1,600 signatures presented in support of Escalade

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, September 20, 2012

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A bout 30 community members from the Bodaway-Gap Chapter presented Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and the Navajo Nation Council's Resources and Development Committee with 1,600 signatures in support for the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade on Tuesday.

The proposed $200 million escalade project would be located on the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers at the south rim of the Grand Canyon, which are on the western edge of the Navajo Reservation.

According to an escalade project brochure, the "international tourism destination" would feature a gondola tramway to the floor of the Grand Canyon, a river walk, cultural center, Native American artists in residence, shops, restaurants and hotels that would generate 2,000 on-site jobs.

The community members filled the executive office conference room for an early morning meeting with Shelly that lasted about an hour.

The early afternoon meeting with the Resources and Development Committee went for three hours because it involved a detailed presentation of the escalade project by project partner Albert Hale, a former Navajo Nation president, former Arizona state senator, current Arizona representative, and practicing attorney.

Both Shelly and the committee urged the supporters of the escalade project to meet with community members from Tuba City and the surrounding areas that do not support the project to negotiate a compromise that would bring the groups together.

Committee Chair Katherine Benally (Chilchinbeto/Dennehotso/Kayenta) asked the group to also meet with the Navajo Medicine Men's Association, which had passed a resolution opposing the project.

Hale reported to the committee that the medicine men's association took an opposing position after only listening to a presentation by the opposition.

He noted in his Powerpoint presentation to the committee that "significant" cultural sites were identified and that they are not on the project site.

But he said there are two "prayer offering sites" on and just outside the project site.

Hale said that the two prayer sites would be fenced off and that people needing to make offerings would be accommodated, which could involve the temporary shut down of the project.

He pointed at several color photographs of non-native and non-Navajo people rafting down the Colorado River past the proposed project's river walk and gondola canyon floor destination.

He also pointed out photographs of individuals "bathing" in the river and camping along the river.

These areas have Navajo sacred sites that are on Navajo land but there are no Navajo resource enforcement rangers to tell the people to stay away because there is no access to area, Hale noted.

He added that the proposed gondola tramway and river walk would give tribal rangers daily access to the area instead of the current solution, which would be camping on the canyon floor.

He explained that the canyon floor river walk would not be on the canyon floor but on an elevated river walk way, which would eliminate disturbance to the canyon floor.

After the meeting with the committee, Hale said that a meeting would be scheduled with the medicine men's association.

Hale reported to Shelly and the committee that they have met with the opposing group at least two times and both times, the discussions became very emotional.

Larry Hanks, who was among the 40 Bodaway-Gap community members, said that he feels that the individuals opposing the project lack "business sense," which has resulted in "overheated and false rhetoric" by the group opposing the proposed escalade project.

Hanks said that the area, which is part of the former Bennett Freeze Area, has 50 percent unemployment, no senior citizen center, no Boys and Girls Club and no place to get a general equivalency diploma.

Hale said that the federal government's freeze lasted 38 years and was recently lifted.

On May 8, President Obama signed law that repealed the freeze, which blocked Navajo people living on about 1.5 million areas of land in the western portion of the reservation from developing their land, including repairing their homes.

With no jobs, community members soon turn to alcohol and drugs, Hanks said sadly. "Our youth have no opportunities."

This proposed project is the community's only chance for economic development, Hanks emphasized.

He added that he lives without water and electricity.

Danny Barney, another supporter of the proposed project, agreed.

"This opportunity sometimes only comes around once and then it's gone," Barney said.

He recalled going before the former Economic Development Committee 10 years ago and asking for financial assistance to start an ambulance business, which the EDC approved.

With that seed money and support from his tribal leaders he said he started his business with four employees and one ambulance and now his business has grown to more than 50 workers, who are Navajo, Hopi and Paiute, and five ambulances.

And Barney said he started a transport business and is about to open an auto shop.

The young people deserve and need the same opportunity because they no longer want to be sheepherders and livestock owners, he said.

Betty Tsinijinie, 72, said she's lived in the proposed project area all her life, including during the freeze area.

Tsinijinie smiled and recalled that many of the people opposing the proposed escalade project never spoke up for the people when the federal government stopped all development in the area.

"But I forgave them," she said of those opposing.

And she said she has no bad feelings to them now that they are opposing the proposed development of the area.

But Tsinijinie said the people, including tribal leaders, should know that many of these individuals who oppose the proposed escalade project do not live in the area.

She said that many of them live in Flagstaff, Tuba City and other areas where they have electricity and running water.

"But I live there," she noted. "I have sheep up there."

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