In a March 2015 Smithsonian magazine article titled, Grand Canyon on the Edge, the author, David Roberts, explores the conflict of commercial development on the Navajo Reservation near the Grand Canyon. As one begins to read it is apparent that the story being told is a familiar one. Mainstream America designates which parcel of land remains in the hands of the indigenous population only to later realize that piece of land has economic value and seeks a way to alter the previous land deal. A casual observer of American history knows this was the pattern throughout the 18th century. However, given how little land is designated to Native Americans today it is surprising that this pattern occasionally persists. (Present day map of Native American Reservations http://www.nps.gov/nagpra/DOCUMENTS/ResMAP.HTM)

To be fair there are valid arguments for and against commercial development. Principally, development furthers tourist access to a site in high demand while bringing economic opportunities to a population struggling with poverty, however this development will happen upon ground considered sacred by the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni. Further, this is not simply a story of Whites versus Natives because the Native population is divided on this issue as well. For example, the author of the article introduces the reader to a Navajo supporter of the project named “…Brian Kensley, manager for the Bodaway-Gap chapter, a tribal unit whose land covers the site of the proposed development.”[i] Of further importance, is the fact that Bodaway-Gap is one of the poorest tribal units on the Navajo reservation.

The most striking line of the article was a quote by Kensley, “What’s so sacred about a place that leaves people in poverty?”[ii]

The first time I read the statement it seemed so simple, if there is a viable plan to raise people out of poverty pursue it. The second time I read it I thought why is the land not sacred to Kensley. The third time I read it I thought that both sides should seek compromise, perhaps by building the development a little further from the proposed site. I intended to write more extensively about the process of consensus building for this posting but as I began the writing process the line pushed me in a new direction.

The line would be more accurate if stated as, what’s so sacred about a place that leaves people in economic poverty, because for the natives who sense tradition, history, and religion upon the grounds of the proposed site they are emotionally, culturally, and spiritually wealthy. These sorts of wealth do not feed, cloth, or shelter a person but they appear essential to overall well-being. Consider the axiom, “Money can’t buy happiness.” Economic stability certainly plays an important role in nourishing a life, but it cannot secure all aspects of a life well lived.

Which means the discussion over development needs to be reframed. It is not a matter of which side prevails, people need both economic stability and a sense of connection to history, spirituality, and a shared culture. The discussion must be how to secure both. This means compromise and perhaps uncomfortable concessions but inherit in such a discussion is a very clear acknowledgement of the right of both sides to exist. This might seem a subtle shift, but in the original framing of the discussion the concept that each side must win to survive virtually eliminates the possibility of finding common ground.

Finally, it appears I arrived at a concept of consensus building after all, not wholly surprising, it has the power to help a community move beyond entrenchment and long standing bitterness. But it cannot be explored as a tool until all entities involved believe they are engaging in the decision making process as oppose to fighting for survival . It is not simply enough to debate one another on controversial topics, attention must be paid to the manner in which the discussion is crafted.

[i] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/who-can-save-the-grand-canyon-180954329/

[ii] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/who-can-save-the-grand-canyon-180954329/

Featured image: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/who-can-save-the-grand-canyon-180954329/

 

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