In 1966 the Bennett Freeze was put into affect, banning development of a 700,000-acre area of land owned by the Navajo Nation in the Black Mesa region of Arizona. Due to this law, residents of the area were unable to repair homes, develop infrastructure or create access to basic utilities. When the ban was lifted in 2006, 77% of homes in the area were deemed unfit to live in by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (Associated Press). It was clear that much time and money was needed to restore the area, but the Navajo people were excited with the possibility of restoring their homes and putting the land to good use. Today, however, residents of the area are upset that after leaving the people without money for restoration, the Navajo Nation is now funding an outside project that some say won’t aid the quality of life for those in the area. The Navajo Nation president has signed on with a plan to develop 420 acres of the land into a tourist mecca known as Escalade (Phillips). Many of the opponents of the plan are skeptical that no money will reach the local Navajo, and that only the development corporation and high up Navajo officials will profit. As evidence of this, the Navajo Housing Association recently was asked to provide housing for outside construction workers while ignoring current residents living in third world conditions (Halne’e). Historically, the Navajo people have often been left behind economically in these types of developments, and people are afraid that this will again be the case. Other issues debated on the topic range from legality to environmental degradation. I will focus on the impact that the project will have on sacred sites important to the Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni traditions, and how this will affect the life and culture of various Indigenous Peoples.
The proposed development will include a large complex along the canyon rim, and a gondola that will carry people to the canyon floor near the confluence of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River. Along the canyon floor there will be an elevated trail alongside the river, a restaurant, and an amphitheater. The development is planned to stop 300 feet from where the rivers meet, but will be entirely visible from the confluence.
In Hopi tradition, the place where humans came to this world from the last is known as the Sipapu. It is a salt dome adorned with a mineral spring on top, and is current only accessible by a 7 hour hike along the salt trail (Coppens). It is a site where many ceremonies and pilgrimages are performed, and has long been considered by Hopi as a very sacred site.
The proposed development would be a few miles from the Salt Trail and the Sipapu, which the developers maintain is sufficient to avoid any negative impact on the Hopi heritage and tradition (Grand Canyon Escalade). Despite this, there seem to be many potential threats to the sacred sites and rituals performed in the area for the Hopi people. A massive billion-dollar construction project is sure to create a substantial amount of noise, as is the activity of 10,000 visitors daily to the confluence and the proposed amphitheater. Additionally, the construction and traffic will surely alter the natural landscape. Land is central in Indigenous traditions, thus the preservation of this site is essential to the Hopi people and their faith. It is hard for those coming from a Western background of owning land and using it for personal gain to understand the prerogative that the Hopi people feel to protect the land. The developers see the confluence as a place that is not being taken advantage of for monetary gain, and thus is being wasted. However, Native tradition teaches that doing nothing with land is the best thing to do. Hopi believe that they have a task to protect all land, but “the lands at the sacred center are the key to life” (Eliades notion of Axis Mundi is no where more evident than the sacredness given to this area) Hopi leaders have said that “if these places are disturbed or destroyed, our prayers and ceremonies will lose their force” (DurrenBerger). No matter how much effort is put into minimalizing environmental impacts and blending in the construction with the natural landscape, no one can argue that this development will not take away from the natural beauty of the area. Thus, even if the construction does not intrude directly onto specific sacred focal points, the fact that it will be disturbing the natural state of this area is enough to significantly damage the traditions, cultures and beliefs of the Hopi people.
The confluence of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River is viewed as a sacred site in Navajo tradition, and is used in a variety of ways. Many Navajo are concerned that this development will hinder the usage of this sacred site in a variety of ways. The developers website contains one brief response to this concern in the FAQ section, stating “Visitors will be restricted to the elevated walkway and the restaurant which are 300 feet from the confluence of the Rivers. Existing prayer sites will be protected with landscape buffers to protect their privacy and the access will be restricted to Navajos only” (Grand Canyon Escalade). These precautions seem inadequate at best, if not completely dismissive of the value of Navajo faith. Clearly with only 300 feet between the boundaries of the Escalade complex and the confluence, noise and visual disruptions will be constant to anyone using the sacred sites. In other similar land disputes, Natives have been distracted and harassed by tourists when they are in such close proximity. Additionally, tourists tend to make their way off of trails and onto sacred sites, disrespecting ongoing ceremonies and the land itself (Forbes-Boyte). Despite claims that being refined to an “elevated walkway” will force visitors to stay away from sacred sites, the developers website claims future possibilities of opening the area to hiking and river excursions, which would greatly add to the problem (Grand Canyon Escalade). Furthermore, the confluence is public property by nature of being a waterway, making it difficult to prevent public access. Even if the developers promise that sacred sites will be “restricted to Navajos only” is upheld, Hopi, Zuni, and other Indigenous Religious traditions would be barred. This statement clearly shows the lack of research into the cultural significance of the area completed by the developers. As argued in the previous paragraph, just the desecration of the land constitutes irreversible damage to the Navajo faith. There is no doubt that the construction would significantly decrease, if not entirely destroy, the power of the area to be used as a sacred site.
In the Zuni creation story, their ancestors emerged into the earth through a place not far from the confluence. They traveled up the Colorado River to the confluence with the Little Colorado River. The Little Colorado River is referred to as the “Road to Zuni,” because the ancestors continued to travel up the tributary to where the Zuni live today. The Little Colorado River and the confluence are considered sacred to the Zuni, many of whom make long pilgrimages to visit the area (Wittig). In many of the same ways that the Escalade project would damage the sacredness of the area for the Navajo and Hopi people, the complex would mar the land for the Zuni people.
One of the main arguments that the developers have made against those that claim the project will damage the sacredness of the area is that rafters and other recreational users already have violated the sanctity of the confluence. There are a number of problems with this argument. Rather than trying to avoid adding to the destruction of the area, the developers are content that as long as a somewhat imperfect system is in place, they should have the right to create further damage. The developers also fail to recognize that the Navajo people do not have the ability to stop recreational use on the Colorado River. Additionally, the developers seem to be unable to compare the magnitude of destruction caused by recreational usage versus large-scale construction and traffic. The 24,657 rafters and 13,000 hikers that visit the area each year create minimal evidence of their presence, certainly when compared to millions of pounds of concrete and steel that the Escalade project will bring into the area (Grand Canyon Escalade). The impact that recreational users do have in the area, such as swimming nude in the sacred Little Colorado River, will be greatly magnified with the completion of the Escalade project, which will bring more people to the area in four days than recreation does in the entire year (see above discussion of inability to restrict visitors to designated areas).
There is no doubt that this area is sacred space in every interpretation of the phrase. It is considered the Axis Mundi and the origin of human life, full of innate sacredness. The beauty and nature of the landscape has given the place special meaning, as river confluences often have throughout history. Cultural significance in the area ranges from creation stories to modern ceremonies and pilgrimages (Lane). Much of the conflict surrounding this sacred space is due to the difficulty many people have in understanding the role that land and its preservation play in Indigenous faiths. When we approach an area such as this from a Western Anglo point of view, it is very hard to understand how construction, even when done with deep regard to its environmental impacts, is inherently damaging to the land. For Native Americans, however, this is just how it is seen. Extreme value is placed on the natural state of land, bringing sacred reality into physical form. This idea is hard to grasp for western thinkers who have traditionally separated the profane and sacred, allowing for the possibility of destructing land while keeping western spiritual beliefs intact. This land is not just a convenient place for the practice of Native traditions; it is an essential aspect of their beliefs. This project is more similar to destroying the Judo-Christian God than bulldozing a church. We must appreciate the value of land to these traditions, and realize that the Escalade development does not threaten a specific site, ceremony, or history but that “the land is sacred and if the land is abused the sacredness of Hopi life will disappear.” Certainly the area can be used to bring much needed revenue to the Navajo people, but the proposed plan does not seem to be the best way to do so while still preserving various cultures. The challenge that faces the Navajo Nation is to work with its people, others with an interest in the sacredness of the area, and developers to find a more sustainable method of capitalizing on the ability to develop the Bennett freeze; one that will honor and progress cultures and religious traditions.
For more information on the development please visit http://grandcanyonescalade.com
For more information on the struggle of those opposed to the development, please visit http://savetheconfluence.com
Sam Seiniger (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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