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Developers are trying to build a $150 million resort and casino on the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon. It's an area many Native Americans believe to be sacred, but local tribes could also use the economic boost. The situation has divided leaders of the Navajo Nation. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports.[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio introduction to this story incorrectly states that developers want to build a casino on the eastern edge of the Grand Canyon as part of a new development project. In fact, a casino is not part of the project.]
LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: At the end of a long dirt road about 100 miles north of Flagstaff, you come to a precipice where the land drops away 3500 feet to the place where the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers meet, at the floor of the Grand Canyon. Developer Lamar Whitmer took one look at this stunning view and saw opportunity. He envisions a gondola ride, two hotels, a restaurant, cultural center, amphitheater and elevated walkway along the river's edge. Whitmer believes the project would keep Navajos from moving off the reservation to find jobs.
LAMAR WHITMER: If they're going to sustain their people and preserve their culture, they have to create some jobs. Fifty percent of the Navajos are living off the reservation now. The ones that stay have one of the most impoverished, if not the most impoverished, place in the state.
MORALES: The Grand Canyon Escalade proposal, as they're calling it, promises the tribe 3,200 jobs - a road, infrastructure and at least 8 percent of gross revenues. The trade-off: 420 acres of land considered holy by many tribal members. But Whitmer says it is not a documented sacred site.
WHITMER: The Navajo and the Hopi in their litigation with the federal government have spent significant time - 50, 60 years - cataloging significant sacred sites. There are no significant sacred sites within the 420 acres.
RENAE YELLOWHORSE: I'm not going to accept it.
MORALES: Renae Yellowhorse has been actively protesting the development.
YELLOWHORSE: For people to come in and say - outside people - to tell me where I pray and where my grandparents have prayed, where my great-grandparents have prayed - that to tell me that it is not sacred - they can't tell me that.
MORALES: On a recent breezy morning, Yellowhorse sends her prayers out to the wind, which she says carries them to her ancestors at the place where the two rivers meet, the confluence.
YELLOWHORSE: (Navajo spoken) where the waters come together, that's where life comes from. And then when we go back after we finish our life journeys, that's where we go back to. These are clan stories. These are not stories that are in any books.
MORALES: In addition to the Navajo, the Zuni and Hopi also believe the site is sacred. The Hopi Tribal Council, led by Chairman Herman Honanie, has passed a resolution opposing the development.
HERMAN HONANIE: Right now as I'm looking at it - at the confluence - it's just surreal. It's just majestic. It's - why would anybody want to alter it in any state whatsoever, minute or grand? This belongs to the people. And I feel in some way that's why it was created.
MORALES: But a former Navajo president is in favor of the development along with many other tribal members, including Brian Kensley. He says this portion of the Navajo Nation has been neglected for too long. For five decades, the federal government prohibited development on this land. Now that the freeze is lifted, Kensley sees Escalade as a chance for a better life.
BRIAN KENSLEY: Of course it's a majestic area. It's an origin area, an oral tradition area. It's the seventh wonder of the world in our backyard. But I would like to share that sacredness with other outside people.
MORALES: The developers are hopeful they'll find a compromise and the Escalade attraction will open in 2018. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.
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