SPRINGDALE — Around 60 people, comprised of Springdale business owners, county commissioners, park rangers, tribal leaders and Bureau of Indian Affairs officials, convened Tuesday evening in the conference room of the Hampton Inn & Suites, located at 1127 Zion Park Boulevard, regarding the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah’s application to transfer 174 acres of fee land into federal trust.
If the application is approved, the PITU, which currently has 892 members, would have sovereignty over this land allowing them an opportunity, they maintain, to further develop self-sufficiency. The 174 acres encompasses a few minor sections of the Virgin River, but the main acreage is situated to the east of state Route 9 in Springdale accessible by way of the trail system that branches east from the George A. Barker Springdale River Park located on Zion Park Boulevard in Springdale.
This request of land use transfer follows Springdale City’s denial of a proposed plan in 2013 when the PITU asked for a change in zoning from residential to commercial, said Pat Cluff, who was Springdale’s Mayor at the time.
Read more: Springdale denies Paiutes’ request to build Native American cultural center – June 2013
“They came to us and had hired some firm, like an advertising agency, with a very elaborate plan,” Cluff said, “one that would have increased the commercial density by 40 percent and went against every one of our ordinances.”
The City Council’s decision to deny the PITU’s proposal, Cluff said, was due to issues concerning: traffic, where there is currently only a two-lane road through Springdale; maintaining the village atmosphere and night sky; disrupting sensitive lands; and aesthetics that maintain Springdale’s character.
This is not about building a casino or a huge resort next door to Zion National Park, it’s about economic opportunities and securing a cultural presence for the Paiute people, Gaylord Robb said, economic development director for the PITU.
“This is a baby step program,” Robb said. “The Paiutes don’t have the funding for huge construction plans.”
The question of utilities arose quite frequently. Several people asked if this became a federally managed land then where would they get their water and power? Robb said they would have to purchase water from the Town of Springdale, which would give the town some leverage in proposed projects.
“If water is provided then the project can go through,” Robb said. “And if there is no water, then there will be no project.”
While there are no firm plans proposed for the building prospects, two of the main objectives for this land are to build a cultural center and museum to showcase the culture, art and history of the early Paiute people and provide an opportunity for economic development.
“We want to be able to share our beadwork and traditional crafts with the millions of tourists who visit Zion yearly,” said PITU Chairwoman Gari Lafferty.
Evidence of the thousands of years that the Paiutes inhabited Zion National Park is found in the ancient housing located about five miles down the canyon. As well as the discovery of an ancient Paiute cemetery that holds 200 gravesites, Robb said.
Lora Tom, who served as chairwoman for the PITU from 2000 to early 2009, and now currently serves as chairwoman for the Cedar Band of Paiutes, was involved with the initial discussion surrounding this piece of land that began at the turn of the 21st century. While Tom does not speak for the PITU, she said she speaks for the Paiute Band of Cedar. Acquiring this piece of land has always been backed with the intention of showcasing the historical Paiutes, she said, which is currently lacking throughout the area.
“This has been a long process. It didn’t just fall into our laps,” Tom said. “Opportunities do not come easily. This project gives us the potential to help one another. Native Americans don’t like to disturb land. We would be the first to recognize disturbance.”
After the termination of the five bands of Paiutes by the federal government in the 1950s, 25,000 acres of land was lost. Once reinstated in 1980, the federal government promised 15,000 acres to the Paiutes that they would be able to choose – though this never happened, Robb said. They only ended up with around 4,800 acres.
“If there was ever an endangered species, it was the Paiute people during the time of their termination,” Robb said.
“You don’t need to worry that we are going to rush in here and set up our homestead,” PITU Chairwoman Lafferty said. “We are really respectful of the land, appreciate the landscape and respect our neighbors.”
“The town is being asked to play ‘trust me poker,’ one that says don’t worry, we’re good,” Bill Bassett said, owner of W J Bassett Zion Canyon Auto, located at 32 Steamboat Lane in Springdale. “We might have listened a little more if it had been more than ‘trust me.’ I think we respect the Indians and the fact they have been here longer than the white man but who’s to say that the tribe isn’t going to build 4-story buildings?”
Looking into the eyes of a Native American and saying ‘trust me poker’ is a gross irony, said Logan Hebner, who founded the Bit and Spur Restaurant and Saloon in 1981, located at 1212 Zion Park Boulevard, and authored “Southern Paiute: A Portrait,” in which Hebner relates interviews with 30 Southern Paiute elders.
“To worry of commercialization when it’s already happened is another irony. Look at where this meeting is being held,” Hebner said. “Springdale has been carpet-bombed with hotels, restaurants, bars. The Paiutes could bring a new dimension to Springdale.”
“If the Paiute tribe of Utah would have come and said we want to set up residential and craft shops I think we would have worked with them,” Louise Pittit said, who was on the City Council at the time of denial. “I am still worried that they have a big resort development in the back of their minds.”
Someone in the meeting asked why the Paiutes don’t come back to the town with a more distinct plan because the town would be willing to listen, but they said no. When it all boils down to it, they don’t want to have to pay taxes, Cluff said.
“Native Americans were never supposed to pay for property taxes,” Robb said. “And the $10,000 it would cost a year would be a burden on the Paiute tribe. That land was given to the tribe free and clear.”
“The Paiutes have endured so much with termination and countless court battles over land. They’ve had a lot of hardships,” Tom said. “It’s time we look to the future and teach our young people that there is something to look forward to. We, like anyone else desire to leave a legacy.”
“This could be mutually beneficial for the Town of Springdale and the Paiute tribe,” Hebner said. “But both parties need to learn to trust each other.”
This ‘scoping meeting’ represents the initial step in the National Environmental Policy Act process intending to inform and gather public comments pertaining to this acquisition project. The Zion Development Corporation donated this land to the PITU and the deed was signed Feb. 25, 2014, according to the Washington County Recorder’s Office.
The NEPA process includes an environmental assessment to evaluate the condition of the land and whether it meets the federal standards to be placed into federal trust.
The land is located near Zion National Park in Springdale in Township 42 South, Range 10 West, Section 31 in Washington County.
Resources – Comment period open
If you were not able to attend the meeting but would like to submit a comment, send them by Aug. 14 to:BIA Southern Paiute Agency Office 180 North 200 East, Suite 111 PO Box 720 St. George, UT 84770
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