A Tribe on the Threshold

Haunted by drugs, alcohol and unemployment, the Hualapai Indians look for a savior in uranium

EDGAR WALEMA IS probably the most controversial member of the Hualapai tribal government. A onetime drill sergeant, the lanky, rawboned vice chairman looks like a guy you'd want on your side in a brawl. He's outspoken--and bullheaded--about the direction he wants his tribe to take. That direction involves change, an active solicitation of business, an embrace of modern American life--all things that make traditional tribal members nervous.

"When I got out of the Army in '77," Walema says, "the attitude here was, `If it was good enough for my grandfather, then it's good enough for me.' It's still like that in a lot of ways. We take so long to negotiate that some people just leave shaking their heads."

Phoenix businessman and amateur astronomer Tom Kelly, for instance, announced plans last January for a "scientific Disneyland"--a hotel and astronomy complex which would be built on the east side of the reservation and which would include telescopes in every hotel room. But Kelly's negotiations with the Hualapai seem to have stalled, as they have with Phoenix developer Ron Whitten, who has proposed a 120-room hotel and a Hualapai museum.

It is no coincidence that Walema--a former tribal chairman--was the driving force behind one of the few projects ever to get off the ground. Grand Canyon West, a tourist attraction which opened in February 1987, is on the reservation's west end and includes stunning views and hikes from the Canyon's South Rim. The tribe undertook the joint venture with a white-owned Las Vegas tour company. Grand Canyon West has been a moneymaker so far, although it only employs about a dozen Hualapai, depending on the season. As of October 1, the Hualapai share in this year's proceeds from Grand Canyon West--one third of the gross--was $81,415. That money goes into the tribe's general budget, which for fiscal 1989 was just $702,445.

"Our community was dead-set against Grand Canyon West at first," says Walema, who was raised on the reservation near a remote outpost called Frazier's Well. "The same thing goes with that observatory"--he refers to Kelly's proposed hotel--"and with that uranium mine."

The uranium project has been on and off the tribe's agenda since 1979, when the Hualapai leaders first inquired about opening the reservation to mining. Since then, the tribe has sought advice on the uranium question from the U.S. Geological Survey and from the Council of Energy Resource Tribes--a nationwide Indian-run organization.

In 1986, the Hualapai finally started to solicit offers from mining firms. On the surface, it would have seemed a strange time to ask for bids. The uranium market had collapsed in the early Eighties, with the selling price only about one third of what it was a decade earlier.

But Denver-based Energy Fuels Corporation found a way around the slump in the form of breccia pipes, a geological oddity that holds uranium five to seven times more concentrated than anywhere else in the U.S. Even mainstream environmentalists agree that the way Energy Fuels mines its uranium is not nearly as messy--nor as overtly dangerous--as the unforgivable stripping of the Four Corners area about three decades ago. The firm processes all its ore at a plant in Utah. By agreement with the Hualapai, it will not build a mill on the tribe's reservation.

Edgar Walema sidesteps objections based on uranium's potential health hazards with a brusque, "I know that." He continues, "We don't have any money to do anything. Over the years, we've had people like [indicted Navajo tribal chairman] Peter MacDonald--a lot of misappropriation of money. But we're so small no one made a big deal out of it. Now, we're pretty honest, and we're still broke."

His sentiments are echoed by Carrie Bender, a diminutive 38-year-old mother of three who has headed the tribe since her election to the chairmanship in June 1988. Bender says she voted for the uranium project for a simple reason.

"The uranium would bring revenues to our little tribe," Bender says. "We could hire a tribal administrator, provide our own gas station, all kinds of things. It would mean employment when we have hardly any. Jobs! We have to do something."

A relentlessly upbeat person by nature, Bender prefers to think of the good the uranium mine may bring, although she is aware of its problems. "I have a gut feeling that it's not good, that it's scary, but there's more to it than that," she says. "You hear about these radiation exposures--incidents. You wonder about side effects, about the water, the wildlife." But, she says to console herself, "Everything in life is a risk." Bender was widowed earlier this year and says her loss has caused her to reflect about herself and her tribe.

"I've seen a lot of sorrow, misery, pain--we all have," she says matter-of-factly. "Sometimes I have to pep-talk myself. I didn't know my mom 'til I was eighteen. I remember waiting for people outside the bars as a girl, just crying. Then when I got old enough, I started falling into the same behavior. When I had my kids, though, I told myself, `No way. I'm gonna break out of this circle, this cycle. I'm not going to be like them.' And I'm not."

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