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Navajo showcase

Arizona tribes are shedding their reticence and welcoming outsiders. Hotels are going up. Remote sites are being made accessible. If they build it, will you come?

December 07, 2008|Jay Jones | Jones is a freelance writer.

CHINLE, ARIZ. — The dirt track we're bumping along doesn't qualify as a road -- even here on the sprawling, remote Navajo reservation. Next to me, behind the wheel of an old pickup, Christian Bigwater downshifts as he maneuvers over and around the rocks in our way.

"You're in for a treat," he says as he stops at a point beyond which even he won't risk driving. From here, we hike through scraggly pines and yucca to a promontory from which the treat -- Canyon de Chelly -- reveals itself.

This national monument is nearly as spectacular as the Grand Canyon 200 miles to the west, but far less crowded with camera-clutching visitors.

The arid land above the canyon has been home to the Bigwater family for centuries. Christian and his two brothers run Totsonii Ranch and lead tourists on horseback down steep, narrow trails into the colorful chasm containing ancient cliff dwellings. The trips last two hours to two days. But even in the peak summer months there are days when not one customer arrives at their stable. At those times, the Bigwaters and their hired hands feed the horses, mend fences -- and wait.

"People ask me, 'Why can't we live like the beligaana?' " Bigwater says, using the Navajo word for whites as he describes the poverty of his people. Part of the answer, he and others think, lies in tourism, in bringing more visitors to the reservations. Across Arizona, previously reticent tribes are now welcoming people to new ventures that showcase not only the natural wonders of the area but also the traditions of their residents.

"We're in the beginning stages of this invitation for the outside world to come see us," says Bigwater, 29, alluding to the ongoing wariness between Native Americans and outsiders. He hopes that changing attitudes will encourage more visitors.

Farther north on the Navajo reservation, the View's first visitors are enjoying the first hotel built inside Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. The property, which was to open this weekend, provides guests with stunning panoramas of the park's famous monoliths, the instantly recognizable backdrop for many westerns, "Easy Rider" and "Forrest Gump." It also provides locals with about 100 jobs.

"Job creation on tribal land means economic opportunity but also translates into cultural preservation," says Joe Shirley, president of the Navajo Nation. "When family members can find employment close to their traditional homes, they stay connected with their culture and their language."

Similar efforts have proved successful for the Gila River Indian Community near Phoenix. In 2002, the tribe spent $170 million on the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa.

"We built the resort to showcase and tell our story. And we tell our story through every inch of the property," says Ginger Sunbird Martin, the resort's cultural theme manager.

"My job is to protect the integrity and the respect of both the Pima and Maricopa tribes at all times," says Martin, who grew up on the reservation. "Whether it's the approval of menus, logos on uniforms, new signage -- anything like that -- I'm responsible for it."

Martin serves as the liaison to tribal elders, who must give their blessing to nearly every aspect of resort operations. They have vetted aspects as diverse as the herbs in the spa to the silverware in the restaurants.

Many Arizona tribes -- the Gila River included -- bring in much-needed revenue through casinos. But on the more isolated reservations, there isn't enough traffic to support gaming, so tribes must woo visitors in other ways.

The Hualapai, for example, are tapping into one of America's greatest natural resources: the Grand Canyon. Their reservation begins at the western boundary of the national park, and money-spinning ventures abound. The tribe offers various outdoor pursuits, including day trips rafting the Colorado River and visits to the Skywalk, a glass bridge 4,000 feet above the canyon floor.

Still, remoteness and lack of infrastructure discourage some people from visiting. Remote sites include the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America: the Oraibi pueblo on the Hopi reservation. The Hopi have lived there since 1150.

"We have many people coming to the Hopi land, but they have no place to stay," says Dan Honahni, a Hopi who oversees development in the village of Moenkopi, about 75 miles northeast of Flagstaff.

That is changing. This summer, tribal leaders broke ground on the Moenkopi Inn, a 100-room hotel and conference center at the intersection of two busy highways. When completed next year, it will provide 55 new jobs.

The hotel is being built just across the street from the Hopi-run Tuuvi Travel Center. Besides selling gasoline, the center offers three gift shops, two restaurants and a convenience store. Such ventures, Honahni says, are helping improve life in Moenkopi, which recently opened its first sewage treatment plant.

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