Tribes Have Mixed Feelings About Tightrope Walker Coming to the Grand Canyon
Famed tightrope walker Nik Wallenda last made headlines in June 2012 by tightrope walking across Niagara Falls. This year, he’s headed for a remote section of the Grand Canyon on the Navajo Nation—which also happens to house a site held deeply sacred by the Hopi and other tribes.
The Discovery Channel will air the stunt live on June 23, as Wallenda tightrope walks higher than he’s ever attempted before—1,500 feet above the Little Colorado River near its confluence with the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. His walk over Niagara Falls was only 200 feet off the ground. There’s another difference: he wore a safety harness over Niagara Falls, but will not do so over the Grand Canyon. That’s allowing publicists at the Discovery Channel to advertise the stunt as a “nail-biting” event, and “one of the most daring and captivating live events in history.”
Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation officials say they welcome the event as a chance to showcase their portion of the Grand Canyon. The tribe operates two viewpoints along Highway 64, which runs west from Cameron, Arizona to the Grand Canyon’s oft-visited South Rim in Grand Canyon National Park.
“Our visitation in this part of the Canyon is very low,” said Geri Hongeva, Navajo Parks and Recreation spokeswoman. “We would like families to come visit this area someday. There’s a lot of history; there’s a lot of culture there. We don’t have the budget to reach out to 13 million viewers. This is a great opportunity for us.”
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly is also excited for the spectacle, said his spokesman, Erny Zah.
“He’s happy that Nik wants to come here,” Zah said. “There’s going to be a worldwide audience that’s going to have the ability to see what we have to offer on the Navajo Nation. Any time we can take the spotlight for a little while and showcase our land, he’s definitely excited about that.”
Not everyone is as thrilled. Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, said his biggest concern is a cultural one. The Hopi Tribe has identified the Little Colorado River Gorge as a significant clan migration route.
“The Gorge and the Canyon are not about taking lives,” he said. “They’re about life, especially the spiritual lives of our ancestral people.”
Kuwanwisiwma said when a base jumper died in the area last year due to a parachute failure, it presented a cultural burden to the Hopi people—and, he suspects, to the Navajos living nearby.
“We were told that this guy is not wanting to wear a safety harness,” Kuwanwisiwma said. “What if he does fall? It’s another cultural dilemma for the Hopi people.”
For Wallenda, 34, his boldness represents a meaningful personal conquest.
“The stakes don’t get much higher than this,” he said in a Discovery Channel press release. “The only thing that stands between me and the bottom of the canyon is a two-inch thick wire.”
Wallenda said the event will be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to walk at such a great height as well as a chance to honor his great-grandfather, the legendary Karl Wallenda, who died after falling from a tightrope in Puerto Rico in 1978.
Kuwanwisiwma said there have been other concerns about the approval process for the stunt on the Navajo side. Despite a 2006 agreement between the two tribes to honor each others’ cultural and religious sites, there wasn’t so much as notification—much less consultation—before the event was permitted.
“That didn’t make us too happy, that we had to learn about it ourselves,” he said.
Nevertheless, the permit has been granted and the date has been set. Hongeva said the Navajo Nation Park and Recreation Department will have to follow the lead of Discovery Channel security teams, and assist in keeping the public away from the actual location. Spectators will be allowed to congregate at Navajo Tribal Park near Cameron, but space will be limited. She’s advising fans to show up no later than noon to watch the 6 p.m. walk. Once Wallenda begins, he’s expected to finish in about 40 minutes.