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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.

There was a lull in our conversation; the receiver started to fall away from his mouth. Then he looked over at the guard to make sure no one was listening, and decided to tell me something. "I do have options. If I am going to spend the rest of my life in prison, I might end it. I would go my own way, to the other place."

I RETURN TO SUPAI for my fourth and final visit in March, when the days are longer and warmer, and cottonwood blossoms fly like snowflakes in the wind. Maybe it’s just because it’s spring, but the tribe seems in a better mood. They’re gearing up for tourist season, the time when the cash flows.

Mike Giovanetti, the resident handyman, is trying to spruce up the village after a winter of vandalism. He has painted the outside of the tourist office and built a decorative fence barrier. He has also installed doors with metal burglar bars on the café and store. "I’ll replace some of these windows if I can get the right size glass down here," he says.

The Tribal Council still won’t talk to me, but other Havasupai say they feel encouraged. A new council took over in January; four old-guard members on the sevenseat council were replaced by people elected on a platform of change. They’ve approved a measure authorizing the BIA to hire Supai police who are not Native American, and hired a tribal member as a security guard to patrol at night. Police officer Kaulaity also tells me he’s just gotten word that the BIA has approved the hire of two new police officers in Supai.

These incremental security improvements are a step in the right direction, but nowhere near what’s needed to solve the problems plaguing the Havasupai and the tourist mecca they oversee. As I researched Hanamure’s murder, authorities repeatedly told me that "it could have been anybody"—that she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is true. But what they did not say and I came to find through my interviews, was that given obvious signs of increasing levels of violent crime and drug use, Hanamure’s murder could have been predicted. And it might have been prevented if precautionary measures had been taken to curb the rising lawlessness. At best, statements made by the Tribal Council chairman and the U.S. attorney after Randy Wescogame was indicted were misleading, because they created the perception that Supai’s crime problem could be solved by locking up one very troubled teen. Regardless of whether Wescogame murdered Hanamure—that remains to be decided in court—the underlying climate of violence is still alive and well.

The BIA plans to add law-enforcement presence on the trail and in the campground this summer, but visitors should, at present, take responsibility for their own safety. Women shouldn’t hike or camp alone. And all campers should be streetwise about the potential for petty theft. Given the tribe’s distrust of the government, sending more federal agents to Supai may only deepen resentment. And cultural differences have generally negated the effectiveness of federally sponsored programs to reform village lawbreakers. "They just tell you how to be and then they spit you out," Randy Wescogame said of his experience with juvenile detention. "Changing the way you act has to come from inside, not from these white counselors and teachers. I don’t listen to them."

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