Today, hikers traipse across the limestone mound, treating it as if it were a stop on a sightseeing tour, though they are not the first to be oblivious to the spot’s significance. Around 1912, a young Hopi man on his first pilgrimage to the confluence was deeply shocked by what he found there. “Some ignorant, foolhardy Whites had plunged two poles into the sacred sipapu, and left them standing against the west wall,” he later recalled to an ethnographer. “Those profane fellows had desecrated the sacred spot where our ancestors—and theirs—emerged from the underworld. It was a great disgrace.”
For centuries, the Hopi made extremely rugged treks (160 miles round-trip) from their mesas in northeastern Arizona to a sacred source of salt at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, a few miles up the Colorado River from the confluence. To reach the canyon base, they traversed a hazardous 3,000-foot descent on the Salt Trail, via a side canyon off the Little Colorado. Obtaining salt—a precious commodity in the Hopi diet—was essential, but the journey was also a ritual designed to ensure fertility and rain.
The most vivid published account of the pilgrimage is found in Sun Chief, the autobiography of Don Talayesva, who as a young man participated in one of the last of these quests. With his father and the tribe’s war chief, he camped overnight at the confluence. It was for the Hopi both a miraculous and a ghostly place, the haunt of Masau’u, god of fire and death. As Talayesva recalled decades later, “I kept looking around. The War Chief said, ‘If you look around too much you may see an evil spirit.’” The Hopi knew that if they failed to perform the rituals correctly, they might come home to find a loved one dead, or to face weeks without rain.
After 1912, thanks to the availability of salt from Anglo traders’ stores, the pilgrimages ended. But the Hopi still believe that the base of the Grand Canyon, near the confluence, is where their spirits reside after death. As Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, Hopi cultural preservation officer, says, “My mother died in her 90s in 2012. A year later, I stood on the rim of the canyon [near the confluence overlook] and thought about my mom, my dad, my grandparents as I looked into the canyon. I thought, ‘Can’t we give our people solitude? The spirits need to be left alone.’”
For the Zuni, living today in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona, the confluence also has deep cultural significance. “Our place of emergence is also within the Grand Canyon,” says Jim Enote, director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni, New Mexico. “It’s at Ribbon Falls. Our people lived a very long time in the canyon. Then we journeyed out and explored the tributaries throughout the Colorado Plateau, until we settled where we live now. We still make pilgrimages every year into the canyon, to collect plants and minerals and leave offerings. We have shrines there that have never been abandoned. The confluence is a very important place. We also put offerings into the Zuni River, and if you follow the Zuni downstream, it flows into the Little Colorado; the Little Colorado flows into the Colorado. So our offerings flow to the confluence, which connects us to our place of emergence.”
The scale of the Grand Canyon is too colossal to apprehend on first encounter. Gazing into its immensity from a vehicle pull-out on the South Rim can be a static exercise—viewing mere scenery, rather than encountering sublimity.
In my experience, the best way to grasp the Grand Canyon is to hike, and to get below the rim—and not on one of the most traveled routes, such as the Bright Angel Trail. On his monumental solo traverse of the canyon in 1963, Colin Fletcher reveled in the trance-like experience of discovery and solitude. “Now I could look far out across flat red rock,” he wrote in a typically lyrical passage in The Man Who Walked Through Time, “and watch the long, swift flight of a cloud shadow. And I found that it was a joy and a release to watch one of these shadows dissolve for a moment as it crossed a side canyon, then reappear and race onward, diminishing, until it accelerated up a distant talus slope, vaulted a cliff face, and vanished over the Canyon’s rim, five or eight or even ten miles away.”
In 2006, a few miles south of the confluence, I followed the faintest of prehistoric trails down a remote ravine. Just as I thought the passage had ended in a sheer cliff, I discovered ancient hand- and footholds pounded into the stone, serving as a vertiginous ladder leading to the depths below. I was stunned by this unexpected link to vanished Native Americans for whom, centuries or even millennia before me, the Grand Canyon was not a recreational park, but home.
Because the land on which Confluence Partners hopes to build the Escalade lies on the Navajo Reservation, the entrepreneurs consulted Navajos. This infuriated people from Hopi, Zuni and other pueblos, as well as the Hualapai and Havasupai, who live in the Grand Canyon far to the west of the confluence. As Leigh Kuwanwisiwma says, “Confluence Partners asked the Navajos in Window Rock about our sacred sites! It’s all about money.”
In recent months, Confluence Partners has accelerated its campaign for the Escalade, taking out full-page ads in the Navajo Times and the Navajo-Hopi Observer that imply the Scottsdale developers and the Navajo people speak in a unified voice. “For a very long time,” reads the text of one ad, “people outside the Navajo Nation have suggested or told us what they think we should do. We are hearing those voices again today. This is our land, our decision and our future.”
Uberuaga, the park superintendent, says “Confluence Partners is telling the tribe, ‘Take this land back from the white man.’”
With promises of jobs and economic uplift, Confluence Partners has divided the Navajo Nation against itself. Outgoing president Ben Shelly, whose term officially ended in January, supports the Escalade. But as this article went to press, procedural delays continued to stall election of his successor; candidates are keeping their views of the Escalade close to the vest.
One Navajo supporter of the project is Brian Kensley, manager for the Bodaway-Gap chapter, a tribal unit whose land covers the site of the proposed development. For various reasons, Bodaway-Gap has been for decades one of the poorest chapters on the reservation. “The Escalade just fell into our laps,” Kensley says. “This is what the people want. They want jobs.
“I think this project will make the land out there more sacred. The Native American visitor center at the overlook will give a real interpretation of the Navajo, the Hopi, the Zuni, not some anthropologist’s view. What’s so sacred about a place that leaves people in poverty?”
The Escalade developers promote their plan as a way of democratizing the visitor experience. “Why should we restrict the [bottom of] the canyon?” asks R. Lamar Whitmer, Confluence’s managing partner, “to the hikers and rafters who can afford a $5,000 river trip?” A posting on the company’s website asks, “More on Sacred Sites—Where Do 24,567 Rafters Go to Party?”
It’s true that a favorite stop of the commercial companies and private outfits rafting the Colorado is the confluence, where folks hike up the Little Colorado to wade in the shallow blue-green water of the travertine pools. A party atmosphere—or at least a picnic vibe—usually obtains. On my own trip on the Colorado about 20 years ago, we clients, led by our guides, did just that.
A new approach, however, may soon supersede such thoughtless antics. Robert Jenkins is the only licensed Hopi rafting guide in the Grand Canyon. He says, “Playing in the riffles of the Little Colorado still happens. It’s hard to stop other companies from doing it. But you can row on and skip that campsite. That’s usually what I do.”
His counterpart, Nikki Cooley, is the only full-time Navajo rafting guide in the canyon. “A few years ago,” she says, “the park service mandated that all the commercial companies had to be well versed in native knowledge of the canyon. Each year we organize a gathering of all the guides to educate them.” At first, she says, “I thought some of the guides weren’t taking us seriously, but now it’s getting better.”
Whitmer, of Confluence Partners, insists that the Navajo Nation is largely in favor of the Escalade. Despite the gas tanks and jewelry stands along Highway 89 painted with protest graffiti proclaiming “Save the Confluence” and “Sacred Sites Not for Sale,” Whitmer asserts, “I think the opponents are a very small group. I’d be surprised if there are more than 50 or 60 of them.”
Whitmer goes on to tell a homiletic story. “We held a job fair at Bodaway-Gap. About 130 people showed up. There was this older Navajo guy, real rugged-looking, with piercing eyes. The most bowlegged guy I’d ever seen, and I grew up riding horses. I said to a friend, ‘That guy looks like trouble.’ Then I felt a tug on my arm. He had his hat off. He said, ‘I want to thank you for giving my children, my grandchildren, and my great-grandchildren a future.’ He had tears running down his cheeks. How can I let these people down?”
During the time I spent this past autumn in Tuba City, a town near the confluence overlook, I spoke to Navajos on both sides of the question. Confluence Partners cites a 2012 vote at the Bodaway-Gap chapter house that tallied 57 to 50 for the Escalade. But critics of that meeting say it was hastily called, “chaotic” and even “illegal,” adding that two previous Bodaway-Gap referenda voted down the project. Bill Hedden, director of the Grand Canyon Trust, argues, “This isn’t the way Navajos decide important questions. When an issue is that sharply divided, it’s traditional to say, ‘We have to come up with another plan.’”
A Tuba City resident named Darlene Martin, whose family lived near the confluence overlook, tells me, “We all know the Escalade is a terrible idea. But our own relatives are taken in by Lamar Whitmer and his promises.”
It appears that a backlash against Confluence Partners is gaining momentum. A documentary produced by the Grand Canyon Trust in early December gives voice to the most articulate Navajo opponents of the project. And leaders from the Hopi and Havasupai united to pass a resolution rejecting the Escalade, as did a pan-Pueblo council convened in October. “Powerful voices from the past, present and future agree that a tramway delivering 10,000 tourists a day must not be allowed to kill the solace of this sacred place,” says program director Roger Clark of the Grand Canyon Trust.
One crucial question that critics say the developer has failed to address is where the water to support a new development on such arid land would come from. Whitmer says that the water issue was “incorporated in the joint planning process” with input from the Navajos. But according to Clark, “Unlike the South Rim aquifer, the groundwater reserves under the western edge of the reservation remain largely unassessed.” It is entirely likely, he adds, that massive drilling of wells there could dry up springs and oases in the 60-odd miles of the Grand Canyon that the plateau overlooks.
Another unresolved question is exactly where the boundary of the national park lies. The developers and some Navajo leaders claim that the dividing line is the high-water mark of the Colorado River. But the park service, which opposes the development, insists that the boundary stretches well beyond that—a quarter mile up the eastern slope from river’s edge. That would effectively prohibit the elevated walkway, gift shop and café planned for the tramway terminus. Each side cites documents dating back as far as establishment of the Navajo Reservation in 1868 and the Arizona statehood act of 1912. The matter hasn’t gone to the courts. But Uberuaga, the park’s director, has vowed to fight for the park’s view in litigation if necessary.