Waiting for a fair wind

Things haven't gone Cameron's way, but locals are hopeful

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CAMERON CHAPTER, Ariz., November 29, 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 tenth in the series.)

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T his picturesque chapter perched on the edge of the Little Colorado Gorge has a lot going for it.

If you're traveling from the east, it's the gateway to the Grand Canyon. Traveling from the West, it's the gateway to the Navajo Nation. At least three companies have approached the chapter about building a wind farm on Grey Mountain, and helicopter tour firms have vied for a landing pad here.

Its expansive trading post, still owned by the same family that established it in 1916, is probably the largest and most profitable on the Navajo Nation.

And yet, things just don't seem to move for Cameron Chapter.

Outgoing Chapter President Ed Singer does not mince words when asked why.

"It's impossible to get anything done…with an inefficient, unqualified, embezzling central government structure in Window Rock," declared the 61-year-old Singer, who has one more month in office before he gratefully steps down to resume his career as a painter and pastel artist.

"There's no art in politics," Singer mutters.

That's the title of the farewell address he intends to present to the chapter at its December meeting.

Singer had hoped by now his chapter would be reaping some $3 million in revenue from the wind farm, but after a long feud between Cameron and Window Rock over which company to back, both pulled out. Negotiations with a third company, Clipper Windpower, looked promising until that firm sailed smack into the recession and was put up for sale.

To add insult to injury, the Navajo Office of Environmental Health condemned the aging chapter house last July, and because it can't find insurance to cover the meetings, the chapter has been meeting in a tent.

That development came on the heels of the disappearance of tens of thousands of dollars from the chapter's coffers, coinciding with the disappearance of its bright young chapter coordinator. (That's all we can say about that; the FBI is still investigating.)

Singer said the stress of the last four years has taken a toll on his health, leaving him less able to undertake the three-hour drive to Window Rock to lobby for his chapter.

He hopes the chapter's president-elect, Milton Tso, has better luck.

As for his constituents, most of them seemed pretty resigned to the chapter's hardscrabble life.

"Change is slow here," shrugs Mae Franklin, who mans the Kaibab National Forest Ranger Station on the chapter compound, issuing permits for firewood cutting and harvesting medicinal plants. "But it comes."

The forest itself is a boon for Cameron, as its managers regularly harvest the small-diameter trees that fuel forest fires.

A small sawmill has sprung up in the chapter, SouthWest Tradition Log Homes, Inc., which uses the excess logs to create affordable log home kits that can be financed through several Navajo Nation and federal programs.

The chapter also boasts several art markets, including a Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise, to capture tourists on their way to and from the Grand Canyon. A large vendor village is set up at the tribal park, and the vendors have organized the Little Colorado Vendors Association to lobby Navajo Parks and Recreation for such things as the re-establishment of a fence to channel visitors through the vendor village.

Franklin, along with other Cameron residents, believes the chapter's main focus should be on capturing more tourism. Right now, she says, only about a quarter of the Grand Canyon's visitors put on the brakes as they drive through the chapter — and the Navajos of Cameron are little more than a curiosity pointed out on bus tours of the area.

"Our story is being told by Anglo bus drivers," she says. "We need to find ways to tell our own story."

Cameron at a glance

Name — Unlike most Navajo chapters named after people, Cameron is not named for the original traders who settled there; otherwise it would be called "Richardson." Nor is it named for Seth Tanner, the barrel-chested pioneer who located the relatively easy ford across the otherwise treacherous and steep-banked Little Colorado. Rather, it get its moniker from Ralph Cameron, one of Arizona's first U.S. Senators. Cameron adamantly fought against the establishment of Grand Canyon National Park, believing the canyon should be exploited for mining and hydropower. Ironically, he is buried in the old American Legion Cemetery in what is now the national park. But traditional Navajos know the area as "Nani'a Hasani," "Old Bridge," for the 1911 suspension bridge that still spans the Little Colorado, although it is no longer used.

Land area — 238,523 acres

Population — 885 at the 2010 census

Features — Native artisans, trading posts, the Little Colorado Tribal Park, only about 29 miles from the west entrance to the Grand Canyon and adjacent to Kaibab National Forest, wind steady enough to generate electricity, beautiful scenery

Problems — a condemned chapter house, few amenities to get tourists to stop on their way to and from the Grand Canyon, few water sources that aren't contaminated by heavy metals, abandoned uranium mines, an estimated 2,400 feral horses that decimate forage and watering holes

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