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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.

The exposure to satellite TV and other value systems at boarding schools is sending young Havasupai men and women into "culture shock," according to Charlotte Goodluck, a Navajo sociologist at Northern Arizona University. "They’re walking in two worlds, and they have to find a balance." But she says many young Native men in particular are unable to find the balance, and get angry. "Where do they fit in a white authoritarian culture? They don’t feel they have a role in modern society, so they get into drugs and gangs."

In the end, Hanamure’s murder has exposed more than a few troubled youth. It’s revealed a culture that’s losing its struggle to handle the pressures of a modern world.

"This is not about saving a white man’s playground," says Giovanetti, a straight-talker who has spent much of the last eight years in Supai. "The issue is saving this community, this culture. When I see someone doing something mean to someone else down here, I get in their face. But the tribe, their way is not to be aggressive and enforce the laws. They have this attitude that things will work themselves out as they have for the last 500 years. They need help. What we have here is a whole civilization going down the tubes."

Roland Manakaja says he’s started initiatives to help the tribe answer the "wake-up call" brought by Hanamure’s murder. He’s trying to take more tribal children up on their plateau lands "to reconnect with the environment," and he is lobbying to have a high school built near the reservation so teens can stay close to home. He plans to plant 500 fruit trees to restore historic orchards. And he’s encouraging the Havasupai to have zero tolerance for bootleggers and drug dealers. "We know the changes for our tribe have to come from within, not from external forces," he says. "There are things we are trying to fix right now."

"The Havasupai are an endangered species on the verge of extinction," he adds. "Our culture needs to be protected so we can teach others. It is the history of America at stake here."

As for Randy Wescogame, his trial probably won’t begin until 2008. He’ll remain in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service; if he is convicted on all charges, he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Near the end of my last visit to Supai, I meet Carla Crook, Randy’s mother. She is looking out her office window at a crowd gathering in anticipation of a prisoner arriving by helicopter. It’s the Saturday when the village juvenile delinquents arrive from holding facilities Up There to be tried at Supai’s tribal court. Once sentenced, they’re shipped to a prison or detention facility.

As villagers sit on a rock wall sipping coffee from styrofoam cups, the helicopter touches down. A young Havasupai in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs is escorted by a U.S. marshal to the courthouse. The prisoner smiles smugly at the tribal members who’ve gathered for the event. Crook shakes her head. "It’s like they are movie stars or something."

I’ve planned to take the helicopter out to the trailhead this trip, to save time. I run into the field, holding my hat against the rotor wash. I slide in and click my seat belt as the door is latched from the outside. The pilot works a few buttons and levers. My stomach drops as we rocket a thousand feet in seconds. The village instantly shrinks to a muted smudge of plywood and pasture as the Grand Canyon wraps around us. This is how Tomomi Hanamure left Supai, passing through layers of rock and geologic time that move in close and then fall away. Orange. Red. White. Green. Ivory. It is a jolting yet peaceful sensation, of suddenly rising up and floating through the most beautiful place.

Southwest Editor Annette McGivney visited Supai for the first time in 1992.

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