A helicopter announced its arrival, echoing a thunderous cacophony I could feel in my chest. It landed in one of the abandoned fields, pumping dust throughout the canyon. Plastic bags skittered across the ground and caught in the jagged fencing. The door slid open and a half-dozen children emerged, decked out in pinks and purples all with Mickey Mouse ears on and little child size suitcases.
“Where did you guys go?” My girl friend, Kristi, inquired one of the little girls.
“Disneyland!” She said with a giddy smile.
“It’s a small world after all,” our mutual friend from New Jersey quipped.
This was the greeting upon our arrival at Supai, a small village at the bottom of Cataract Canyon, a tributary to the Grand Canyon. Only accessible from trail or helicopter, it is the capital of the Havasupai Indian Reservation. One of the most remote cities in the US, Supai still receives its mail by mule, and the Havasu ‘Baaja or “the people of the blue-green waters,” are the stewards of the world renowned series of travertine waterfalls. Travel articles chronicle the Havasupai Reservation as being a Shangri-la, a garden of Eden, and a paradise, with beautiful falls, and a rustic village, complete with it’s own indigenous culture; a natural amusement park for the adventurous enthusiast.
It was my third time visiting the rustic and ruggedly beautiful waterfalls. I backpacked here twice in the early 1990s, while still in high school. The trail was how I remembered it, eight miles of sinking deeper and farther into geologic time. Beginning at Hualapai Hilltop, the trail offered long views of stratified plateaus stretching across the horizon. It wound and switch-backed, meandering through the dry, dusty riverbed. Hawks circled above, riding the thermals, as the canyon walls closed in.
I noticed things had changed as we approached the tiny village. We passed broken down tractors, and emaciated horses teetering on thin frail legs. Plastic water bottles, and empty beer cans began to accumulate the closer we got. Our first glimpse of Supai revealed weather beaten government tract homes with broken windows and large flags of Bob Marley covering the openings. Rusted farm implements, and empty water troughs populated make shift corrals. Satellite dishes adorned each roof.
We lumbered into the town center, comprised of a few dilapidated buildings contrasting against some modern ones. The general store and the chapter house were old and used. Across the dusty ‘street’ the restaurant was buzzing with tourists speaking a myriad of languages lounging on the large wooden veranda eating hamburgers and fries. At the end of the road stood the new and modern school and a motel-style hotel, ironic since there were no roads or cars. The first two times here we had to get our permits from the general store, but now they had a new air conditioned tourist office, complete with a fresh water fish tank, and polished flagstone flooring.
“Do you have a reservation?” The clerk lisped in an uncharacteristically feminine manner.
“No, I tried…” I was interrupted by a pinch from Kristi. “No.”
“Well we are pretty booked, but I think we have some camping spaces closer to Mooney falls. That will be twenty dollars per person per night. Cash or charge?”
“Cash.” I tried to make a reservation. The web site said they were booked, but I knew from experience they probably would not make us turn around and go home, especially if I had cash. So we went anyway.
We were awarded our permits, not more than a tag with a wire, which we affixed to our backpacks. It was two miles to the campground, and another mile to Mooney Falls. We lifted our packs and continued down the sandy trail, followed by a small pack of bloated rez mutts, hoping for a spare scrap or morsel. A plump dark man sitting on a chair in front of the chapter house glared at us as we left town. The feeling of hospitality began to diminish. We continued cautiously, wondering if the Havasupai was loosing its battle against modernity.
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The Havasupai have been nomads on this land for the last 800 years. Their territory spanned from Indian Gardens in the Grand Canyon to Havasu Canyon and the surrounding areas. They hunted in the winter and fall on the plateaus, and spent the summer and spring months farming in the canyons. In 1882 the US government upon dedication of the Grand Canyon National Park, evicted the Havasupai from their ancestral lands. The 518-acre Havasupai Indian Reservation was formed and the people were confined at the bottom of the remote canyon for the next 93 years. The internment lead to an increased reliance on farming for survival, and more recently and almost exclusively, tourism for revenue. In 1975 the US government did award the tribe with 185,000 acres of the surrounding area, but remains largely unused.
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A short distance from Supai, Navajo Falls cascades down what looks like a staircase from a height of seventy feet. There were a few vantage points from which to take photos, and we visited every one. A mile down the steep dusty trail is the next, and most photographed falls, Havasu. The water makes its way over a calcium carbonate spout at the top, and crashes into a giant blue-green pool at the bottom. The high mineral content, combined with leaves and branches, gather at the edge of the pool to create natural travertine terraces. The terraces stack into each other making little separate pools each one lower and smaller than the last. Tourists were frolicking in the water, and lying in their own travertine tubs. The giant falls surrounded by even bigger cliffs made us feel lowly. Awed by the natural beauty, we lingered until the sun left only shadows high on the canyon walls.
Heading toward the campground, we entered the gate. I cast a glance at the man passed out amid empty bottles of malt liquor, asleep at his post. If he was the only one checking permits, we could have left our money at home, I thought.
The clerk was right. They looked packed. Most people camped as close to Havasu falls as they could get. Large Boy Scout groups took any and all open spaces. We wound our way through the tents, tables, and coolers, nodding at passing teenagers. Shrieks and squeals emanated from groups of kids busy at horseplay. Not the respite from society that most backpacking trips offer.
About a mile from the campground gate we finally found a spot, a few hundred yards from the end. The creek flowed along side of camp, and we were far enough away from the large groups, that we were satisfied with our locale. We were lulled to a state of wonder by the thundering water. Surrounded by cliffs hundreds of feet high, we camped near the abrupt end to the trail. The earth appeared to have ended here at Mooney Falls. The creek suddenly freefalls down the sheer 200-foot drop to the canyon bottom. We gazed down into the darkening shadows and reeled from vertigo.
We spent the remainder of the evening in camp, cooking dinner and visiting the overflowing ‘facilities.’ Our choices to get back to nature consisted of full outhouses, or the equally full off the beaten path bush. Even deviating a few feet from the trail revealed a nest of toilet paper and flies. I wondered what the twenty dollars per person per night went to. If it wasn’t spent protecting the canyon from waste, what was it spent on? I was beginning to get an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
It didn’t use to be like that. I had been there once before the great flood, then once after. The fields were plowed, and grew squash, corn and melons. The Havasupai smiled more and vegetation overgrew the trail, people had room to breathe. The facilities were rustic, but not overflowing, and you could drink the water straight from the spigot screwed into the canyon wall. The feeling of the immediacy of society seemed hundreds of miles away.
In the fifties, the tribe had the opportunity to accelerate their entrance to western society by building a road to the falls. They declined the chance to be like Grand Canyon Village, host to millions of visitors per year. Their canyon and way of life could not withstand the hoards of people and the influx of human waste. Only about 20,000 visit per year, but they still struggle with maintaining their culture and striking a balance between nature and tourism.
The Havasupai are trying to hold on to their culture. They teach their language and customs to their children, boasting a 100% fluency in Pai, the principal source of their cohesion. Some children who go away to boarding school for high school, return after years of city life, their language and identity tugging at their heart-strings. There are even talks about building their own high school on their newly acquired lands, at the top of the canyon.
But, it is human nature to want the best of both worlds. Conveniences like electricity, refrigeration, running water and entertainment are hard to fight. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to enjoy the same privileges as any American? There is a trade off for embracing Western culture. Drugs and violence are influencing the children. They’re turning to victimizing the tourists with petty theft, harassment, and just recently, murder.
The Havasupai are not strangers to death. Life in the canyon has always been precarious. Heavy rainfall brings not only flash flood danger, but, the peril of falling rocks. There are many news stories of falling boulders and breaking tree limbs landing on unsuspecting sleeping campers in their tents. Many have left the canyon on stretchers attached to the helicopter. But the most recent and disturbing death was that of Japanese tourist Tomomi Hanamure by Randy Wesogame, stabbing her multiple times in a crystal meth induced frenzy. Her body left bleeding, riddled with stab wounds floating in the beautiful blue-green water.
This story reads like many modern news stories, one you might see on a typical day in any major city. This isn’t a typical modern city, but the sleepy stronghold for a small 500 member tribe fighting day in and day out to preserve its culture and heritage. Tribal spiritual leaders blamed the “dark spirit” and had sweat lodge ceremonies to purge the evil spirits from the canyon.
After hearing this story, the sinking feeling returned. It wasn’t an evil spirit that is to blame; it is me, my culture, my people, my government, my tourist money, and my drugs. All those things together inundated this innocent culture, confined to a reservation. The murder was the predictable result of an increasingly dysfunctional society, imposing itself on an imprisoned indigenous tribe at a microcosmic level. Nobody informed them that there would be a trade off to accepting Western Culture. With all the wonderful conveniences they also had to accept its dysfunctions.
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It had been hours since we had seen our best friend. We started to be concerned. Then she appeared from the shadows into the flickering firelight. Her face was dirty, bleeding and scraped. She looked like she had seen a ghost.“I am so stupid!” she remarked.
“What happened?” I asked, alarmed by the look on her face. She broke down and bawled.
“I was hiking around by myself,” she started off between sobs, “ From a distance, I thought I saw a little boy go into a mine shaft. It was dusk and I didn’t have a flashlight, but I decided to investigate. I entered the shaft despite the warning sign posted.”
“You didn’t,” I said.
“I went into the shaft, and I couldn’t see a thing. I slowly made my way inside, then suddenly the floor gave out from under me and I went down head-first. I was upside down sliding further and further, until I scraped and grabbed the wall and was able to stop myself. I had to crawl out backwards and upside down. I could have died. I am so stupid!” She broke down again and sobbed some more. We all agreed that was stupid.
“What about the little boy?” Kristi asked.
“There was no little boy!” She said. “I’m not sure what I saw or why I went into that mine shaft in the dark!”
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Society is falling into a mineshaft. Knowing the dangers and the pitfalls, we still continue deeper and deeper in to the cavern. Trash, drugs, alcohol, greed and apathy are all the dysfunctional failures of dominant society. When put in a microcosm, Shangri – La becomes hell, and we have to shake our heads harder and harder to see the beauty that still exists in this world.
We left the Havasupai changed. Although glad to be alive, our hearts hung heavy on the long hot dusty hike out. By trying to escape life and our daily hustle and bustle, we hiked to a world struggling with what we were leaving behind. The absence of a road to Supai village wasn’t enough to keep out that evil proverbial carrot, and I felt the burden of being, a least partially, the cause of it. A plaque at the entrance of Disneyland reads: “You leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” No, this was nothing like Disneyland, but we had entered a world stuck between yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy. That’s the trouble with paradise. It’s fantasy. It doesn’t really exist. The Havasupai are a socio-indicator of the health of society. If a culture so linked to nature and the earth struggle to survive, how can we? If we are not more careful with those beautiful places and cultures, they will only exist as an amusement park attraction.