Almost forgotten

Left alone for 40 years, Bodaway/Gap is split over tough choices

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

BODAWAY/GAP, Ariz., November 15, 2012

(Editor's note: In an effort to chronicle the beauty and diversity of the Navajo Nation, as well as its issues, the Navajo Times has committed to visiting all 110 chapters in alphabetical order. This is the ninth in the series.)

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O n two things, the people of Bodaway/Gap agree: 1) The chapter needs development, and 2) Life in the chapter at the moment is way too contentious.

For a couple of years now, this long, far-western chapter trapped between Echo Cliffs and the Grand Canyon has been wrestling with the prospect of a huge tourist resort — the Grand Canyon Escalade — at the Confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers.

At heated chapter meetings and in letters to the editor, the pros and the cons have had their say.

For this article, we visited the chapter on Veterans Day and sought out some folks in the middle.

"I'm kind of in the neutral zone," volunteered Gary Nez, 50, whom we caught unloading a truckload of chizh with his 22-year-old son, Elias. "I'd like to see development for the young people, so they have a place to work. But I don't appreciate the way it's being done. They (developers) should be working out with the people what they want instead of bringing it to them. They're not talking to them right."

Nez also believes the chapter officials bungled meetings on the decision, first allowing one to degenerate into a shouting match and then rescheduling with little advance notice for the middle of the week, when a pro-development resolution was passed by a bare seven votes.

On the other hand, he said, "If we don't get something out here, all the young people are going to leave and our chapter is going to die."

"Stacy," who asked that her real name not be used because she has family on both sides of the issue, said the Confluence has ironically torn her home chapter in half.

"Families are clashing, friends are not looking at each other, people are not shaking hands because of this," she said, shaking her head. "That's not supposed to be how we behave as Navajos."

The Confluence is sacred in Diné tradition, but Stacy says people aren't respecting it.

"People are saying bad words to each other when they talk about it," she said. "If it's so sacred, why do we have to use words like that?"

Stacy says she's a Christian and not too traditional, but the whole canyon rim is sacred to her as a place of peace and contemplation.

"I love taking my cows out there," she said. "It's so quiet. We need development, yes, but I wouldn't like to see something that big out there."

Asked if she would translate some questions for her 91-year-old mother, who was sitting on the couch observing the conversation but not understanding the English, Stacy refused.

"I don't want her dragged into this," she stated firmly. Stacy's mother was brought to Bodaway as a bride, but even though she's lived here longer than most chapter residents have been alive, "People will still say, 'What do you have to say about this? You're from somewhere else,'" she predicted.

Stacy said her mother has asked her about the Escalade and why some people oppose it.

"I ask her, 'What if they were going to build it here on your land, Mom? What would you say?' She says, 'I would say no.'"

And so the debate continues…but there's a bigger question both Nez and Stacy want answered. Why, three years after the Bennett Freeze was lifted, has there been no measurable development in the chapter?

"I don't know what our chapter officials are doing," Nez said. "They should be making up for lost time."

Stacy said she has applied on behalf of her mother for some home improvements, but, like many Bodaway residents, their family was semi-nomadic until the 1970s, and they built a house without going through the rigmarole of obtaining a home-site lease.

"They tell me 'No lease, no help,'" Stacy sighed.

But this high, dry, rugged, rocky chapter has always been a hard place to live, peopled by stubbornly independent types, and Stacy remembers people squabbling over grazing tracts long before the Escalade came into the picture.

"Seems like ever since we got livestock, we've been fighting over land," she quipped. "Maybe we should go back to hunting and gathering."

Even in the hunter-gatherer days, the Navajos had to share this scenic plateau with Hopis and a band of Paiutes as well — in fact, "Bodaway," the name of a mesa in the chapter's northern reaches, is thought to be a Paiute word. The Diné referred to this place as Tsin Naabaas Habitiin, "Wagon Wheel Trail," for a still unpaved road over the ridge through what became known as The Gap — a space between the cliff's gnarled teeth.

Nez said he hasn't heard anyone blame the Hopis for the Bennett Freeze, although it was instituted as a way to prevent either tribe from gobbling up the land while the federal government attempted to divide it between the two reservations.

"They (the Hopis) are our friends," he said. "We just don't talk about land with them when we run into them at dances."

Congress pretty much forgot about the Freeze until then-President Joe Shirley Jr. and then-Hopi Chairman Ivan Sidney penned a pact settling the land dispute in 2009.

While the Times was talking to Kelwood Johnson, a local handyman and backhoe operator who comes down firmly on the pro-Escalade side, Johnson's brother Benny ventured up to turn the tables and ask the reporter a question.

"Who are the Forgotten People?" he asked, having run into the human rights group at a chapter meeting on the Confluence. "Is that us?"

This reporter responded that the group, which looks out for the rights of the Bennett Freeze survivors, is headquartered in Tuba City but seems to have a lot of membership in the Big Mountain area.

Responded Kelwood Johnson to his brother, "We're just almost forgotten."

Bodaway/Gap at a Glance

Population — 963

Location — The farthest west Navajo Chapter, bordering Grand Canyon National Park

Name — "Bodaway" is the name of a mesa in the chapter. It is not a Navajo word and may be Paiute. "The Gap" was the name given by early settlers to a gap in the cliff face that could be traversed, not without some difficulty, by horse-drawn wagon. The early Navajo residents named the area "Tsin Naabaas Habitiin," Wagon Wheel Trail.

Landmarks — Echo Cliffs, Shinumo Altar, Limestone Ridge, Bodaway Mesa and Tooth Rock, and of course the Grand Canyon.

Issues — A proposed $180 million tourist resort at the Confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers; huge herds of feral horses that decimate the range; how to recover from the Bennett Freeze

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