The Grand Chasm

Once upon a time, a globetrotting businessman and an Indian tribe decided to build the world’s most spectacular bridge to nowhere. They did not live happily ever after.

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I’m standing on the Las Vegas side of the Grand Canyon with a Hualapai man. He’s wearing a feather on his head, and has a black mullet and reddish-brown skin. An endless stream of Chinese-speaking tourists approaches. One after the next, they ask him to pose for photos with them, handing me their cameras, nodding graciously and smiling as I snap the shots that fulfill their visions of the American Southwest—stone-faced Indian, Grand Canyon, clear blue sky. A chestnut of a story, a bucket-list photo. Afterward, they wander back to the picnic tables at the Grand Canyon Skywalk and eat barbecue and corn on the cob.

In between shots, Wilfred Whatoname Jr. and I walk uncomfortably close to the edge of a fatal drop. He is sure-footed, and keeps leaning down to pick up red clay rocks, which he says represent the blood of his people. He examines them, one after another, and drops them. He’s trying to tell me the story of his tribe, which is also a chestnut: Outsiders exploit the reservation for cash, screw over the Native Americans. It’s a biased narrative always undermined by the question of the tribe’s business acumen and their competence in stewarding one of the world’s greatest wonders, and Whatoname Jr. knows it. He’s not the anachronistic naïf the tourists’ photos reflect. Finally, he finds a rock he likes—palm-size, flat—and pulls out a black Sharpie to draw on it. He sketches some kind of symbolic picture of a moon and a hand and a swirly path, and gives it to me.

“I do this for all the media,” he says. “A souvenir.”

Whatoname is the Hualapai representative for the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a massive half-finished commercial development on a once-pristine stretch off the northwest rim. He’s got mixed feelings about his role as a cultural representative for the Las Vegas entrepreneur who is now embroiled in a lawsuit with his tribe, the way that money and minor fame have a way of allowing mixed feelings about ethical travesties. Not least of his quandaries is that his father, Wilfred Whatoname Sr., was until recently the tribal chairman. And almost every day, when he’s wandering the grounds of the tourist attraction wearing his feathers, Whatoname Jr. stops at a large pine carving of his deceased uncle—“a spiritual man, not a medicine man, he had a problem with alcohol”—who was instrumental in advocating for the Skywalk project and says to him in Hualapai, “What have we done? What have we done?”

• • •

The Grand Canyon Skywalk is a $30 million, glass-bottomed, horseshoe-shaped footbridge that extends 70 feet over the edge of the canyon, allowing tourists to walk on glass and look down at the canyon floor some 4,000 feet below. Located between Hoover Dam and Kingman, Ariz., about 2½ hours south of Las Vegas off U.S. 93, the Skywalk was the brainchild of Las Vegas entrepreneur David Jin, who negotiated with the Hualapai to develop the project on their land 15 years ago. The terms of the deal are the subject of a lawsuit filed by Jin in federal and tribal court earlier this spring. Jin and the tribe are battling over who was supposed to finish what parts of the project. They’re also fighting over millions of dollars in real and potential revenue.

Jin alleges the tribe has not paid him anything since the opening, and wants to see the tribe’s accounting—he alleges he is owed his cut of the profits on his multimillion-dollar investment. The tribe alleges Jin didn’t finish promised parts of the project.

In addition to the footbridge, initial plans for the site included a visitor center, a high-end restaurant, a museum, movie theater and a resort. And while none of that except the footbridge was completed, the Skywalk nevertheless opened in 2007 to international fanfare. It’s an engineering marvel—designed to withstand a magnitude 8.0 earthquake and hold the equivalent of 71 loaded Boeing 747 airplanes. Since its opening, the Skywalk has had 1.4 million visitors, according to employees at the attraction. Admission is $75, plus taxes—about $40 of that is a“legacy fee” that goes to the tribe.

For Jin, a businessman originally from Shanghai, the Skywalk was a project long in the works. He first began working with the Hualapai in the early 1990s to increase and improve helicopter and river-rafting tourist operations. In 1996, he pitched the idea of a glass-bottom bridge and touted his ability to bring Asian tourists. By 2004, Jin had agreed to sink $30 million into the project.

It seemed like a sound bet. He’d built a career bringing Chinese tourists to the American Southwest, tapping a plentiful market. The Grand Canyon is high on the list of Chinese travelers’ U.S. destinations, up there with the White House and Statue of Liberty, so a Vegas-to-Grand Canyon operation was a rich idea. Jin owns travel companies Y-Travel and Grand Canyon West Express, and when Nevada opened its first tourism office in China in 2004, he was a member of the initial delegation that went to China for a nine-day meet-and-greet mission.

So the Skywalk was built. But somewhere in the negotiations between the Hualapai and Jin during the construction years, some key elements were not built—namely, the infrastructure.

There’s no electricity—so the whole thing is run on generators. There’s no permanent water supply—it’s being brought in by trucks. The visitor center, which Whatoname Jr. said was supposed to be a not-so-invasive one-story building in front of the Skywalk, is a view-blocking, three-story, unfinished hull, still scattered with construction scaffolding that tourists line up around as they snake their way onto the bridge. And most noticeably, the only road to the Grand Canyon Skywalk is still unpaved. For a stretch of 10 miles, tourists must rattle along a rocky dirt road to access the attraction.

Jin says the tribe was supposed to build the infrastructure. The tribe says Jin was responsible for finishing the visitor center and some infrastructure. This spring, Jin filed suit in federal court to recover his portion of the revenue. The suit was bumped to tribal court and then, on Aug. 3, back to federal court, and has not yet been decided.

The tribe responded by threatening to impose eminent domain if Jin doesn’t drop the suit, which would effectively mean seizing the Skywalk as its own because it lies on the Hualapai reservation. If the tribe does that, though, it risks ruining any future deals with other developers, who would likely view the Hualapai as unwilling to operate according to accepted business standards off the reservation.

Although Jin is not speaking publicly on the matter and has hired a PR firm to address inquiries, he wrote in an April 11 letter to the Hualapai people, “Like you, I come from a culture where honor is the most valuable thing we have and the one thing no one can ever take away from you. My Chinese ancestry compels me to keep my promise to the tribal members, and I am determined to make the Skywalk a shining symbol of freedom and faith.”

Three days after Jin sent his letter to the Hualapai people, Whatoname Sr., who was then the Hualapai Tribal Council chairman, drafted his own letter. He disputes all of Jin’s claims—that the tribe didn’t hold up its end of the deal, that Jin is owed money—and says the tribe will fight. To him, this is about more than a business contract. It’s about defending one’s culture against encroaching cultures, controlling exactly which part of your story is doled out, and to whom.

Whatoname Sr. wrote in part:

“Our people—and tourists across the globe—deserve better. Unfortunately, Jin is using the worst scare tactics that are untrue and offensive. His reckless allegations are designed to divide our community, using fear to stifle open, honest dialogue. We will not let his blatant disregard of decency stop the progress of our people. Our community is filled with proud, hard-working families who value the rich history and legacy of the Hualapai Tribe. Many of our members played an integral role in the Skywalk’s creation and success.” As the conflict intensifies, one has to wonder whether Jin, like Whatoname Jr., is asking, What have we done? Not only does he stand to lose his $30 million investment and future revenue should the tribe decide to seize the attraction and refuse arbitration, but he’s embroiled in a public-relations nightmare. The conflict has become a spin challenge for both sides, played out in media from the Kingman Daily Miner to The New York Times.

Jin’s spokeswoman, Aimee Romero, says the tribe is “deliberately trying to sully his reputation and spread lies about the nature of the dispute” and sums up her client’s story as an unbelievable absence of justice. Jin, she says, “is at risk of losing everything because a government a few miles away from Las Vegas wants to seize his multimillion-dollar project. This same government has declared sovereignty from any court, even their own, so that this Las Vegas man has no recourse.” She decries the tribal leadership as “a lawless, archaic government” intent on “seizing … a U.S. citizen’s property.” Meanwhile, internal documents from the tribe’s PR team, Scutari & Cieslak, call Jin “Arizona’s version of Leona Helmsley and Bernie Madoff, leaving uninhabitable buildings in his wake and ignoring the pleas of those who trusted him.”

“This is about right and wrong,” says publicist David Cieslak. “The contract is as clear and simple as it can be. Our feeling now is that [Jin’s] lawsuits failed, and the next step needs to be for Mr. Jin to stop his barrage of disparagement against the Hualapai tribe. … It is patently false [that the tribe didn’t show the accounting]. David Jin was in charge of the accounting from 2007 to 2010. They continue to try to sell that story.”

• • •

The infrastructure debacle and legal tangles don’t seem to have stopped the tourist frenzy. On any given day, dozens of coach buses packed with tourists from Las Vegas race down the dirt road, the drivers well-acquainted with the rocks and turns. Helicopters, also full of tourists, buzz in and out of a dedicated airfield like taxis at a casino. There’s a full parking lot outside the guard-booth entryway, next to a gift shop that is stocked with Southwestern-looking tchotchkes—many of which are made in China.

The enterprise is wrought with irony beyond that: Tourists come from around the world to see one of nature’s greatest creations at a site where it’s been altered by construction—and then they find that the construction was never properly completed.

But they can buy souvenirs and take photos nonetheless. Tourism—the economic engine of much of this stretch of the Southwest, from Las Vegas to Hoover Dam to the Grand Canyon—is based less on selling exploration and cultural understanding, and more on fulfilling the story people already have in their heads: In Las Vegas, I will get photos of my drunken self with strippers and craps tables; at the Grand Canyon, I will get photos of myself hanging over an awesome Southwestern landscape on a reservation, and maybe a shot with a real live Indian.

Marketing the idea of another culture goes a long way—perhaps especially for Native Americans, the film- and story-lore of whom far exceeds their international presence. Last year, Whatoname Jr. was representing Jin’s company, Grand Canyon Skywalk LLC, in London at a tourist-attraction marketing expo. He was on a subway wearing his eagle feather when a man approached him and said, “Grand Canyon, right? I’ve met you before!”

“I couldn’t believe it,” Whatoname Jr. says. “I guess I’m the only one [Native American] they’ve ever seen.” It was a heady moment for a guy who grew up in Seligman, Ariz., a town of about 600 people about an hour east of the Skywalk. Before the Skywalk project, Whatoname Jr. once worked for the Hualapai tribal police and routinely patrolled the areas around western offshoots of the Grand Canyon near the Hualapai’s tribal capital, the tiny Route 66 town of Peach Springs. Here, like the rest of the reservation, the population is plagued with alcoholism and obesity, and the per capita income is $6,756, according to the 2000 Census. Whatoname Jr. soon became a tribal conservation officer and would drive alone into the vast natural beauty of the plateaus approaching the Grand Canyon, sit by himself and look out over the rim. The tribe named a particular rock formation here Eagle Point and believe it is a sacred spot, a place where one convenes with higher powers.

Today, Eagle Point faces the Skywalk. It’s directly across a narrow split of the Grand Canyon from the footbridge and unfinished visitor center. When Whatoname Jr. is on the glass bridge doing his PR job, he often points it out to tourists, who look at the rock formation and nod and then ask if they can take a picture of him.

Sometimes he can persuade a group of tourists, many of whom don’t understand English (or Hualapai) to follow him across the parking lot to another gift shop, where he shows them a mural that depicts the Hualapai creation story on the inside wall behind souvenir carvings and baskets. The first panel depicts an ancient time of prosperity—Hualapai descendants were here in 600 A.D. The next few panels show what Whatoname Jr. calls “a time of struggle when people just come and try to take resources” illustrated by images of a cavalry in uniform, skulls and Jesuits.

The final panel depicts a fantasy about the future. In it, Hualapai men and women look up to a beautiful sun, which Whatoname Jr. says means life someday will be good, and the children will be prosperous. Someday.

After Whatoname Jr. has shown tourists the creation mural on any given workday, he’ll lead them back to their bus, pose for a few more pictures, and stop at the carving of his uncle Ron, who as a Hualapai leader was instrumental in sealing the deal for the Skywalk development. What have we done? He remembers what Ron told him about the decision to develop—it was to fulfill the vision of that mural, he says, to make a better life for his children and their children. So that they could have money and build schools and have nice homes and lead fruitful lives.

“Now I’ve met movie stars,” the boy from Seligman says. Dennis Hopper. Zach Galifianakis. Robert Downey Jr. He walks me out to a cliff at Guano Point, near the picnic area where tourists nibble corn on the cob, and points to a breathtaking ledge of the Grand Canyon. “That’s where they filmed that scene [in Due Date] where Robert Downey and Zach Galifianakis dumped his father’s ashes.”

After work, on weekends, Whatoname Jr. sometimes drives his kids to Las Vegas to go shopping with the money he’s earned selling nature and lore to tourists worldwide. “My daughter wants to buy $160 shoes,” he says. The shoes are made in China. The money comes full circle again, and three different expectation stories are fulfilled: The tourist flies to Vegas, pays to ride out to the Skywalk, buys souvenirs made in his own country, and gets a picture with an Indian. The Hualapai man gets some money and raises his standard of living to compete with the culture of the white people who have consistently raided his resources to make money for themselves. And his children live the American capitalist dream of buying stuff made by other exploited people who work at lower wages, feeding the money back into the cycle. One of the children of those exploited workers may emigrate to the U.S. and start his own tourism business.

• • •

Everyone reacts differently to their first steps onto the glass Skywalk. Some succumb to their fear of heights and turn back immediately. Others cling to the rail and squat, gingerly tapping their toes onto the glass to test its stability. Many just walk slowly out there, holding their hands out for balance, as the sensation of having no floor between you and the canyon base thousands of feet below is dizzying. After a while, those who make it out get more comfortable, and some lay down on the glass to have the staff photographer take a photo of them against the canyon below, so that they look like they’re floating. You are not allowed to take your own camera or other personal items out there—because people do stupid things at tourist attractions, as is apparent by the cowboy hat nestled in a bush several hundred feet down the canyon wall, and the British flag tangled in some bushes beyond that.

Plus, if you took your own photo, it’d be free, and how’s that going to pay for the electricity in the gift shop? More importantly, though, it’s the paid photographer who knows best what this should look like. It’s the professional maker of stories who can best fulfill the expectations sold to you of floating above one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World with a real Indian by your side, and frame it in a cardboard folder and charge you upward of $20 for it. Inside that cardboard frame with every photo is this inscription, signed by David Jin:

This was a dream. Just like an eagle can fly into the Grand Canyon, my vision was to enable visitors to walk the path of the eagle, and become surrounded by the Grand Canyon while standing at the edge of the Glass Bridge. The Bridge gives us a chance to share the wonder of the canyon that the Hualapai Tribe has graciously offered. My dream was to find a balance between form, function and nature. Once a dream … now a reality.

Perhaps what the Grand Canyon Skywalk has become is actually several different versions of reality, born of several sets of dreams, all yet to be sorted out by the court and a few million tourists and their photographs, or by Native Americans and businesspeople, engineers, environmentalists, journalists and storytellers. It’s a battle for reality that just happens to be set on the edge of the world’s most beautiful canyon, a breathtaking, dream-like natural wonder that took more than 6 million years to form. What have we done?