Police close down Confluence meeting

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

GAP, Ariz., October 1, 2012

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N avajo Nation Police closed down a special Bodaway/Gap Chapter meeting Wednesday afternoon after it degenerated into heated arguments between proponents and opponents of a proposed resort and tramway at the Confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers.

According to the agenda, the meeting was called to consider a resolution proposed by former tribal president Albert Hale, an Arizona state representative and partner in the firm that wants to build the Grand Canyon Escalade. Copies of the resolution were not available at the meeting, but the agenda said it would rescind two previous chapter resolutions opposing the $180 million resort, and withdraw up to 420 acres for its construction.

Several chapter members who oppose the development objected to the agenda item, saying the resolution had not been passed through the chapter's land use planning committee or placed on the agenda at a planning meeting, and the midweek special meeting was hard for working chapter members to attend.

They also questioned why the resolution's sponsor was not in attendance. Hale had sent two other members of would-be developers Confluence Partners LLC, Ivan Gamble and Deswood Tome, in his place.

Supporters of the proposed development countered that the protesters were blocking economic development and 2,000 much-needed jobs.

By 3 p.m., an hour after the meeting started, the chapter officials had lost all control and individuals within the two groups were yelling at each other loud enough to be heard in the parking lot. Three Navajo Nation policemen were trying to separate the dueling parties but were overwhelmed by the crowd of about 100.

An officer went to the microphone and announced he was closing the meeting for security reasons.

Most of the crowd remained in the senior citizens center, where the meeting was held, with some shouting that they feared the meeting would continue if they left.

Police eventually escorted the main combatants out of the building and the rest of the crowd followed, with chapter officials leaving through a different exit.

A chapter employee said Friday she did not know whether the meeting would be rescheduled.

Neither Hale nor anyone from Confluence Partners LLC returned a phone call Friday.

Bodaway resident Betty Tsinigine said she's "getting tired" of the protesters, most of whom, she said, live off the reservation where they have running water and electricity, unlike the people who stayed on the Bennett Freeze.

"The true Bodaways want development," she said.

She also scoffed at the idea that the protesters are trying to protect the Confluence, a sacred site in Navajo tradition.

"There's no such thing as holy land along that cliff," she said.

Shirley Wilson, another elder who lives above the Confluence, disagreed.

"My grandma and grandpa said there's something down there that's alive, and you shouldn't mess with it," she said. "Our elders wouldn't go within 20 feet of the cliff. The only time you should go near it is to pray."

Pauline Martin Sanchez agreed with Tsinigine that a lot of those who oppose the Escalade live off the reservation, including Sanchez, who makes her home in Phoenix.

"We've been away because we couldn't afford to live there," she said. "We didn't want to be a burden on our chapter."

Now that the Bennett Freeze has been lifted, she said, people are moving back.

"This is our belonging place," she said. "This is where we come to maintain our relationship with the land."

Sanchez said the Escalade opponents are being unfairly characterized as "no-sayers" when in fact they just want to make sure any development is appropriate for the environmentally and culturally sensitive area, and that the local people are compensated.

"We need to have a public forum where we can go ahead and learn about development, so we can be guaranteed we're getting what is really sensible and what is possible to maintain," she said. "I think a lot of the people here haven't had enough experience to put on the table what they really want."

Sanchez' sister, Darlene Martin, said she just wants the chapter to treat both sides equally.

"When we submitted our resolutions," she said, referring to the two anti-Escalade resolutions passed by the chapter, "they made sure we dotted all our i's and crossed our t's. Now these people come in, who aren't even from our chapter, and they throw all the procedures out the window!"

Former Coconino County Supervisor Louise Yellowman, who came to Bodaway as a bride in the 1960s, found it painful to watch her fellow chapter members argue.

"These are all my students," she said, noting that she used to teach in the little elementary school at Gap. "It's like watching your grandchildren fight."

For her own part, Yellowman would rather not see the area developed by Confluence Partners, which, although it includes Navajo partners, was created by political consultant Lamar Whitmer of Scottsdale, Ariz.

"One of the seven wonders of the world," she said, shaking her head. "And who's going to own it? Another white man."

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