‘These big dreams to have everyone prosper’

A conversation with Renae Yellowhorse about the proposal to build a tram to the Colorado River.


Just north of Tuba City and an hour’s drive off Highway 89 through a web of dirt roads, lies a remote perch on the east rim of the Grand Canyon. A few thousand feet below the rim, the Little Colorado River converges with the main stem of the Colorado River.

It is at this spot that a developer who recently submitted a proposal to the Navajo Nation Council wants to build a tourist resort complete with hotels and shopping and—most notably—a tram capable of shuttling 10,000 people a day from the rim to the river. The plan from Scottsdale-based developers,  Confluence Partners, promises local jobs and economic opportunity, but it also calls for the Navajo Nation to provide $65 million for roads and infrastructure, proposes a land withdrawal of 420 acres from the Bodaway/Gap Chapter of the Navajo Nation, and imposes a no-economic-competition zone on the area surrounding the development. In return, the tribe would receive between 8 percent and 18 percent of the profits. The Grand Canyon Escalade, as the development is called, has received pushback from tribes, including the Hopi, for whom the confluence is sacred, from residents living near the proposed development site who view the developers as a threat to Navajo sovereignty, from officials at Grand Canyon National Park, and from conservationists and recreationalists around the world who see the tram as an ecological and moral disaster.

The confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers, where the Grand Canyon Escalade project wants to build resort amenities and activities.
edmj/CC Flickr

In 2010, several Navajo families concerned about the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade banded together to launch an opposition group called Save the Confluence, and they have been fighting the proposal ever since. The proposed development has been divisive and even if it doesn’t come to fruition, has had a lasting impact on Navajo communities.

Tensions surrounding the proposal have been exacerbated by the lingering effects of the Bennett Freeze, a land dispute between the Hopi and Navajo tribes that resulted in a nearly 50-year freeze on any kind of development for people living on a swath of land along the eastern rim of the Grand Canyon, a section of which is the proposed site of the Escalade and the Bodaway/Gap Chapter of the Navajo Nation. Beginning in 1966, residents living on land affected by the Freeze could not build homes or make repairs to existing ones, or build infrastructure to bring water or electricity to the region. Residents of the region say that the Freeze halted the natural growth of the community in Bodaway/Gap and kept that area artificially empty, thereby opening the door for outside development. The Freeze wasn’t lifted until 2009, and by then many residents had moved away in search of jobs and homes.

High Country News contributor Page Buono caught up with Renae Yellowhorse, a leader of Save the Confluence whose family lives in Bodaway/Gap, while she was visiting Shiprock for the Navajo Nation fair, an annual celebration of Navajo culture that draws thousands for parades, fairs and traditional activities.  Yellowhorse, who is also currently running for vice president of the Bodaway/Gap Chapter, talked about the impacts of the Escalade and other outside development proposals on the sovereign Navajo Nation, and about Navajo women’s role in protecting the land.

Renae Yellowhorse, who has been speaking out against the Grand Canyon Escalade project for four years.
Courtney Columbus/Cronkite News

High Country News: What is the current status of the Escalade Proposal?

Renae Yellowhorse: Right now most of (the Navajo Nation Council delegates) know about it and realize that it’s controversial, but most of them have only heard from Confluence Partners, where the promise is of economic development, of jobs, of big money. Everybody’s got these big dreams to have everyone prosper. But the way the bill is written, the only ones who are going to prosper is the outside developers, not the Navajo Nation.  

That’s the main issue, aside from the fact that they haven’t got consent and they’re violating religious rights of the traditional people, like my relatives who live in the area.

(Once the bill passes through committees), it goes through another stage called the “talking over” and then it goes to the council floor (Navajo Nation Council), which is the final decision-making body. Even if it’s voted down in any of the committees, it still goes forward. President Begaye has promised to veto the bill, but there’s a danger that if they get 16 votes they can override his veto. (Sixteen votes is the required 2/3 majority to override a veto, and for proposals that waive sovereignty rights, which the proposed land withdrawal does.)

But even if it doesn’t pass, we’ll keep worrying that another outside interest will come in. Council delegates are already telling us about someone coming to Marble Canyon who wants to start a big business.

HCN: You have been a part of the opposition, Save the Confluence, since 2010. How did you get involved?

RY: Well, my relatives said, “You got educated, you speak well and know how to speak to the wider audience, you understand where we come from, you need to speak for us.” “We’ve done our part,” my aunties tell me. “We worked on water rights, and we just want to herd our sheep now – you go out there, it’s your turn.”

There comes a point where you have to get out there and get your voice heard, and learn how to deal with the myriad of questions and get knowledgeable on the subject and be presentable about how you’re going to express that to everybody. Because it’s not just a problem for people in our communities, it’s the entire world—it’s the Grand Canyon. You can see it from the international space station.

HCN: Save the Confluence is mostly women. Why is that?  

RY: For Diné (Navajo), the woman is the caretaker of the home; the hogan and the lands are in her name.

We’re the Deer Springs People of the Bitterwater Clan. Our women are known to speak up about everything, every little thing. At the chapter house, at meetings, at get-togethers, we’re at the forefront.

We use salt for many of our ceremonies, collected from the salt caverns (near the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River Gorge), which is another connection to the land here. At a baby’s first laugh—it’s not really a ceremony, it’s just what we do—or at a woman’s transition, we put salt in the red dirt and medicines and have her wear that during the four days that the transition happens. Those are all driven by women. A lot of those ways have been broken or are no longer observed because they were interrupted by the Bennett Freeze.

One of the impacts from the Freeze is the Escalade Development, because without the Freeze, we would have been living there; we would have our houses (where the development is proposed), our clan pods and our relatives all living together in one area, celebrating and depending on one another as we did for centuries.

HCN: For many, the allure of the Escalade seems to be economic opportunity, and you’ve mentioned that there are alternatives. Can you talk about those?   

RY: The Escalade Project is asking people to put forth $65 million and that’s one of our main issues. That money could be better used to help fund our own people in the impacted area, to start bed and breakfasts, to start ecotourism, to develop along infrastructure that already exists. There’s already power lines, there’s already Highway 89, there’s already a junction where there are lights.

The Escalade is a big distraction. Our fight, once (the Escalade) is gone and no longer on the table, is that someone else is going to have some grand idea. So our work is to help Navajo Nation leaders enforce the policies already on the books to protect the biodiversity of the environments out there, to protect the areas that are shared cultural properties with other native tribes.

HCN: Your face and name appear in almost every article about the Escalade, and you’ve mentioned that it costs you in your community. Why do it?

RY: At first it was really hard, being shut down and even shouted at by men at the local meetings, and I was told I was heartless because people said I didn’t want jobs, which isn’t true. I am for jobs and economic development. But we have to protect our holy spaces.

I worked as the night clerk at a local grocery store before working at Save the Confluence, and I thought that was the hardest job I’d ever had—working early in the morning and late at night and still have to provide food for my family. But this is so much harder. I work 24/7, thinking about the impacts, planning and traveling to talk to people or go to interviews or appear at events.

But it’s also healing. There are people who originally supported the Escalade Project, but they saw what we went through. They saw what it was costing us and they’ve come over and we’re good now.

I rely a lot now on the teaching I got from my aunties and my great grandmother: You get up early, say your prayers, and take care of the land.

I’m working hard for the long-term preservation of the land so this doesn’t happen again. So outsiders can’t come in and say, “We can do this for you”. Instead, we’re going to go to our government and say, “We want to do this for ourselves, and this is how you can help us.”

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