Tribe's Canyon Skywalk May Bring Riches, but Also Deepens Divide

The Hualapai tribe's skywalk is an observation deck that will jut out 70 feet from the Grand Canyon rim. It has ignited a debate among those who question whether economic gains are worth disturbing sacred ground.
The Hualapai tribe's skywalk is an observation deck that will jut out 70 feet from the Grand Canyon rim. It has ignited a debate among those who question whether economic gains are worth disturbing sacred ground. (Grand Canyon West Via Associated Press)
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2007

GRAND CANYON WEST, Ariz., March 7 -- Shortly after noon on Wednesday, the last few feet of a steel and glass skywalk was rolled out over the southwest rim of the Grand Canyon, a 2-million-pound engineering marvel that the Hualapai Indians hope will boost tourism to their remote ancestral land and provide the impoverished tribe with a desperately needed economic boost.

With sage burning and tribal members playing gourds, spiritual leader Emmett Bender blessed the cantilevered horseshoe-shaped skywalk, which will jut out 70 feet from the canyon rim and dangle 4,000 feet above the canyon floor. He called the structure "the white man's idea."

"Like the car and buses. The white man made it, and it came out strong," the 84-year-old tribal elder said of the skywalk. "We've got to give it a chance."

The small Hualapai tribe, whose nearly 1-million-acre reservation includes this rim of the Grand Canyon, is pinning its long-term hopes for economic development on the skywalk. The tribe's foray into gambling failed in 1995 after eight months, largely because of the remoteness of the area and because most of its visitors arrived from Las Vegas, the nation's casino capital.

Three years in the making and topping $30 million in cost, the 30,000-square-foot skywalk, which will open March 28, will allow 120 visitors at a time to walk out over the canyon rim to look at the gorge through glass walls and through a glass floor at the bottom of the canyon, nearly four-fifths of a mile below. That novelty, tribal leaders hope, will draw tourists and increase this site's 250,000 annual visitors. In comparison, the Grand Canyon National Park, 242 miles to the east, draws 4.1 million yearly.

The idea of the skywalk was proposed to the Hualapai (wal-a-pie) several years ago by Las Vegas tour company owner David Jin, who brought together the investors who paid for the structure's development and construction. He said he wanted to find a quiet way for tourists to view the canyon outside of a noisy helicopter and to increase the view from 180 degrees in an aircraft "to 720 degrees in a skywalk." The agreement with the Hualapai gives the tribe the majority of skywalk admission fees for several years and eventually, all proceeds. With that, the tribe hopes to add a visitor center with a museum, movie theater, gift shop and several restaurants.

But environmentalists and others have criticized the skywalk project since its inception, saying that the overhang will tarnish the pristine canyon and that a less intrusive tourist attraction could have been developed.

"I think it's a real travesty," said Robert Arnberger, who was superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park from 1994 to 2000. "I understand the need for the tribe to consider the economics of the tribe, but . . . it desecrates the very place the Hualapai hold so dear."

As two golden eagles soared above the skywalk, Hualapai Tribal Council Chairman Charlie Vaughn, who attended the blessing and rollout of the structure along with other council members, took issue with such criticism. "Those people are eating tofu and pilaf and sitting in Phoenix with their plasma-screen TVs," he said. "Our tribe started in these canyons. We've always been here, and we'll always be here."

The 2,300-member Hualapai is among the tribes in the United States that do not operate casinos, a $23 billion industry for Native Americans. Although more tribes recently have diversified their business ventures, fearful that relying too heavily on gambling is risky, the Hualapai tribe said it had little choice but to capitalize on its most valuable possession: the southwest rim of the Grand Canyon. "We're land rich and dirt poor," said Waylon Honga, chief operating officer of the Grand Canyon Resort Corp., the entity the Hualapai created in 1994 to pursue tourism ventures.

About 1,400 members of the Hualapai tribe live on the reservation in Peach Springs, a small community 66 miles from the canyon rim that was bypassed in 1979 by the building of Interstate 40, a major east-west thoroughfare in Arizona. The few businesses that existed soon closed and since then, unemployment has hovered between 50 percent and 70 percent, depending on the season. About half the residents have incomes below the federal poverty line, Vaughn said.

Tribal executives acknowledged that the skywalk is not a tourism panacea to the Hualapai's economic problems. But, said Sheri YellowHawk, chief executive officer of the Grand Canyon Resort Corp., the project will create jobs for the Hualapai, generate revenue and fund social programs for the community.

"People have a right to say whatever they want about what is happening here, but I see it as an addition, a catalyst and something that we need for the future, for our children," she said. "The state of our community is not one that is positive right now. It's one that is negative, and we've got to do something."

Staff writer Matthew C. Wright in Austin contributed to this report.

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