Journey to the Four Corners with Bioneers Indigeneity Program, DAY 2

Journey to the Four Corners with Bioneers Indigeneity Program, DAY 2

Alexis Bunten, Bioneers Indigeneity Program

This blog series is to share our week-long journey to the Four Corners region to experience first-hand amazing work undertaken by our partners with from the Colorado Plateau Intertribal Conversations Group, and inspired by our collective efforts to protect the Rights of Nature.

Anything written in this blog series reflects my personal interpretations of the 2017 Kinship Journey to the Four Corners, and does not reflect Bioneers Collective Heritage Institute, or the opinions of the wonderful people I traveled with.

Our group arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona yesterday (read all about Day 1 here) and after a hike to see ancient cliff dwellings, we shared an intimate dinner.


After breakfast, we packed up all our bags and headed north towards the East Entrance of the Grand Canyon. Most people visit the Grand Canyon from the South Entrance, where lines to get in are long, and visitors are immediately faced with a parking lot that would rival the biggest Walmart at the outskirts of the Grand Canyon Village. Visitors can walk to the rim to see breathtaking vistas, but it is so mediated by “amenities,” and crowds, it is hard to experience the canyon in nature. If you want to take one of the short hikes, you have to get on a shuttle bus crowded with other tourists. We didn’t do that. We headed to the East Entrance instead.

The East Entrance is on the Navajo side of the park, and offers breathtaking views without the long lines, the crowds, or overwhelming development. More importantly, from a Navajo point of view, the East Entrance is the natural place to enter the park. Traditional Navajo homes were entered from the east to welcome the rising sun and good fortune for the day. So to us, the East entrance was the right place to enter to see the canyon.

Bioneers Co-Founder, Nina Simons, enjoying the breathtaking view.

Our purpose for starting at the Grand Canyon, besides it being a once-in-a-lifetime, jaw-dropping and awe inspiring jumping off point for the journey of discovery that lay ahead, was to experience it from an indigenous perspective. The Grand Canyon is sacred for Native Peoples along the Colorado Plateau, some who trace their ancestral origins to sacred sites within the canyon. For thousands of years, the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Hualapai, Yavapai-Apache, and Kaibab Paiute and their ancestors lived and spent time in and around the Canyon. When it became a National Park, their customary rights and practices here were curtailed, but this has been improving in recent years through partnerships between the tribes and parks. Our partners, Tony Skrelunas and Deon Ben, shared this history in detail with us, as we enjoyed a picnic lunch.

Native America Program Manager of the Grand Canyon Trust, Deon Ben,
shares the significance of the Canyon to Native Peoples.

We also learned about contemporary threats to the traditional lifeways and health of the canyon through a major proposed tourism development the confluence of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River, called the Grand Canyon Escalade project that includes a 1.4 mile tramway that would shuttle up to 10,000 visitors a day to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The top of the canyon would turn into a commodified tourist center, featuring an elevated walkway, amphitheater, a hotel, restaurant, RV center, and other resort attractions. Besides spoiling the natural beauty of the canyon, and the untold pollution this increase in visitorship would add to the rivers at the confluence, the proposed site is sacred to the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and other Native peoples of the Grand Canyon region. Building this development would be tantamount to enclosing the Vatican in a shopping mall. While the Hopi are vehemently opposed to the project, the Navajo nation is divided, with some factions lured by the short term gains of local service economy employment over the long term losses to health, wellness, tranquility and sacredness of the area. Tony Skrelunas explained that many Navajo don’t want development to interfere with culture. They don’t want to Westernize. They are waiting for something better, a way to make a living that meshes their beliefs and traditions with development. And, this vision doesn’t look like the Grand Canyon Escalade project. CPIC is working with locals to find a positive alternative in developing a well-managed, limited growth tourism corridor. For more about this issue, see our partner’s information about the proposed development.

After we all had plenty of time to perfect our panorama photo taking technique, we headed back out the east entrance to visit with more CPIC partners. We first visited vendor booths overlooking the little Colorado River Gorge.

Even after visiting the Grand Canyon, the Little Colorado Gorge is nothing to scoff at.

The precise location of the vendor booths we visited at the Little Colorado Gorge

The two vendor booths we visited are provided inventory by a number of local Navajo artisans —and what inventory it was! I was stunned by the gorgeous jewelry and sheer artisanship of the pieces for sale.

How incredible is this beaded medallion that Bioneers Executive Director, Josh Fouts, picked up?—He took the time to learn about the culture, and buy directly from the source, cultural appreciation at its best!

Prices were embarrassingly reasonable, but what I loved most was cutting out the middlemen in nearby towns, and knowing that my money is going directly towards local families, helping to provide them with a livelihood that allows them to continue to live and practice their artistic traditions on their ancestral homelands. I felt kind of sorry for people who just buy their arts in stores in town, who miss out on the opportunity to interact directly with locals, to learn the significance and meaning of the pieces they purchase.

Grand Canyon Trust, Native America Program Director, Tony Skrelunas, explains how the artisan booths work to support local Native communities.

We learned that the handful of vendor booth pull outs provide the sole livelihood for many locals who make and sell Native arts in this area. I was excited to learn that CPIC is partnering with this particular set of vendor booths to develop the site as a place to experience authentic Navajo culture and the breathtaking gorge with a rim hike (and no crowded shuttles!).

Can you find the lizard I spotted along the short rim hike of the Little Colorado Gorge?

At our second stop on the highway back out of the Grand Canyon, we pulled off to a private area, a part of the Navajo reservation leased by Alberta Henry and her family, who greeted us with a delicious spread of melons and traditional corn mush (it was yummy and nutritious).

Cool melons, corn mush and ice tea—the best snack in the heat of the afternoon.

Alberta shared her dream with us to start a Navajo “glamping” bed and breakfast, where visitors could stay in traditional style Navajo Hogan dwellings, or rent tents on her family’s grounds, on the edge of the Grand Canyon.

Alberta Henry explains how the basket design mirrors the traditional Navajo dwelling, with the entrance to the east always facing down, her inspiration for the Navajo Grand Canyon East Entrance Bed and Breakfast.

We were inspired by Alberta’s dream, especially as she told the story of how it was born, miles and miles away, while she toiled as a welder in the dirty natural resource extraction industry. Gas, coal and other kinds of mining provides Navajo with the best paying jobs, but it takes them away from their homes, and their traditional land-based lifestyles, while destroying it. Many Navajo people, like Alberta have had no choice but to take these kinds of employment. A Navajo glamping bed and breakfast, with a sweat lodge, on the edge of a canyon, with arts for sale, and cultural experiences while being the closest possible accommodation to the East Entrance of the park sounded like the most amazing business idea possible based on what we had already learned from our partners at CPIC.

How would you like to “glamp” right next to this Canyon View?
When Alberta’s dream comes true, this will be possible!

How better could Alberta and her family make a living while being themselves and holding on to their traditions? I was equally inspired by the social investment framework CPIC developed to work with Alberta and other social and cultural entrepreneurs to raise the capital needed to get this incredible dream off the ground.

We ended the evening with a group dinner at the Cameron Trading Post, where we had dinner with the President of the Cameron Chapter of the Navajo Nation, Milton Tso. We felt so honored that Milton joined us, and we had a great time talking and visiting. In addition to being another incredible visionary and social entrepreneur, Milton is an accomplished activist photographer, and flute player.

We were so blessed to be treated to an impromptu flute performance, after we finished our meal together with the President of the Cameron Navajo Nation Chapter.

Milton clearly has a deep passion for his home, his culture and the need to protect the environment while developing a sustainable, culture-based economic framework for the community as the gateway to the East Entrance to the Grand Canyon. With people like Tony, Deon, Alberta and Milton, amazing things are going to happen.

Stay tuned for day 2 of our journey, Navajo immersion.

I “caught” Cara Romero, Bioneers Indigeneity Program Director, shopping on the job in my selfie.


Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.