SmallTown USA — Blue-Green Water People

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December 6, 2013 by genelup

27SUPAI, Arizona – Nestled in a side canyon on the bottom of Arizona’s Grand Canyon is this tiny Indian farming village, the capital of the Havasupai nation.  The tribe has about 650 members and all but 200 of them live in this idyllic setting amid a gurgling creek, shade trees and cool, turquoise ponds beneath waterfalls.

About 30,000 people a year visit Supai, equipped with a 24-unit lodge, a campground for 250 guests and a café serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Supai has become a Shangri-la for city-weary Arizonans and out-of-state tourists who want to rough it visiting this tiny Indian reservation.  There is no television or telephone in the rooms and porta-potties are scattered around the campground.  One amenity, however, is that the rooms are air-conditioned.

The only way to reach Supai is to drive to Hilltop, the canyon’s edge, and either hike or ride horses or mules 3,000 feet down a hairpin trail and through winding side canyons to the green fertile valley.  A general store is there for canned goods, meats, fruits and vegetables and other camping necessities.

At one time, people would come to this valley without reservations and without paying any fees.  That has changed now.  You must now make reservations in advance and pay a $35 entrance fee.  Add $5 per person for an environment-care fee.  That will be refunded if you haul out a sack of garbage to hilltop.  If you want a roof over your head, add about $145 a room per night.  Campground fee is $17 daily per person.  If you want to ride a horse or mule, instead of hiking, add another $150 roundtrip.

Two telephone wires strung through the canyons and over the highland plateau to Peach Springs, 80 miles away, and Grand Canyon Village, 50 miles away, connect Supai with the outside world.  During storms, the lines are sometimes knocked out of service for days.

Mail is toted on mules twice a week to the village.

Before the tourist explosion that began in the 1960s, the Havasupais barely eked out an existence (aside from collecting money from tourists) from crops and raising off-reservation grazing cattle.  Many of the residents were miserably poor and depended heavily on welfare and other assistance programs.  Now, according to the tribe’s webpage, “Our people do not receive any government stipends and we pay income taxes just like all Americans.”

In 1963-64, tourism accounted for $34,000 or about half of the tribal income.  In 1975, tourism receipts reached $200,000, and the amount has been climbing ever since.  Many of the Indians make their living packing tourists in-and-out of the valley.

Supai valley originally covered 518 acres at the foot of towering red sandstone canyon walls.  In 1975, Congress added 185,000 acres “of our original hunting grounds back to the tribe,”  Many different kinds of fruits and vegetables are grown there – peaches, figs, pears, corn, beans, apricots, apples and squash.  Lately, some of the fertile land has been neglected because of the tourist trade.

Several springs about a mile from the village create Havasu Creek that flows through the valley 11 miles to the Colorado River.  The creek tumbles over a series of spectacular waterfalls – Navajo, Havasu, Mooney and Beaver.  Beneath the falls are turquoise-hue pools, which are sheer delight for photographers shooting pictures or weary hikers plunging in for refreshing dips.

The creek is heavily impregnated with mineral salts of calcium and magnesium carbonates, calcium sulfate and magnesium chloride, which give off the blue-green coloring.

Taking the name from the water, the Indians have become known as people from blue-green water.  (Havasu, blue or green water; pai, people)  The Havasupai Indians are happy-go-lucky most of the time.  There is no hurry because tomorrow is a better time to do things than today.  If they have to see a neighbor across the dirt road, they usually go on a horse.  They laugh at almost anything.

Many outsiders underestimate the intelligence of these Indians.  One tourist asked a young brave if he had a clock?

“No,” the man said, as he walked away disgustedly.  Another tourist heard him mutter:  “But, I’ve got a watch.”

Often the Indians will gather for their favorite sport – gambling.

They usually assemble at the far ends of the canyon.  Their laughter, shouting and screaming can be heard a mile away.  Their gambling is similar to the American shell game.

They bet horses, food, clothing and even trees.  It is possible for a peach tree to be blooming 10 feet from a family’s house but they can’t pick the fruit.  It was gambled away and another family owns it that lives two miles up the canyon.

Many years ago, the tribal council ordered a piano from a Phoenix firm.  The store’s motto: “We’ll deliver pianos anywhere in the state.”

Two of the firm’s employees loaded the piano in a truck and got to the canyon edge without mishap.  Then they packed the instrument on horses and started the grueling eight-mile trip to the Indian settlement.

After about an hour of struggling with the load, the horses gave out.  The men gave up.  They set the piano in the middle of the trail and headed home.

The next day, the store changed its motto.  The Indians had to deliver their own piano to the village.

In the 1950s, before tourists and civilization made such a major impact on the lives of the Havasupais, the 21-year-old wife of the tribe’s medicine man was taken outside the canyon to a hospital.  She was eight months pregnant.

She didn’t like it there.  So, she left and hiked 50 miles under the June Arizona sun back to Supai.

After she arrived in the village, complications set in.  The medicine man brought his wife to the village missionary.  He turned the mission into a maternity ward and delivered a baby boy.  A doctor arrived in a helicopter a few hours later and the woman again was taken to the hospital.  Today, Supai has a clinic along with a church and police station.

There have been missionaries in this canyon for decades.  The Episcopal church made national headline in 1948 when a Quonset hut chapel was brought into the canyon by two helicopters.  The church operated the mission until 1956.  It was then leased to the United Indian Missions, an interdenominational group.

However, Christianity first came to Supai in 1927.  Florence Barker was sent to the canyon to give medical aid to the Indians.  During her seven-year stay, she taught the Indians Christianity from the Bible.

For 25 years after she left, the Havasupais remembered her instruction.  In 1956, the tribal council met and invited the United Indian Missions to send a missionary.  They had one prerequisite.  They asked David Clark, general director of the mission at that time, “Do you believe the same as Mrs. Barker did?”

Clark said, “Yes.”  He visited the canyon to see if a missionary venture could be started.  As soon as he arrived, two Indian women asked to be baptized.  As girls, they became Christians under Mrs. Barker’s teachings.

Clark sent the Rev. and Mrs. David Chambers to Supai.  The couple found that the Indians live in the ”here and now” and it’s hard for them to live by faith as the Bible teaches.

Many times Chambers was called upon to carry sick babies out of the canyon on horseback and, at Hilltop, climb into a parked vehicle and drive them to the Grand Canyon Hospital.

A dark cloud hung over this peaceful valley in 2006.  On May 9, a Japanese tourist was murdered, and tribal officials have since refused to talk to the media.  They even have escorted Japanese reporters out of the canyon.  The tribe even posted a sign banning reporters.  The woman was stabbed 29 times and left in shallow water near Navajo Falls.  A 19-year-old Indian man was arrested.  In September, 2007, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of release.  Robbery was the motive.

The Havasupai Reservation experienced severe floodings Oct. 3-5, 2010, and was closed to tourists for a while. The floods caused damages and destruction of trails, bridges, homes, community facilities, campgrounds and recreation areas in Supai Canyon. Several animals were also lost.

Hilltop is 70 miles from I-40 near Peach Springs.  You can park your car there.  Look over the canyon’s edge.  As far as the eye can see, there is nothing but bare, sandy hills, eroded by time, jutting from the canyon floor.  A white, threadlike trail is seen going around a couple of hills and then vanishes.  Supai can’t be seen, but it’s there, with the thunder of the waterfalls, the green fields and the laughter of the Indians.

(Pictures: Havasu Falls at top, and general store circa 1950s below.  This is another of a series of small town America articles I’m writing.  Personal Note: I have visited Supai five times.  My friend Bob and I hiked out once, followed a wrong trail and got lost in a side canyon.  We slept overnight and the next morning found the right trail to Hilltop.  Another time I met a church youth leader who was with a group of boys.  Three Indian men asked if we would drive them from Hilltop to Peach Springs.  The youth leader said we would if they would supply us two horses to ride out.  They agreed.  The next morning there was no sign of the men or horses.  While hiking out stray horses passed us on the trial heading back to Supai.  At Hilltop, the three Indians waited for us.  The youth leader said since they broke their word it would cost them $5 each for the 70-mile ride to Peach Springs.  Two men rode with me.  I was $10 richer.)

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