On July 14, the Naa’bik’iyati Committee, a subcommittee of the Navajo Nation Council which consists of the chairs and vice chairs of the council’s various committees, voted 14-2 to reject the Grand Canyon Escalade, a proposed billion-dollar entertainment complex located on the western edge of the Navajo Nation. If the Escalade project should get approval, it would include hotels, restaurants, shops, and a cultural center on the Grand Canyon’s east rim.
The Grand Canyon Escalade project was rejected by the Navajo Nation’s Budget and Finance Committee 3-1 last March.
A final decision on the Escalade proposal will eventually be decided by the Navajo Nation Council.
The most controversial part of the development is a tram system that would transport 4,000 to 10,000 visitors a day from the rim down to river level at the spot where the Little Colorado River joins the Colorado River, where visitors would find an elevated walkway, ampitheater and another gift shop.
The confluence is considered sacred by the Navajos, Hopis, Zunis and other Indian tribes native to the Grand Canyon region.
The Little Colorado is a beatiful place. It’s waters are made a milky turquoise blue from dissolved copper sulphate and calcium carbonate found in the water. The calcium carbonate forms natural travertine pools, the bank of the river is lined by rushes and willows and the entire space is surrounded by the Grand Canyon’s 4,000 foot cliff walls in various tones of pink, red, gold and brown.
At present, the confluence of the Colorado River and Little Colorado River can only be reached by raft down the Colorado River or by foot, hiking down the Little Colorado River corridor.
The developer — Lamar Whitmer and Confluence Partners based out of Scottsdale — argues that such a beautiful site should be accessible to the wider public. But several conservations groups strongly opposed the Escalade development, saying that such high levels of visitation, as well as the addition of a river walk and restaurant at river level would destroy the pristine nature of the area, which are the qualities that make it special in the first place.
The project is further opposed by many Navajos who say that the area is sacred to them, and another faction of the tribe which are less concerned about that, but believe if the project is to be built it should be built by and operated by Navajo firms and businesses.
The area is also held sacred by the Hopi, Zuni, Hualapai and the Kaibab-paiute nations.
A coalition of tribal elders from several Native American nations visited the confluence during a raft trip last September.
Among the group of tribal leaders was Octavius Seowtewa, a Zuni elder, who led the rest of the group to a 1,000-year-old petroglyph panel etched onto a sandstone slab at the confluence.
Seowtewa explained to his group that the petroglyph depicts the creation history of the Anasazi or “Ancient Ones” from which the Zunis, and 18 other contemporary Native American tribes, descend.
In their own language the Zunis call themselves the Ashiwi.
“The Grand Canyon is where the Ashiwi emerged into this world,” Seowtewa explained. “Our oral history tells us this, and so do these petroglyphs. They show how we emerged from the canyon, took human form and were directed to our middle place, the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico. It’s here in the canyon where our spirits will return. The Grand Canyon is a holy place.”
Bennett Wakayuta, a Hualapai elder and former river guide, was among the leaders on the group.
“We believe this confluence is where the man and the woman meet,” he said. “The Little Colorado and the Colorado Rivers represent this meeting and merging of equals.”
He also added that the sipapu — a spot about five miles up the Little Colorado River from which the mineral rich waters springs — is sacred to both the Hopi and Hualapai as it represents to them the doorway from which they emerged into this world.
“The Grand Canyon is our emergence area — our sipapu,” he said. “Our elders tell us all the doorways connect, like an underground river, and the Hualapai, Hopi and Zuni are all connected.”