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As more businesses reopen across the Navajo Nation, Michelle Monroe is wondering when her family’s business will finally get the green light.

Monroe’s family operates Ken’s Tours, a tour guide company near Page that takes tourists into Lower Antelope Canyon on the western part of the Navajo Nation.

“We haven’t been given a date to reopen yet, but we are hopeful and optimistic that it’s going to be pretty soon,” she said. “We want to open, we’re ready to open.”

Monroe is CEO of Western Circle Group, a company owned and operated by her parents, Kenneth and Emily Young. The company houses several businesses including Ken’s Tours, Young Estates, Rimview Terrace, Fitness Odyssey, KEY Ranch, Bitahni Boutique and Rodeo 98. 

Ken’s Tours and KEY Ranch operate on the Navajo Nation, and they have been closed because of COVID-19 restrictions since March 2020.  

Throughout the pandemic, businesses on the Navajo Nation faced not only economic hardships but some of the strictest COVID-19 restrictions in the country.

Over a year ago, the Navajo Nation Department of Health issued a public health order that shut down businesses to contain the spread of COVID-19.

The order put limits on essential businesses like grocery stores and gas stations but completely shut down all nonessential businesses like flea markets, food vendors and tour companies.

Businesses had to rely on updated orders from the health department to determine their next moves.

It wasn’t until March that Navajo officials started to move on reopening plans. Now, with the Navajo Nation in the yellow phase of reopening, more businesses have been allowed to open up again — except for gyms, recreation facilities, movie theaters, tribal parks and recreation areas.

Expecting a ‘banner year’

The Navajo Nation is home to many beautiful landscapes, but some of the most notable, like Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon, are only accessible through the Navajo Nation Department of Parks and Recreation.

The landmarks draw thousands of visitors a year, but the only way most people can see them is through tour companies established on the Navajo Nation.

With no clear path for the reopening of tribal parks, monuments and recreation areas, Ken’s Tours, like many tourism-related companies, has been left in limbo.

“Tribal Parks will remain closed to all visitors and tourists,” the parks department stated in a press release. 

Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon, where Ken’s Tours operates, was included in the list of parks remaining closed.

Ken’s Tours located at Lower Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona. (Photo: Courtesy of Ken’s Tours)

The Navajo Nation Council backed a bill to fully reopen parks and recreation areas. The council voted 23-0 in favor of the measure at a special session on June 3.

Despite that council support, reopening all the locations is not a done deal.

“Navajo Parks and Recreation Department cannot unilaterally reopen tribal parks without approval from the Navajo Department of Health and the Office of the President and Vice President regardless of the council’s action. If the president approves the legislation the tribal parks would reopen the next day,” Department Manager Martin Begaye, said in a statement to the Farmington Daily Times.

The bill reached the desk of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez this week, and he has until June 18 to veto or sign the bill.

Monroe said they’ve been ready to reopen for months, constantly adjusting their COVID-19 safety plan to meet the guidelines put in place, but they’re still closed.

Ken’s Tours has been in operation since 1997, and the last time they were completely shut down was when there was a flash flood in lower Antelope Canyon. 

Monroe said their business has only been growing over the years, and the family has always made adjustments to meet the needs of the tours.

They were once leading 4,000 people a day through the canyon, but when that became too much and unrealistic for tour guides, they cut the number in half. That made for a better experience for tourists and tour guides, Monroe said. 

Monroe said 2020 would have been their “banner year” and they were excited to open for the season, assembling a full staff to prepare.

“These canyons and the (tour) companies have become a place where people want to work because it’s fun,” she added. “We really pride ourselves on the training that we provide our staff.”

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The company spends two weeks training staff members in their areas of expertise. Ken’s Tours also offers a coffee shop, cafe and gift shop alongside the canyon tours.

“We had 120 people hired, trained onboard and ready to go,” Monroe said, but by March 2020 they were shut down.

Without knowing when they’d reopen, Monroe said the business had to refund all the booked tours.

“A lot of money was lost through that process,” Monroe said because they ended up refunding the tour reservation and the fees associated with the booking. “We were paying double fees because we were refunding everybody.”

As more time passed, the coffee shop and cafe ended up losing all their inventory, which resulted in more revenue loss for the company.

Once it became clear they were not going to be able to open anytime soon, Monroe said they had to decide what the best next steps would be as a company. They were forced to lay off everyone who was not a full-time, year-round employee.

“We kept all of our managers and all of our regular full-time, year-round people,” Monroe said, but that cut the staff down to nearly half.

“We had no idea how long it was going to last,” she said, and they had no idea how much the closure was going to affect the company in the long run.

The staff who stayed could do projects around Ken’s Tours and keep the building up to code, but that plan only lasted a few weeks. 

When the Navajo Nation Department of Health reissued the stay-at-home order in November 2020, Monroe said that changed everything.

“That kind of quashed our plan to keep people employed and we then had to let the rest of them go,” she added.

They were able to keep a lot of their employees on throughout the summer, but by November, Monroe said they had to reevaluate the situation because they still wanted to have enough resources to reopen when they were allowed. They kept only their general manager.

“It was the hardest thing because I knew we had to be responsible,” she said. “I just hated to let these people go because they become family.” 

Finding help is complicated

Monroe reached out for help from the Navajo Nation, but she feels they didn’t provide any support.

She even applied for the Navajo Nation Business and Artisans Economic Relief Grant Program, but Ken’s Tours was denied. They were told they earned too much income in 2019 to qualify. 

“It was a big disappointment,” Monroe said, because throughout the pandemic they had been supportive of all the executive orders coming from tribal leaders.

“We have been supportive of everything Navajo Nation has been trying to do. And I really think that they did a good job,” she said. “But I really feel that as far as businesses go, there just was no support.”

The program was led by the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development to help Navajo businesses, entrepreneurs and artisans facing financial hardship or business interruption because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The division was allocated $60 million for the grant program as part of the Navajo Nation’s CARES Act Funding, according to a press release, but when the program closed out in November 2020, it had used just $29 million.

The program provided relief funds to 4,372 applicants. Some 1,117 Navajo businesses were awarded $13.1 million, and 3,255 Navajo artisans were awarded $15.9 million.

“(The) Navajo Nation is among the worst places in the world to be a business owner,” said Heather Fleming, co-founder of Change Labs, a nonprofit organization that empowers Native-owned small businesses operating within Tribal communities.

“We rank among the bottom 15% of nations around the globe when it comes to things like contract enforcement, access to land for a small business, getting electrical connections for a business and it has a huge effect on our people and our land,” she added.

This is why, when people travel through the Navajo Nation, they often only see chain businesses like McDonald’s or Burger King, Fleming said.

“You don’t see local businesses, you don’t see culturally cognizant businesses and when you do see those sorts of businesses, they’re relegated to the roadsides and to flea markets,” she added. 

This is why Fleming wants people to understand that the Navajo Nation was already in an economic crisis before COVID-19 hit.

Fleming said the pandemic only made it harder to be a business owner on the Navajo Nation and also layered another acute economic crisis on top of the existing one.

“When you have an unemployment rate as high as 50%, that’s an economic crisis,” Fleming said.

Fleming does believe that the grant program provided by the Division of Economic Development was good and offered resources to the business owners, artists and vendors in need.

She saw a few ways it fell short, and the biggest one was the fact that the entire process was online. The other was how quickly the program ended.

“When you have a community that doesn’t have regular access to the internet doing anything online is a real challenge,” Fleming said. “I’m just worried that we missed out on helping a lot of people that may be just couldn’t get access to the Internet.”

Change Labs hosted webinars about the grant application, Fleming said, and thousands of people attended because they needed help.

Fleming said as she was helping a lot of businesses get their paperwork submitted for the grant, the deadline was suddenly cut short with no warning to applicants. She doesn’t know why.

“I feel like that was a huge disservice to business owners and almost like a slap in the face,” Fleming said. “‘We’re going to dangle this money in front of you. Oh, but we’re going to shut it down without telling anybody and leave you all hanging.'”

The Arizona Republic reached out to the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development Executive Director JT Willie multiple times in the past few months for an interview but received no response.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the reopening, Monroe said she’s left with a feeling of dread because she knows that her other business will pick back up, but with the canyon, she doesn’t know.

“It’s just very discouraging wondering when we will be given the chance,” she added.

Tough times and little support

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Many of the businesses that cater to visitors to the Navajo Nation faced challenges throughout the year, including Shash Diné EcoRetreat, which offers a glamping bed and breakfast experience.

Baya Meehan owns and operates Shash Diné EcoRetreat with her husband, Paul, near Coppermine, which is about 12 miles south of Page. 

As a Navajo business owner who operates on the Navajo Nation, she looked into the Division of Economic grant program, but the application process discouraged her from applying.

“They made it almost impossible for businesses to apply for that,” she said, because of all the requirements the division was asking of businesses.

It made her angry, Meehan said, because she already had to jump through so many hoops just to be a registered business on the Navajo Nation. Now, in her time of need, they were making her do the same thing.

When she got all the required documents needed for the application, Meehan said the cut-off date for the grant program arrived. That was the final straw and Meehan said she gave up on applying.

“This is your support of Navajo businesses,” she said. “You make it really hard to apply for this and then you cut us off at the end of it. It was extremely frustrating to see.”

Meehan admits that she is a little resentful toward Navajo officials because of how she felt they treated businesses throughout the pandemic. 

“I’m really, really resentful of the fact that there was really no support and no clear action, no clear plan (and) no clear guidance,” she said. 

Meehan said she has received support from Change Labs and the Grand Canyon Trust to navigate being a business owner on the Navajo Nation.

Shash Diné is a glamping bed and breakfast where visitors can unplug from the world and enjoy a unique experience staying on the Navajo Nation.

“Many people who book here who stay here don’t know the first thing about being Native in today’s world,” Meehan said. “This is just a slight taste of what that means. We want people to have an authentic experience.”

Their glamping site includes bell tents, restored covered sheepherder wagons, a small cabin and two traditional hogans. They recently added a modern accommodation called the Kyoob, which is a cube-shaped structure with large windows to enjoy the landscape.

The accommodations are spread out on Meehan’s family land, and four people can stay in them. There is no running water or electricity to any of the accommodations. There are battery and solar-charged lighting provided. Guests use an outdoor bathroom and are provided with water if they would like to shower. 

“I don’t facilitate something that’s curated,” Meehan said. “People come here and I offer what I have and then people are free to experience that.”

Meehan said they are open year-round but the height of their season is usually from March to October. When the pandemic hit last year, they were just getting started.

When they decided to shut down in March 2020, Meehan said it was a mess because they were nearly fully booked for April, May and June. 

They had to call every person to cancel their reservations. Most were understanding, but some were angry. 

“Even throughout the pandemic, we kept getting inquiries,” Meehan said, and they had to keep saying no, even though the business is their source of income.

When the Navajo Nation started slowly reopening in March, Meehan said she submitted her required COVID-19 safety plan and once it was approved, they accepted their first booking on March 15.

Meehan said it was great to be able to welcome guests back because they were ready to open a long time ago.

“You don’t know how much you need something until it’s not there anymore,” she added. “We’re officially open. We’re taking reservations for the whole year now.”

Reporter Shondiin Silversmith covers Indigenous people and communities in Arizona. Reach her at [email protected] and follow her Twitter @DiinSilversmith.

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