Since ancient times the bravest Hopis have followed a trail marked by petroglyphs and offering places that leads from the mesas across the Painted Desert, then plunges into the Little Colorado canyon and winds down to the sacred congruence. Nearby Tapeats Sandstone cliffs hold deposits of salt that are 550 million year old remains of the Tapeats Sea. The precious substance is carried in heavy burdens back up the Salt Trail to the mesas for dietary and ceremonial use. These traditional pilgrimages are still important to the spiritual practice of the Hopi.
The Hopi Reservation lies inside the boundaries of the much larger Navajo Reservation. At the western edge of the Navajo Reservation is Marble Canyon, 61 miles of Colorado River frontage above the confluence with the Little Colorado River. About 8,000 Navajos have lived in the Marble Canyon area for generations. Unfortunately, from 1966 til 2009 a land dispute between the two tribes halted all development and improvements of homes and businesses. The stalemate, known as the Bennett Freeze, resulted in a profound lack of infrastructure. According the Peter Friederich writing in High Country News, just 3% of Navajo homes in the area currently have electricity and only 10% have running water. There is very little employment opportunity. Most Navajo children leave the reservation as soon as they can.
Shortly after a federally mediated agreement lifted the freeze, Navajo president Ben Shelly signed a memorandum of understanding with Scottsdale developer Confluence Partners LLC to investigate the possibility of building a billion dollar resort at the confluence of the two rivers. The project, called Grand Canyon Escalade is planned to include a complex of luxury hotels, restaurants, shops and a tram leading to the river. At the canyon floor developers propose a restaurant and riverwalk as well as an amphitheater and Navajo cultural center.
Tribal members learned of the project through full page ads that appeared in July 2012 in the Navajo-Hopi Observer. A visit to the Confluence Partners website reveals a heavy hitting team led by a local developer, Navajo legal experts with experience working on projects around National Park boundaries, Navajo consultants in the areas of tourism, marketing and development in Indian Country, and financial and resort experts.
Obviously some Navajo feel enthusiastic about the project and the 2,000 full time jobs that developers promise. Others feel the Navajo Nation should plan their own economic advancement. Both Navajo and Hopi tribes recognize the confluence site as sacred. The National Parks Service has not made a statement and there appears to be some dispute about park boundaries at Marble Canyon.
Navajo Don Yellowman wrote eloquently in a Navajo Times editorial, “We believe economic development on Navajo Nation is long overdue. Its about creating prosperity for the Dine, beginning by educating our people about the many alternative economic opportunities available that are aligned with preserving our way of life and traditional values…..”
The grassroots group Save the Confluence swears to defeat the developers’ plan and build a new Navajo economy based on the cultural strengths of the tribe. I guess we can all imagine what Maasaw would have to say.