Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Grand Canyon Skywalk and Hualapai Self Determination

The Hualapai are a small Native American tribal group (less than 2000 people) living along a stretch of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon that until recently was largely inaccessible to Canyon tourists. The Hualapai reservation is also beset by poverty (with around 50% unemployment currently), as well as associated problems with alcoholism. As a recent article in the Los Angeles Times by Julie Cart makes clear, the Hualapi aim to remedy their situation, and open this portion of the Canyon to tourists, in dramatic fashion via the Grand Canyon Skywalk.

The Skywalk, slated to open at the end of March, is a potentially vertigo inducing horseshoe shaped walkway with floor and side walls made of 4 inch think glass that will jut out 70 feet over the canyon’s rim, allowing a bird’s eye view of an over 3,000 feet vertical drop below the pathway.

The Skywalk has also generated controversy. Cart quotes Robert Arnberger, former superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, “It’s the equivalent of an upscale carnival ride.” And “Why would they desecrate this place with this?” Kieran Suckling of the Arizona based Center for Biological Diversity is quoted, “What the Grand Canyon needs most is a place for quiet contemplation and recreation. The Skywalk is part of a process that is turning the canyon into a tacky commercial playground.”

It’s hard to know exactly what the Skywalk will look like until it is actually in place, but from all the artist’s renditions and plans, it’s actually an elegant looking structure, and one likely to offer visitors a unique vantage on the Canyon, and perhaps a new appreciation as well. The Grand Canyon is such a special place that it’s right to worry about its being turned into a tacky tourist trap or being desecrated, but it’s hard to see how the Skywalk as it is designed would constitute such desecration. At the very least, and as the tribe points out, their Skywalk (at least as currently envisioned) represents a less obtrusive presence at the Canyon’s rim than the much larger scale economic development at the main National Park site, with its 4.5 million visitors per year.

More importantly, if anyone has a right to determine and pursue their own economic interests at the Grand Canyon, it is the Hualapai, the people whose ancestors have lived there for centuries. Arnberger, Suckling, and others don’t have to like this, but at least at the moment, it does seem that in this instance they will have to deal with it. Arnberger at least seems to recognize this: He’s also quoted as saying, “They [the Hualapai] say the Grand Canyon is theirs to do with however they please. Under law, it’s hard to argue that proposition. But obviously the lure of dollars for the tribal treasury is greater than the obligation to manage the Grand Canyon for its cultural and historic values.”

It’s hard to see, though, how the Skywalk, if it represents a “desecration” (which at this point I don’t see), is more a desecration of the Canyon than any of the other development that doesn’t directly benefit a Native American community. The fact that a Native American community would recognize a need for their own economic development (again – 50% unemployment and problems with alcoholism) and do something about it for themselves is here turned against them. The attempt to determine their own destiny in an entrepreneurial fashion (which would seem like living the American Dream in most other contexts) is here presented as failing to manage cultural and historic values and greedy money grubbing.

The land they’re developing is theirs to do with as they please. The Hualapai have chosen an elegant design for this project which will enhance the experience of the canyon for many visitors. (This doesn’t preclude adding on all sorts of tacky tourist trap stuff, and if they do, I won’t like it, but I’ll also just have to deal with it.) Finally, the Hualapai have recognized their own economic needs, and with the Grand Canyon Skywalk, they’re taking positive steps to try to meet those needs for themselves – something that normally is applauded in America. In short, this a controversy where there shouldn’t be one.