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Religious gatekeeping in Arizona's red-rock country

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Religious gatekeeping in Arizona's red-rock country

A resort capitalizes on nearby Yavapai-Apache religious site despite having no meaningful relationship with tribe

  • Enchantment Resort, near the base of Boynton Canyon in Sedona, a place of immense spiritual significance to Yavapai-Apache Nation tribal members.
    Norton Gusky/CC BY 2.0Enchantment Resort, near the base of Boynton Canyon in Sedona, a place of immense spiritual significance to Yavapai-Apache Nation tribal members.

Two years ago, when a Muskogee Creek elder and friend asked to visit a site of cultural importance to my own Yavapai-Apache people, I offered to take him to Boynton Canyon, a place of immense spiritual significance. We drove to Enchantment Resort, outside Sedona, Arizona, were let in through the entrance and drove to the back gate, where we parked in the dirt lot that visiting tribal members generally use.

Resort employees told us we couldn’t park there, however; they needed the parking spaces for a corporate retreat. They escorted our car to the resort’s clubhouse and drove us in a golf cart back to the gate into the canyon. Our escort was friendly, and eventually we were able to visit the canyon.

But my Muskogee friend expressed disbelief. This was our sacred place, he said. Why did we have to “ask permission” to visit?

Enchantment’s sprawling complex rests at the mouth of Boynton Canyon, which is on Coconino National Forest land, effectively making the resort the gatekeeper to sacred Indigenous lands. Yavapai-Apache tribal members can reach Boynton in one of two ways: Either use Boynton Canyon Trail, which winds for several rugged miles until it reaches the Apache Holy Ground just behind the resort; or take the shortcut through Enchantment, which allows tribal members an easement that provides access to the canyon.

Enchantment’s policy is to allow tribal members entry at the front gate, passage through the resort, and back-gate access to the canyon. Once you tell the attendant that you’re a tribal member, you’re allowed through, after checking in at the resort clubhouse to borrow the magnetic key to the gate. Both options present problems: The trail is too difficult for many elders; and using the shortcut forces us to ask for permission to access our own site.

In recent years, the relationship between tribes, resorts and federally controlled public lands has sparked controversy. Citizens of the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation fought for decades for the right to access and protect their sacred San Francisco Peaks from developers with the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort, which is also on Coconino National Forest land. The tribes sought to halt the use of recycled wastewater to make artificial snow on the mountain, with Hopi attorneys explaining in detail how the potential pollution would impact their ability to hunt and engage in ceremony on the peaks.

But in 2018, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled against them. Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam and New Mexico’s Cochiti Dam were built in the ’60s and early ’70s, creating two popular desert oases and recreational playgrounds, Lake Powell and Cochiti Lake, but destroying religious sites belonging to the Navajo Nation and Cochiti Pueblo. Similarly, the ongoing tug-of-war between the last three presidential administrations over Bears Ears in Utah, a place sacred to Navajo, Hopi, Ute and Zuni peoples, highlighted long-standing tensions between private landholders, ranchers, recreationists, the federal government, extractive industries and Native peoples.

Too often, tribal citizens’ ability to engage in religious and spiritual practices remains in non-Native hands. Not all Native peoples take the same approach to their sacred lands, but we share certain beliefs: that the land should be protected, that tribes should retain exclusive control, and that Indigenous beliefs and practices connected to specific landscapes must be respected. Enchantment Resort is on a much smaller scale than Lake Powell, and yet the resort, like the U.S. government, has recently been tone-deaf when it comes to our people’s relationship with our sacred lands.

For several years, Enchantment worked closely with Apache elder Bob Bear, who advised on issues of cultural importance. The partnership resulted in a 30-minute documentary by Cree filmmaker RJ Joseph titled Che Ah Chi, the Apache term for Boynton Canyon, in 2009. Back then, Joseph was Enchantment’s director of Native American Programming, a position that no longer exists. Bear and other elders were featured prominently in the documentary, and it seemed like the relationship between Enchantment and the Yavapai-Apache Nation was headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, Bear’s passing in 2014 left a void. Instead of finding another permanent point of contact, Enchantment pursued a piecemeal approach that has done real harm to the relationship.

Enchantment portrays itself as respectful — even connected — to Indigenous peoples and practices. On March 30, 2021, its Facebook page linked to a write-up in Artful Living Magazine, quoting resort owner Dana Tang, who said: “We believe strongly that the best way to experience Boynton Canyon is on foot or on the seat of a bike.” The post, and the article, seemed straightforward enough: Enchantment sits at the base of Boynton Canyon, one of the many breathtaking natural wonders of Sedona’s Red Rock Country, and the resort believes that people should experience the canyon in an immersive way.

Enchantment told Artful Living that it offered bike tours, including a “Native American Teachings Excursion that showcases traditions and practices of the Apache” and a “Native American Teachings Hike.” The resort’s website states, “Our Native American guide will take you on a beautiful 2 1/2 hour ride outside the Resort where he will share the traditions of the Apache as well as their use of plants for food and medicine and their honoring of the natural world.”

Enchantment’s “expert,” who leads the bike excursion and hike and shares Apache traditions and culture, is George Miraval, affectionately called the “Bike Chief” by his employers. Miraval is not Yavapai-Apache, though he claims Apache heritage (Mescalero and Chiricahua, two Apache groups not from the Sedona area). He has had no meaningful interaction with us, despite living in the Sedona area for over 30 years. But nobody, including Miravel, is qualified to talk about our traditions and culture unless they have a direct relationship to the nation or someone in the tribe, preferably one of our elders, who are the keepers of such knowledge.

Concerned about the ethics of this, I commented on the Facebook post, asking what Apache teachings would be shared, and if they came from local Apaches. Jim Guttau, corporate director of communications for Enchantment Group, replied, thanking me for my message and saying, “I know that George, our Native American guide, leads quite a few (of the tours).” Guttau promised to have more information soon.

On April 1, Jonathan Mattis, director of marketing and sales for Enchantment Resort and Mii amo spa, one of Enchantment’s amenities, emailed me, writing that “George is a valuable member of our Trail House team and works very closely with a consultant, who is a member of the Yvapai-Apache nation to ensure accuracy and proper representation.” (The misspelling “Yvapai-Apache” appeared in the original email.)

This surprised me, so I contacted Vincent Randall and Gertrude Smith, the directors of the tribe’s Apache and Yavapai Culture Departments, respectively. Neither knew Miraval, nor had they ever been contacted by the resort. I asked Mattis again about the consultant and what information was being taught. On April 7, Mattis repeated that the resort “works with a consultant,” but said that in order to “ensure full privacy,” he was “unable to share any further information.” My followup queries went unanswered.

In essence, it appears that Enchantment has taken it upon itself to teach its customers about our traditions and culture without consulting with our Culture Department. What’s most troubling is that Enchantment has had every opportunity to act in an ethical manner.

After Bob Bear’s death, the resort has made only fleeting efforts to re-establish a relationship with the Yavapai-Apache Nation. On occasion — when new resort buildings were unveiled, for example — Don Decker, a tribal elder, has offered prayers and blessings. And the resort has opened its gates to tribal members and even provided refreshments during our annual Exodus Day celebrations, when we commemorate our return to the Verde Valley in 1900 after 25 years of exile.

Decker, however, has expressed concern about Enchantment’s Native American programming, and the fact that it continues to conduct tours and share “Apache teachings” without properly consulting us feels like a slap in the face.

Don Decker’s son, Charles, a gifted Apache artist, has been connected to Enchantment since 2017, doing live painting demonstrations there in an unpaid position. When he sells a painting, the resort, of course, takes its cut. Enchantment also used him as an unpaid cultural consultant, asking him to greet newly arrived guests, provide orientation and translate phrases into Apache, and help secure Native American talent for the resort.

Believing that correct cultural representation is critical,  Charles Decker has provided information, consulting with elders when necessary. He was led to believe that his relationship with the resort would eventually lead to full-time employment, even a major art commission that would put authentic Yavapai-Apache artwork in the resort’s rooms and facilities. None of these opportunities have materialized, however, leaving the artist dispirited, though he still hopes Enchantment will “make good” on its ethical obligations to the Yavapai-Apache Nation.

Enchantment’s treatment of Charles Decker is emblematic of its actions toward the Yavapai-Apache Nation: offering lip service regarding its commitment to Native peoples and sacred lands, but failing to put in the work to forge — and maintain — meaningful and lasting relationships, all while financially profiting from tours and experiences that purport to share our cultural knowledge.  This is why access to Indigenous sacred sites should never be left in the hands of private developers or other non-Native entities.  

This report was first published by High Country News .

Assistant Professor of Native American and Indigenous Studies, Dartmouth College and citizen of the Yavapai-Apache Nation of Camp Verde, Arizona.

More by Maurice Crandall

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