which are the words for the area where he was born,
Johnson is 100 percent behind the project. He said he is a simple man and leads a simple life. He thinks mostly of leaving something for his kids when he is gone. He said that if the project goes forward, everything that was imposed on the people because of the Bennett Freeze will be eased a little bit.
“That’s hopefully finding jobs… building an elderly care center for one day when I get to that age,” Johnson said. “It opens the door to a lot more opportunities.”
Johnson acknowledges that back in the day, different tribal members may have gone to the area for spiritual reasons and he said the area around the Confluence is spiritual.
“The spiritual aspect of the whole argument is you, yourself,” he said. “‘What’s in your heart? What’s in your mind?’ That is more spiritual than what’s in a place.”
Johnson knows that the opposition has a louder voice and more backing than the families in the area. He said 50 years ago, the families in the area planted corn in the ground, grew, watered and cultivated it. Johnson said that in today’s society that would have been job growth had the freeze not happened.
“Fifty years ago, our elders were already talking about growing something that would sustain us as a community,” Johnson said. “But then with the Navajo Generating Station going in, our plant fields were overlooked. Job creation was overlooked. It was ignored then.”
Opposition forces say the Escalade project is not a Navajo idea, that no Navajo would think of putting a gondola down into the canyon and part of the concern is Confluence Partners is from off the reservation. Johnson said that he has no problem with working with an outside group who are listening to the community. And, he added, there are Navajo partners with the group who is proposing the development.
“We planted a seed 50 years ago, and all these other people, a minority, are ruining what we planned 50 years ago,” he said. “That is my biggest concern.”
Johnson and the others said the reality is that the Navajo Nation people who live in the area, and those who have grazing permits in the area are divided. He said it is hard to sit down with the opposition because he does not see any possibility of negotiation with them. He would like to get together with those opposing the project in harmony but he sees little hope for that.
“[The people who oppose the project] are here asking for water… they’re here asking for things to be built,” Johnson said. “What difference does it make? Why don’t we come together and work things out. But they’re just out there. They have the same needs and wants that we do. I’m trying to understand, what makes them say ‘no?’ We have the same struggle.”
Whether or not the Navajo Nation Council agrees to the project, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has said he opposes the project. He reaffirmed his opposition on a visit to the Confluence recently.
For this story, at press time, no one opposing the project had gotten into contact with the Navajo-Hopi Observer with comments.