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One Giant Leap for Tribal Relations


Grand Canyon West is a wonder. Not only for its scale and honeyed amber walls, but for the people who inhabit the place. Typically it is the Hualapai Indians who call this fossil-peppered land home. But last week it was the site of Kamp Knievel, the location from which daredevil motorcyclist Kaptain Robbie Knievel, 37, had been poised to set his newest record--jumping 228 feet across the Grand Canyon.

Though Knievel came down a little hard at the end of his jump and landed himself in the hospital, Thursday's leap was a success, due at least in part to the Hualapai.

"They scratched my back. I scratched theirs," Knievel said before the jump. "We made a good team."

The back scratching began in January. With Knievel's request for permits to jump in the tourist-besieged national park declined and a deal with Fox Television hanging in the balance, it was Tri-Crown Productions, the company hired to produce a May sweeps special for the network, who found Grand Canyon West and struck a deal with the Hualapai (which means "people of the tall pine").

"We needed a place to jump. Whatever site we chose would get a lot of publicity, and the Hualapai wanted publicity to promote their tourist industry. It was a perfect match," supervising producer Jeff Androsky said.

Although the initial reaction to the proposal was cautious--"We were concerned about ecological damage," says Phil Hobbs, the tribe's chief operations officer--the two parties soon came to embrace one another.

Knievel became a fan of the territory.

"This place is so beautiful, people should know about it," he said.

And the tribe's spiritual elder, Emmit Bender, along with his apprentice, Gloria Susanyatame, agreed to perform a spiritual blessing of the jump site by "asking the old ones for permission for the doing, so they can participate and smile on it," Susanyatame said.

As a result, Knievel's launch and landing ramps stood on the plateau called Mata Dipta, meaning Descending Canyon, where the first Hualapai pitched their tents. A sprawl of motor homes cluttered the plain where once they hunted antelope.

Polished production trucks and towering satellite dishes, parked along the dirt road, found their place among the sage bushes, yucca plants and agave cactus. It was a friendly, if seemingly alien, invasion.

Located 137 miles from Las Vegas in northwest Arizona, Grand Canyon West is the most scenic section of the Haulapais' 1-million acre reservation. The tribe, which has a population of 1,500 now, settled here in 1883, though their 108-mile stretch of canyon was not open to the public until 1988. At an elevation of 4,500 feet, the site doesn't have the frenzy of the national park. Visitors--mainly European and Japanese--on tours from Las Vegas (a 30-minute flight away) come to enjoy the scenery (the Colorado River is actually visible), go white-water rafting and experience Native American culture.

Last year 95,000 people made the journey. But that is a small fraction of the nearly 5 million tourists who visited the Grand Canyon National Park last year. Eventually the Hualapai expect to have a resort on the Mata Dipta site, although gambling is not in their cards.

"People who come here want to be a part of nature. They can gamble in Las Vegas," Hobbs explained. "We are trying to learn from the [national park's] mistakes and do our resort right. It will take a few years, but we'll get there."

Tribal Chairman Earl Havatone does not see any alternative.

"We used to hunt the animals to put food on our tables. Now it is not that way. We have to, whether we like it or not, progress with the rest of the world. Robbie is helping us get the word out that there is great beauty on Hualapai land."

According to Fox, an estimated 13.1 million television viewers tuned in for the jump--viewers who the Hualapai hope will come to see their ancient land and put up camps of their own.

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