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June 2007

Freefall: Tragedy in the Grand Canyon

Arizona's Havasu Canyon is a hiker's paradise famed for its jaw-dropping waterfalls. But now there's trouble in paradise—serious trouble.

AS I BECAME A SEASONED Supai visitor, I learned to appreciate the atmosphere that can make this place sometimes scary and always surreal. Once, when I was hiking to Havasu Falls with Austin, a middle-aged Havasupai man joined us near the edge of town and struck up a conversation. He asked where we were from, why my husband wasn’t with me, where we were hiking. After about five minutes, he turned back.

I thought of Hanamure as we hiked, and wondered where along this trail she had met her attacker. Then to my left, along the creek, I noticed tattered yellow crime-scene tape hanging from the bushes. It was along a narrow spur, about 20 feet off the main trail. We hadn’t reached Navajo Falls, but I could hear the roar of the water.

Investigators believe Hanamure’s attacker either lured her or dragged her off the main trail. They say that even though Supai was full of people in May, the dense vegetation along the creek would have made the struggle hard to see from the main path. The roar of the water and shrieking swimmers at the falls would have muffled Hanamure’s screams.

After standing at the foot of Havasu Falls and feeling the icy spray, Austin and I lunched on a ledge above the cascade. I noticed a tribal member dressed in black running along a narrow cliff on the far side of the creek. Then the man who had chatted us up earlier popped out of the brush behind us. Now he was wearing big yellow gloves. "Have you seen anyone go by?" he asked. "I’m looking for this guy, a tribal member." He took a long look at my open daypack as he removed his gloves. I told him about the man in black as I grabbed my pack and gathered Austin by the hand.

As we hiked back, we came upon another Havasupai man, this one lying in the sand along the path; he was motionless, mouth open. A group of tribal kids walked by him without pause, the way New Yorkers step over homeless people sleeping on steam grates. I didn’t stop either, figuring he was drunk. Meanwhile, 15 feet away, a family was assembling a trampoline that had just arrived on the helicopter.

IN HIS BOOK Collapse, scientist and author Jared Diamond describes a phenomenon called "creeping normalcy." He hypothesizes that as a nation or culture becomes more dysfunctional, successive generations have a harder time realizing anything is wrong because they’re used to the unhealthy environment and have no institutional memory of what used to be. So people fool themselves into believing everything is fine despite obvious signs society is falling apart.

There’s no doubt normalcy is creeping in Supai. Geographic isolation and technological inundation have created a skewed reality that’s obliterating the tribe’s culture. In Supai, it is normal to get 200 TV channels in a place with no roads; it is normal to transport cases of Mountain Dew and frozen dinners from Sam’s Club via helicopter; it is normal not to work because there are no jobs; it is normal for a third of your community to be your cousins; it is normal to be stoned and drunk all day; it is normal for outside social workers and educators to arrive, give up, and move away within a year; it is normal to go to jail; and it is normal to grow weary of and even hate tourists from Up There.

Perhaps because it is easier to ignore problems than to address them head-on, no members of the Havasupai Tribal Council would talk to me for this story. No doubt, my investigation was seen as just another kick in the teeth from the dominant culture, knocking the Havasupai when they are already down. The tribe maintained a party line after the murder: keep quiet about problems while the tribal government solves issues in its unhurried, traditional manner.

The first person to break rank was Billy Wescogame, Randy’s father. "I want the world to know what is going on here, and I want to speak out against the bootleggers and drug dealers who are destroying our tribe," Wescogame told me last February. We sat on plastic milk crates in front of his small, weatherbeaten house. His eyes darted up and down the street to see who might be watching. He said that when the Tribal Council decided to "throw out the media" after the murder, it was against the will of the people, who wanted to be open about their attempts to deal with the crisis and their sorrow about Hanamure’s death.

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