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Church State Issues

Mixing religion and government on the Hualapai Indian reservation

May 11, 2013

Arizona Republic

Hualapai chairwoman leads through Skywalk battle

By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press Sat May 11, 2013 8:18 AM

FLAGSTAFF — The Hualapai Tribe has one of the most sought-after landscapes in the world: a slice of the Grand Canyon where tourists can raft the Colorado River, take an aerial tour and soak up American Indian culture.

What draws the majority of tourists to the canyon’s remote west rim is not nature itself but a horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that juts out from the canyon.

The Grand Canyon Skywalk also is at the center of the biggest legal battle the tribe has ever faced. Leading the tribe through the fight with a Las Vegas developer who invested $30 million to build the attraction is Sherry Counts, a talkative 55-year-old chairwoman whose personal struggles led her to God and then politics.

“We have a lot to lose here,” Counts said. “We have our business, and the most important thing is tribal nations, (we) have our sovereignty. And if we allow a businessman to come and take over our tribe, then we lose that power. And I don’t want to lose because I feel like my ancestors fought for that.”

The land to which her ancestors returned after the U.S. Calvary forcibly marched them through the mountains of western Arizona wasn’t always home for Counts.

Like many tribal members, she was sent away to boarding school and graduated from high school in California. Before returning with some hesitation, she grappled with the death of her 3-day-old daughter, the suicides of her foster father and youngest brother, along with thoughts of her own life ending as she drank and partied.

She found renewed hope in her sons and a church ministry she says guided her into politics.

“That’s what gives me comfort, that’s what gives me peace and hope about what we’re going through as Hualapai people,” she said. “I know I was placed there for a reason, and I know positive is going to come out of it.”

Just what that is, God hasn’t been so clear about, she’s says.

Counts has associate’s degrees in psychology and social work, and has worked as a substance abuse counselor and coordinator on the reservation. She’s taking classes online to earn a bachelor’s degree in management.

Counts first secured a Tribal Council seat in 2000, hoping to give tribal members a greater voice in government. She was serving as vice chairwoman in 2007 when the Skywalk opened and praised the developer, David Jin, as a visionary. Tourists swarmed the reservation, forcing the tribe to scramble for more cash registers to take the money coming in.

When Counts left elected office in 2008 after unsuccessfully running for the chairwoman’s post, the disagreements over money from the Skywalk already were percolating. She stepped back into campaigning last year after council members had been suspended, arrested and recalled, though not all of that was due to the Skywalk dispute. Some have appealed.

Her campaign promises were simple: to be honest and treat people fairly.

Dominique Yaramata has become close friends with Counts over the past 12 years. The cousins were taking a college math class together that Counts struggled with but eventually passed. Her determination, promotion of education on the Hualapai reservation, spirituality and interaction with tribal members impressed the 33-year-old Yaramata.

“It’s not an authoritative thing where ‘I’m the boss and you listen to me,’” she said. “They’re still human beings and she just talks to them as a friend instead of trying to intimidate. I think that’s really worked well.”

Her faith hardly goes unnoticed.

“Chairwoman Counts has a very deep, spiritual, religious base from which she works,” said Diane Enos, president of the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community in Arizona. “She has given her life now to her community and trying to make things work better for them.”

This year, Counts became the subject of a recall petition that wasn’t submitted because it lacked enough signatures. It alleged that her actions as chairwoman could compromise the tribe’s sovereign immunity, that she wasted tribal money on legal fees and that she’s misrepresented the success of the Skywalk since the tribe took over sole management.

Robert Bravo Jr., who once served as interim chief executive of the tribal business now running the Skywalk, said the current leadership hasn’t been upfront about visitation and revenue, and hasn’t done enough to bolster the Skywalk’s image in light of the ongoing litigation.

“What are they doing to mitigate all the negativity? What are they doing positive to tell the people to come out and visit us?” he said. “Nothing. I haven’t seen anything at all. To me, that’s a huge concern as a tribal member.”

The way Counts see it is that opinions will fly regardless of what she says or does. Of the Skywalk operation, she said the tribe is “OK, we’re managing, considering,” but acknowledged the public’s perception isn’t wholly positive because of the infighting in the council that has created factions and divided community members, and the legal battle with Jin.

The tribe is steadfast in its belief that had Jin finished a visitor center, the two sides wouldn’t be locked in a dispute over the Skywalk contract. Jin contends the work wasn’t done because the tribe never ran utilities to the building and says he’s owed years of management fees.

The tribe enforced eminent domain over the contract, essentially writing Jin out of his management role last year.

An arbitrator later awarded Jin more than $28 million in the contract dispute, but the judgment is being appealed by the tribal business that was running the Skywalk but that has declared bankruptcy. Most recently, Jin filed a defamation suit against Counts, the tribe’s public relations firm and other tribal members saying they have sullied his reputation.

Dave Cieslak, one of the non-tribal defendants who also is a tribe spokesman, called it frivolous and a charade.

Had she been chairwoman when the contract dispute erupted, Counts said she believes she could have talked through it with Jin and resolved it without getting the courts involved. But that’s not the circumstance she encountered and she’s vowed to stand legal ground.

“I’ll fight. I’m going to stand here and fight ‘til the end,” she said. “If my ship goes down, I’m going to be right there with it. But I don’t believe that’s going to happen … Every business goes through some negatives, but it only serves to make you stronger. And you have to believe in what you’re doing, and I believe.”