BODAWAY GAP, Ariz. — Two shepherds spied a shiny, black Tahoe and a white pickup truck crawling on a dirt road in the afternoon Sept. 13 near a gully that plunges into the Salt Trail Canyon in southern Bodaway.
The vehicles dipped into a washfull of tumbleweed, climbed up a ridge and into a vast flat area west of Yaanide’nil, where Two Mesas Come Together.
Shepherds Ernest and Marie Peyketewa decided to flag down the moving vehicles because tourists had already begun to flock over their grazing area on the way to To’ahide’dli, “Where Two Rivers Meet” at Grand Canyon Eastern Rim and also where Confluence Partners, LLC propose to develop a tourist center called the Grand Canyon Escalade that would include a tram that takes visitors down to the floor of the canyon from the rim.
Navajo Councilman Ben Bennett filed a bill Aug. 29 asking the Navajo council to approve $65 million to pay for infrastructure, withdraw 420-acres of land and sign a master agreement with them to develop the property.
The Peyketewas, who oppose the Escalade project, gave chase because they wanted to chat with the visitors. The two vehicles gained speed and buried them in blinding dust. The couple, familiar with every inch of land in the area, stopped at a cousin’s old sheep camp and watched.
Marie is Navajo and her family’s roots stretch over nearly five generations in the area. Ernest, of Zuni/Hopi descent, has a lineage as steep as the canyon walls. The Peyketewas watched the vehicles dart north, stop and turn in a southwest direction. They instantly figured out the pattern. The visitors were destined for To’ahide’dli.
The shepherds gunned their truck west through a patch of sage, past the earthen dam called Be’aki’halgai, or White-colored Earthen Dam, raced up the side of a mesa and parked at a fork in the dirt road, one snaked toward Biidaa, the edge of the canyon rim.
They waited to meet the visitors and guessed who they could be. They might be tourists, members of Confluence Partners or investors ready to put money behind the Escalade project.
When the vehicles approached them and stopped, Marie jumped out of the passenger side and walked to the black Tahoe.
The window slid down. Marie saw a driver suited up in formal clothing with a tie. A familiar face sat behind the wheel.
“Whoa! It’s President Begaye!” she exclaimed.
Navajo President Russell Begaye had decided, on the whim, to jaunt through southern Bodaway — Begaye, who is from Shiprock, New Mexico told the couple he was on his way to visit the proposed development site.
A spokesman for the president confirmed he visited the area Sept. 13.
The Partners, Bennett, and several Gap/Cedar Ridge Escalade supporters have told the public the area is suitable for development because, no is out there. A memo in the bill goes further and claims no one has grazing permits to the 420 acres.
The Peyketewas hope they changed the narrative this week in their discussion with the president.
Marie shared her family’s history: they survived a four-decade Bennett Freeze, a ban on construction as a result of a dispute between the Navajo and neighboring Hopi tribe. The government lifted the ban in 2007.
Many, including Marie and cousins, carry grazing permits, continuing the family’s legacy of caring for sheep and other livestock on the land, she told the president.
The Peyketewas then guided Begaye past the white livestock corral constructed in 1958. Ranchers upgraded it in 1972 and 1980.
Beyond is Bidaa, The Edge, where the Begaye entourage came to a stop. They stood reverently below shimmering turquoise skies among a field of purple sage and watched the multi-layers of the sheer-walled Grand Canyon.
The conversation continued.
Ernest shared how 20 tribes use the area for their earth-based religious worship. He spoke about the Hopi emergence. He also showed Begaye vegetation, its use in ceremonies and pointed to prayer feathers and sticks, recently desecrated.
At the end of the one-hour visit, the president turned to Ernest and said, “I’m glad you guys stopped us, I’m glad you explained a lot of stuff to me.”
Then, the president told Marie, “It’s a beautiful place. No wonder you’re opposed to development.”
Begaye repeated his stance: He opposes the Escalade and plans to veto the bill, if it reaches his desk.
Escalade meeting at Twin Arrows
The Law and Order Committee postponed and moved the first hearing on a proposal to build a gondola tram into the Grand Canyon.
The public hearing on the Grand Canyon Escalade project was set for Sept. 26 in Monument Valley, far away from where the project would be built. But on a 3-0 vote, the committee moved the meeting to Oct. 10 at Twin Arrows. The meeting starts at 10 a.m. The Navajo Nation Speakers Office confirmed the meeting but cautioned it is at the committee’s discretion to amend their agenda at the start of its meeting, so he could not guarantee it will take place.
Edmund Yazzie, chairman of the subcommittee holding the first hearing, reportedly said he felt the turnout of opponents and supporters would overwhelm the Monument Valley Welcome Center in Mexican Hat, Utah. Yazzie is chairman of the Navajo Nation Law and Order Subcommittee.
The bill, which proposes the tribe spend $65 million to help finance the resort, must go through several subcommittee hearings over the next few weeks before a vote before the full Navajo Nation Council.
The National Park Service and Hopi Tribe both oppose the development proposal. The Hopis say such a development would violate land agreements with the Navajos. At least 18 American Indian tribes oppose it, saying sacred sites and traditional land-use claims take precedence over outside developers’ desires to bring tourists into the area.
More than 83,000 online petition signatures from Save the Confluence and American Rivers were sent to the Navajo Nation offices, another 4,000 signed paper petition signatures from enrolled Navajos were hand-delivered to the tribal council, and dozens of telephone calls were received during an official comment period in late August and early September.