Rudy Shebala, director of the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources, said on Tuesday he will not tolerate mistreatment of Little Colorado River Gorge outlook arts and crafts vendors by Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation, a department he oversees.
Just over a year ago, a longstanding feud between Parks and Rec and the vendors over management of the tribal park escalated when a $2.4 million Navajo Nation construction project threatened to force vendors out and demolish their booths to make way for a new paved parking lot and access road.
At that time, the Resources and Development Committee agreed that the vendors’ concerns were “very legitimate” and brought together the Division of Transportation, Cameron Chapter, the vendors, Shebala and Parks and Rec to sort things out.
Due to a unified effort, the issues were temporarily fixed by halting the demolition of vendor booths.
Vendors were told they would be allowed to keep their homemade booths during construction but that the booth area itself would eventually be overhauled in Phase III of the project and they would be included in the design process.
Because the vendors were blocked in at the overlook by the construction last summer, which also caused traffic delays on Route 64, they say they suffered a sharp decline in their business during peak tourism season.
The LCRG overlook is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike, including the thousands of visitors headed to and from the Grand Canyon.
It has sustained the livelihood of generations of Navajo independent arts, crafts and jewelry vendors, whose income has now been completely cut off by the closure of park on March 14 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a déja vu of last year, on June 2 tribal park manager Elbert Little sent out a notice to vendors requesting that they dismantle their booths starting on June 8 to prepare for the next phase of construction.
Little stated that “the project will not be delayed any longer” and that construction of the new vendor booth area will be starting in June or July and will go through May 2021.
This caught many of the vendors, who have been at home adhering to the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, by surprise.
Jackie Huskie, who has supported her family from her vending at the LCR overlook for decades, said that due to the park closure, some vendors don’t have enough money to pay their bills, and she can’t imagine how they could make it until mid-2021.
“I don’t know how we can support our livelihood if the park is closed until next year,” she said.
She said she’s concerned about all of the confusion again and is worried Parks and Rec wants to take over the management of the LCR vendor area by removing their booths.
“We want to partner with them, so our Cameron vendors will be the first priority when it comes to our local community and free enterprise,” said Huskie.
In response to Little’s directive, Candis Yazzie and Alicia Chee, advocates for the Cameron vendors, reached out to Parks and Rec for clarification and Council delegates for help, but received no answers.
Yazzie said last year RDC and Shebala directed Parks and Rec managers to maintain an open line of communication and include vendors in the design process of the proposed new vendor booth facilities.
“Thirteen months have passed and today there are still no improvements in communications,” said Yazzie in a statement. “LCR park management has continuously failed and neglected to establish a working relationship with our local grassroots artisans.”
On Monday, Tatyana Antonio, LRCG park fee collector supervisor, said construction would be starting “pretty soon” and that vendors could still “go get their boards.”
She confirmed that booths that were not voluntarily dismantled would be demolished.
“Currently our families are in survival mode,” said Yazzie. “Parks and Rec is causing further stress and emotional damage by directing us to start tearing down our booths. It is appalling for them to expect our women, many who are elderly, to dismantle their booths during this difficult time.”
This year, because of the government closure and many departments on administrative leave and RDC being focused on other issues, there has not been the same level of intervention.
“I will make sure the booths will not be demolished,” Rudy Shebala said on Tuesday.
He said he called Parks and Rec Manager Martin Begaye, asking, “What’s up with this? I want you to respond to this.”
Shebala said he absolutely would not allow vendors to be mistreated.
“I won’t tolerate it from my staff,” said Shebala. “If it means I have to let somebody go, I have no choice. I will do it because I won’t tolerate that kind of treatment of anyone from the staff within the Division of Natural Resources.”
Shebala said if the booths have to be removed, “the least Parks and Rec can do is move them to a safer site.”
A subsequent call to Martin Begaye revealed that construction could not begin until design plans were finished, and that delays had been caused by impacts of the pandemic.
“Designs are not completed due to shutdown of offices involved in the review packet,” said Begaye.“The project is still on hold.”
Begaye said he expects the final design will be completed some time in July.
“At that time we will be meeting with the vendors to go over the design and get their input,” he said.
When asked about the urgency for vendors to dismantle the booths, Begaye confirmed there was none.
“We’re not really telling them to move right now until we decide on the final design,” said Begaye.
He disassociated himself from the memo that Little, who works for him, had sent out.
“That was his memo,” said Begaye. “That’s not from here.”
Begay said Little “wasn’t really aware of the status of the contract with Whiteriver Construction,” the company doing the design and construction of the new LCR vendor area.
As to the question of what to do with the existing vendor booths, Begaye said that would be decided once the final design is completed and after he meets with vendors to review it.
In April, Begaye had proposed to RDC a plan to provide support to vendors, small businesses and others who had lost their income due to the pandemic.
“It was a shock,” said Chee. “I was really surprised that Martin was going to help the vendors.”
However, Chee, who also serves as Delegate Thomas Walker’s legislative district assistant, confirmed that the proposal that Begaye submitted for $10 million out of Parks’ discretionary funds was denied by Controller Pearline Kirk.
“I am not sure why the controller would do that,” said Walker, RDC vice chair. “It’s discouraging. I’m not sure she has the authority to do that.”
RDC later asked Kirk to explain the reasons for declining the proposal, said Chee.
“Kirk apparently didn’t see the need when there’s the CARES Act in place,” said Chee. “From what I gathered she didn’t think Parks should have to pay, and people should apply for CARES Act funding.”
However, no avenue for how Navajo people and independent contractors can apply for CARES Act funding has been laid out to date, she said.
Walker, however, stated that Begaye’s proposal “is not dead in the water.”
“Martin Begaye is going to take a slightly different route, and we will back it up with legislation if it doesn’t go through again,” said Walker.
Shebala said he, too, supports the idea of providing supplemental income to the vendors as well as Begaye’s commitment to helping them.
“For them to survive during a pandemic with zero dollars?” said Chee. “They’re in a really tough bind. I can’t understand how Navajo Nation overlooks that.”