The Hualapai Tribe owns a remote corner of the Grand Canyon in northwestern Arizona known as Grand Canyon West. It partnered with Las Vegas entrepreneur David Jin about three years ago to build a $40 million dollar glass and steel observation deck that extends 70 feet past the rim of the great Grand Canyon.
Tribal members held a private ceremony Monday to ask their ancestors for permission to use the land in this way. Members of the tribe and workers then trod onto the
cantilevered bridge a day before the media descended on their community.
Many on Tuesday expressed that they had mixed emotions about building a commercial structure onto the canyon.This is sacred land to the Hualapai tribe. Others saw it as a vision of hope for the future of the impoverished tribe.
“A lot of people are asking, ‘Is it good for the tribe?’ ” said Wilfred Whatoname Jr., a tour guide at the Canyon. “The thing is, it’s here, and it will impact our lives regardless of how we feel about it.”
Don Havatone, another guide, said the tribe has no choice now but to embrace the development.
“We are disturbing our sacred ground,” he said. “It was hard for me to accept at one time, but today I accept it as it goes up.”
The tribe partnered with Las Vegas entrepreneur David Jin three years ago to build the glass-and-steel observation deck. The goal: to attract more tourists to boost the tribal economy.
Jin secured $40 million to cover the costs, which exceeded the original budget by $10 million, and the tribe offered its land. They will share revenue for the next 25 years.
Tourists ultimately will decide if the gamble was worth it. The tribe will include access to the deck in a variety of tour packages ranging from $49.95 to $199.
Tribal leaders expect the Skywalk to become the centerpiece of their Grand Canyon West tourism venture, which offers replicas of Indian villages and tours by air and ground along the roughly 100-mile swath of canyon controlled by the tribe.
Tribal Chairman Charles Vaughn addressed objections by some tribal members who see the structure as an affront to the canyon’s natural beauty.
Vaughn said he considers himself “a traditionalist,” but he had to consider what the Skywalk could mean for his impoverished tribe. “The benefit far outweighs the concerns I have for the environment.”
After the tribal elders’ ceremonial first walk on Monday, the attraction was opened to the media and invited guests on Tuesday. One thousand people spilled into this remote corner of Arizona for Tuesday’s VIP opening of the highly anticipated Skywalk. The glass-bottomed walkway juts 70 feet out into the thin air over the Grand Canyon.
They came from London, China, Germany and beyond to tread across the glass observation deck that has captured the imagination of travelers everywhere.
Many were journalists recording the sensation of being suspended 4,000 feet above the Grand Canyon floor. What they saw was layer upon layer of rock formations below, winding their way to the bottom of the abyss. Looking ahead over the glass walls, they saw a calm river to the left and a rock formation that resembles an eagle to the right.
During Tuesday’s ceremonies, they dedicated a man-made structure bolted to the walls of a natural wonder. The horseshoe-shaped deck is secured with 46-foot anchors drilled into the limestone rim to hold it in place. It is equipped with shock absorbers to keep it from bouncing like a diving board.
At that height, the wall is made of 350 million-year-old limestone – porous material that is highly prone to erosion. Some critics of the project say the expected lifespan of the attraction is only 15 to 20 years. Millions of years of erosion, of course, is what have created the unspoiled beauty of the Grand Canyon.
There were ice sculptures, buffet lines, tribal regalia, ceremonial dancing, and Indian fry bread to celebrate the event.
Tribal elder and World War II veteran Emmet Bender opened Tuesday’s ceremony with a blessing and a song as tribal members danced in front of the salmon-colored structure.
A group of Hualapai children in traditional dress escorted Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the first man to walk on the moon, up the steps of the Skywalk.
John Bennett Herrington, the first Native American in space, stood at the other end of the Skywalk to take the ceremonial “first walk.”
The crowd cheered as Aldrin slipped protective covers over his feet to keep from scratching the glass and stepped onto the 3-inch-thick glass panes. Hualapai Chairman Charlie Vaughn, developer David Jin and other VIPs joined him.
Moments later, Aldrin waved to the crowd and stomped his boots on the glass as he marched out onto the U-shaped deck. A group of tribal leaders walked toward him from the other side of the structure, led by space shuttle mission specialist John Harrington, a member of the Chickasaw tribe.
When the two astronauts met in the middle, they smiled and shook hands.
After the ceremonial first walk, the attraction was opened to the media and
invited guests. Arizona State Representative Nancy McLain and Arizona State Senator Albert Hale were among the first people in line. By day’s end, hundreds of people had taken the walk out over the cliff’s edge.
To provide traction and prevent the glass from being scratched, visitors
wore cloth booties over their shoes. They were hustled on and off by security every few minutes to keep the line moving.
A few people reclined on the glass to have their pictures taken. Others stared down at the backs of raptors that circled hundreds of feet below them as the Skywalk gently rocked beneath their feet.
The attraction will open to the public on March 28, 2008. It is located at Eagle Point, 120 miles east of Las Vegas.