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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.

Reader Responses to “Freefall”

Annette Mcgivney’s story of a murder in Arizona’s Havasu Canyon (Freefall, June) drew tremendous and passionate feedback from our readers. Here are some of the best, led by an official response from the Havasupai Tribe.


By Carletta Tilousi

Tribal Councilwoman

Havasupai Tribe

Our waterfalls will always be one of Mother Earth’s most glorious places. Our stewardship of this Shangri-La is a challenge and charge. We open our lands to visitors so they too can renew their spirit or simply enjoy our slice of heaven.

In understandably highlighting last year’s unprecedented murder of a tourist, a tragedy that still haunts our people, this magazine’s reporter left an incomplete impression.

Our greatest sympathies and prayers go out to the family of the fallen. But we cannot agree with many of the generalizations about Havasupai in the article.

A troubled youth was arrested for the crime last year. He will be convicted or exonerated. Either way we are taking steps to make sure such a thing, a first at Havasupai, never happens again.

Contrary to the spirit of the article such incidents are not more typical at Supai. Over the years there have been many crimes at Yosemite, Shenandoah and numerous other hikes and attractions. There were 15 murders at national parks in 1995, for example. Despite welcoming 30,000 people a year for decades this is our first such incident.

Even one complaint and certainly one murder is far too many but what town of 30,000 can say such’

Not Laguna Beach, California. Last month the posh community’s signature resort, The Montage, was the scene of 2 fatal shootings. Should people not go there anymore? Of course not.

The journalist made other observations. But she failed to grasp a fundamental concept. Having 30,000 people per year move through our home places an extraordinary burden on our infrastructure. If 30,000 people went through your neighborhood what would happen? It is the responsibility of tourists as much as our people to be considerate and help with trash, disrepair and other things mentioned in the article.

Compounding our challenge is being at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, a further reminder of our collective responsibility.

The journalist also talked a lot about our youth. Like all communities we always look to help our youth, many of whom are wonderful young people dreaming big, working hard and committed to protecting this sacred place.

Our people have always overcome our unique challenges. New tribal councilmembers were recently elected on a platform of change. More public safety personnel have been added to better monitor our residents and tourists. Lodging, bathrooms and other facilities are being upgraded. New cultural tours are being offered. We are working with the Environmental Protection Agency.

And we are open to additional ideas from your readers. We all need to work together to take care of this magical place and to preserve the ways of an ancient people. By so doing Havasupai will continue to be Paradise Found. Paradise Always.

For more information about Havasupai please go to


I just finished your article about Havasu Canyon and am compelled to thank you for summoning the courage and the initiative to explore the tragic and puzzling demise of this once beautiful place.

As a shameless Grand Canyon fanatic, I’d been frequenting the trails within Grand Canyon National Park for many years before I hiked into Havasu Canyon in September 2000. The unpleasant experience was contrary to everything I have ever heard or read about the fabled site.

The trailhead parking lot resembled a ghetto and though we questioned the wisdom of leaving our vehicle there, we were glad to be on our way. Next, in the canyon bottom, we encountered several dead horses that were left to rot along the trail. In some cases the heads were covered with rocks while the decaying bodies were visible; a few carcasses were charred and blackened by an attempt to burn them. Luckily ours was not a squeamish group: We joked that if one of us were to collapse along the trail we pledged to cover his or her head with rocks before moving on without them.

Upon arrival at the village, we were surprised by the indifference and some outright hostility from tribal members. Like you, I chalked it up to a cultural difference. But the garbage and litter, roaming packs of dogs, shanty-like homes, malnourished horses and general filth amplified my unease. Well, I thought, things will be better once we get outside the village.

Unfortunately, the campground was equally appalling. Feces mounded up above the toilet seats (an image that is forever burned on my retinas, although I still choose not to think about how such a sight came to exist). With the toilets rendered useless, the entire campground reeked of human waste. As we explored the area for a usable toilet, we came upon a small shack stuffed with backpacks and gear. Most of it was labeled with names and dates such as “Jones, arrive 10-1-00.” We surmised that the items had come in via helicopter or horse in advance of some hikers but were stunned that it was completely unsecured and unprotected. Not only was the door unlocked, it was wide open. Backpackers are a fairly trustworthy bunch, but something about the set-up seemed off.

We spent one miserable, sleepless night in that reeking campground and hiked out the next day vowing to never return. We also gained a new appreciation for the NPS trails at the other end of the Canyon.

During the nearly seven years since our Havasu trip I have seen numerous articles extolling the blue-green waters and idyllic setting, but not one reference to the garbage, graffiti or lack of management. After reading one such article last year in a popular national publication I was tempted to contact the editor to inquire whether the writer had actually been there. Then I thought, “Well, perhaps our trip was a fluke. We seem to be the only people in the history of the world who had a bad visit to Havasu Falls.”

Then I opened up our new issue of Backpacker today and was stunned. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. I shouted to my husband in the other room, “You are not going to believe this,” I said before reading excerpts to him.

Thank you for taking the time to reveal this sad and dangerous situation and for including the historical and insightful perspectives that brought balance and honesty to a difficult topic. It is, frankly, the kind of reporting and writing that makes Backpacker stand out among other publications. Thank you, and keep up the good work.

Bethany Beck,

Strawberry, AZ

Thank you for the in depth article about Havasu Canyon, the Havasupai people and Supai. Tomomi Hanamure’s death is an important reality to discuss and I appreciate Annette McGivney’s attempt and overall success at writing an article that was laden with many difficult content areas. The collapse and/or change of a culture has devastating outcomes if the people within it cannot see their choice to change with time. I travel to many Native Alaskan villages and while I have seen many brilliant stars rising I have also seen a great darkness begin to fall as generational alcoholism causes fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, neglect, abuse and the cycle of poverty, sometimes hatred and apathy to continue. As a culture, the oppressor-oppressed relationship has to be erased and left for historians to talk about. We have the opportunity to change, I only hope for the sake of Supai, the youth, and for all Natives living on reservations or in villages or wherever they are, that the change on both sides will be soon, and that healing can begin. – Danielle Thompson, Homer, AK

Twenty-five years ago, I spent spring break week with other teachers chaperoning a group of Navajo middle schoolers in the Havasu Canyon. At the end of our stay near the Havasu Falls our middle schoolers played a game of basketball with the Havasu middle schoolers. It was a great time. I even imagined living and teaching in the area. But never made it back. I have told my husband about this place for years. So when we were able to visit, we jumped at the opportunity. This past February, 2007 my husband and I spent several days camping between Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls in the designated camping area. We were camping alone, the park was empty. We loved it.

Havasu Canyon is memorable. I remember my twenty-five year old trip as if it were yesterday. The change in the village, people and land in twenty-five years is heartbreaking. I thought Annette describe the conditions of the village very well. It is very impoverished with the home and businesses looking like ” blown-out rural ghetto”. What I noticed is the lack of pride, skill, and knowledge in the people. Drugs were apparent. The young high school dropout that was my guide out of the canyon openly smoked a meth pipe as he traveled on horseback. He might have imagined that I was an uninformed middle-aged *Anglo woman that had no idea of what he was doing or maybe he is just that addicted. He did not care who saw him.

The generation in charge for the last twenty-five years have dropped the ball in offering their people economic and educational opportunity. The article mentions that Roland Manakaja is endeaving for a high school. A high school was needed years ago. A virtual high school is possible now. The Tribal Council should make it possible for high school students to gain a diploma via internet. A school building with someone to manage, motivate and guide students is something that is doable for this generation of students. In additon to academic knowledge these students need trade skills in building, automotive, electrical, plumbing, medical, etc. There is great potiential for bed and breakfast opportunities in the area. They are sitting and living in an area of beauty and do not know of it.

Annette metions in her article the phenomenon of “creeping normalcy”. The beauty of the area is normal for the Havasupai. Since the beauty of the region is normal, I theoryize, it goes unrecognized by the tribal council. Annette did not mention the condiiton of the land. The land around the falls (Havasu and Mooney are the two I visited) is showing serious signs of erosion and over use. My husband is an evrionmental scientist and knows about landscape management. I remember how the place looked twenty-five years ago. The land is in need of help now. Erosion is a hugh problem. I can see that with my untrained eyes. the land is is desparate need of help.

* I used the term Anglo for white since the Navajos taught me that calling someone white is very derrogatory.

I hope the best will happen for the people of the blue-green water. But their medicine man was correct when he stated it has to come from within. But they need to know who to ask help from. They should consider getting help from the colleges and universities in Arizona – for guidance in seting up a virtual high school and land management.

Lauretta Kloer

via email

Thank You Annette McGivney, The most telling sentence in the article is “This destitution is so politically incorrect to acknowledge, it rarely surfaces in travel literature.” Not only is the destitution not acknowledged, travel books and articles by their complicity, actually enable the conditions described in the article to persist to the detriment of the people who live in the canyon and the hikers who enter the canyon at peril.

My husband and I spent two nights/three days in the canyon in October 2006. The first day I was silent. I sat at a table on the porch of the cafe amid dust, dirt, filth, sullen people, listening to a person describe the village as charming. The village can only be called charming if poverty and discontent are charming.

The next day, standing at the falls, I broke my silence. A fellow hiker asked me what I thought about the village and I replied that I was appalled and upset about what I had seen. The fellow hiker sighed with relief. The hiker was frustrated that no one would acknowledge the obvious misery of the village and the uncomfortableness of the camp ground atmosphere.

The third day, as I hiked to the rim, with every mile, I became just plain angrier. What had I missed in my reading? Why had I never heard any thing about the poverty of the canyon? (I am not naive. I have seen poverty on reservations. This goes beyond poverty.) We were unaware of the murder until we read Annette’s article. Without the knowledge of the murder, we were still upset. Upon returning home, I reread the guide book and the January 2006 National Geographic article and could find nothing to prepare me for what I saw.

I thought about what I could do. I didn’t do anything. Annette did. In addition to the poverty, the environmental degradation of the canyon under the pressure of too many hikers and campers and too many animals is serious. The filth of the camp ground is detrimental to health of campers.

Maybe something will happen. A reduced number of hikers and campers might send the message things need to change. Maybe some complimentary issues of the June 2007 issue of Backpacker will make their way to the desk of significant people in Arizona and in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. National Geographic might be interested in the article.

A policeman or two will not change a situation that is a systematic suicide of a culture and landscape.

Sharon McPherron

St. Louis, MO

I read with interest the article by Annette McGivney. My family and I made the same hike to Havasu Falls in April 2006. We experienced nothing like what Ms. McGivney described. The people were friendly and often welcomed us to their beautiful land. It was very clear that a lot of the trash (and we did not notice that much) was left by hikers who did not carry it out of the canyon. And if Ms. McGivney felt the trip was “RISKY” why did she make four of them and why did she expose her 10-year old son each and every time?

Sue Springsteen

Highland, MI

I should have said something earlier. My first time to Havasupai Canyon was in 1977. I was in 8th grade and just getting my feet wet to the beautiful awe of the Grand Canyons. From then on, I was always so drawn to the magnificent wonder of the Supai paradise. I continued to hike there at least a half a dozen times while attending NAU.

In 1994, I couldn’t wait to show my kids (5 and 3 years at the time) this amazing place. However, this trip changed my view of Havasupai forever. My first sign of despair was when we all witnessed a local Supai native purposely pushing a horse over the edge of the switchbacks! I could not believe what I was seeing and I was trying to justify (with sound reason) to my children what had just happened. And yes, we continued to trek down the trail and staying clear of the dead horse.

The disenchantment continued the next day as I was walking from the store to the camp grounds and I felt as if someone was trying to sneak up on me. My mind was racing with fear. I finally summoned the courage to turn around and stare down the predator stalking me. The local teenager quickly scurried into the thick brush and disappeared. It was at that time I realized the serene place was not safe. I continued on to the camp and didn’t tell a soul. Later on that evening I went to get water from the spring and I was approached by another local teen, who proceed to try and get me to go look for a “better campsite” I politely declined and the pressure intensified to the point of him cornering me behind a tree where he then exposed himself.

Since that disturbing hiking trip I have traveled down to Havasupai about three times. My visions now are always tainted with the violations that occurred earlier and so many of the destructive signs that you describe in your article. I should have said something earlier. Thank you for taking this on.

Debbi Kirkpatrick

via email

The June issue containing Annette McGiney’s “Freefall” arrived just three days prior to my much-anticipated hike to the Havasupai reservation. I went as a member of a university anthropology field course which visited reservations in AZ and NM.

Before to our hike down to Supai, we met with Steve Hirst, author of I Am The Grand Canyon who is quoted in Ms McGinney’s piece, at the Museum of Northern AZ. He was disturbed by the negative tone of the story. At Supai, our group had a class session with Roland Manakaja, who is repeatedly quoted in the story. He also ran a sweat lodge ceremony for our group later that afternoon along the bank of Havasu Creek. I saw the yellow crime scene tape marking the location of Tomomi Hanamure’s murder and offered a prayer there in the cool dawn as I started my hike back up to the plateau.

While I share Ms McGivney’s description of Havasu Canyon as “a hiker’s paradise famed for its jaw-dropping waterfalls”, I found Supai Village to be markedly different from what she calls a “tribal culture teetering on the brink of collapse”.

Crime, substance abuse, and family disruption are unfortunately not unique to the Havasupai people. Sadly, there is an increase in these problems at other Native American reservations our group visited before and after our stay at Havasupai. They are no more prevalent in Supai that at many other American cities. They may have appeared that way to Ms McGivney because of its isolation at the bottom of a canyon, where everything has to be packed in by horse train or flown in by chopper.

We felt completely safe during our time with the People of the Blue Green Water, and were welcomed by tribal officials, employees of the store and cafe, and the people we encountered in the village and campground. In contrast, several vehicles had their windows smashed and were ransacked in the parking lot of the Flagstaff motel we stayed at the evening we left Supai. Students doing their laundry at a shopping center across the street witnessed a fight between several teenagers which ended in one of them being thrown through the plate glass window and taken away in an ambulance. During dinner at an outdoor cafe, an obviously drunk man begged for spare change. Does that make Flagstaff a town suffering “moral decay” ?

Steve Volkening

Joliet, IL

I just finished the Freefall article about the murder in Havasu canyon (June issue). It brought back a ton of memories. My buddies and I spent a week down there in 1968 and it was an amazing and spooky place then.

Late in the afternoon we pitched camp in the campground but that evening wind and rain started up. We decided it would be more fun to camp in the old mine openings up off the canyon floor. So we moved. Minutes after we settled, the rain increased and the wind turned fierce and ripped through the canyon. Tree limbs snapped and rained down on the campground, one crashing onto a tent killing the man inside. Our original camp site was littered with large limbs and branches. A big limb lay right where out tent used to be. The dead man was wrapped in a tarp and left there until about noon the next day when he was hauled out on mule to a wide spot in the canyon for helicopter access. We were glad we moved.

In the evening, sitting high above the canyon floor in our mine opening, we’d look out over the canyon and cook dinner as bats flew in and out over our heads. That was a treat. But it was the rock fall off the canyon walls that really spooked us. A constant rain of rock and pebbles seemed to follow us throughout the canyon. We’d hear the faint trickle of falling rocks starting high up the canyon wall. Immediately we’d head away from the wall, often just steps ahead of a bouncing watermelon-sized rock. It seemed the rock-fall was never ahead or behind us but right were we were, as if someone high up on the rim was aiming for us. It was spooky.

I was disappointed to read how the place has deteriorated. I remember the parking area at the top as just a wide spot at the end of a long dusty washboard road. There were no burned out cars or trash piles. The village was just a few houses perhaps one or two cabins and a “store” were you purchased a camping permit. Not much else, certainly no cafe or lodge.

Mike Phillips

Spokane, Washington

Many thanks for your article “Freefall”. On a trip to Supai in March, all the elements of your story about the Havasu people’s deep distress were evident. For regular visitors to the National Park Service trails in the Grand Canyon, the contrasts are shocking. There wasn’t a single mile of trail there where I didn’t run across an empty, cast-aside bottle of Old English Malt Liquor. Even the most casual observer can’t ignore the neglect of the land and the signs of substance abuse among the locals.

Which is why it is so shocking that this has remained largely unknown. As your narrative points out, there is almost no discussion about this in the travel literature. I did a lot of research prior to my trip there and never heard of this incident (or any hint of the larger problems) until reading your excellent story. Like you, I also brought my young son down there–I would have thought twice if I’d known the story.

Alas, more police are not going to change Supai. It will take many years before that sort of social decay can be undone. If the Havasu people accepted and embraced what they have, managed their assets with the mildest amount of energy and enterprise, both they and the hiking community would mutually benefit. They could use tourists as an opportunity to share their culture and build credibility as responsible managers of the Canyon who have legitimate claims to ancestral lands.

Some of the research I did in getting ready for the trip extolled the virtues of native culture and expressed indignation at their loss of Canyon lands. It is true, they were wronged–but I can’t say that I would want them to manage one more square inch of the Grand Canyon anytime soon. Any improvement will have to await some future generation of Havasu.

Gregory Hooker

Brandon, Florida

I have been close to the Havasupai community for forty years; my wife and I lived with them for many years; our daughter grew up and began school there; I still visit there once or twice a month; our daughter visits whenever she can; I lead Elderhostel hikes into the village; my wife frequently hikes there alone; I count Havasupais among my dearest friends. Biased I certainly am, but for the life of me, neither I nor any of the people I bring to Havasu Canyon–no one I speak to for that matter who has visited the Havasupai–can find the community Annette McGivney describes in your June issue in her article “Freefall.”

For generations we’ve heard McGivney’s tired prediction that the Havasupai are verging on cultural or physical extinction. Nothing could be further from the truth. We Europeans woefully underestimate the durability of indigenous culture because we have so little experience of it in our own lives. Havasupai people remain wedded to their traditions, but they are hardly likely to discuss them with the casual visitor. One might forgive McGivney’s misinformation on this count.

For McGivney to imply that Havasupai people are dangerous is ludicrous. When she sees every Havasupai male as a potential rapist or robber, McGivney sounds like a suburban matron venturing into Harlem. Most Havasupai young people are carrying on normal lives, starting families, and working at jobs. McGivney was too focused on one aberrant incident to notice this.

I do not minimize Randy Wescogame’s murder of Tomomi Hanamure, but I cannot tar an entire community for his act, nor should you. The murder shocked and hurt the Havasupai people as deeply as it did Hanamure’s own family. The Havasupai invited her father to attend a healing ceremony. The purpose was not, as McGivney implies, to rid themselves of her spirit but to release her so she could come home as they would want for themselves.

McGivney ventures into unsupported stereotyping when she states, “By Supai standards, Randy Wescogame had a normal childhood.” Nothing about the bleak environment and aggressive behavior he experienced reflects a normal Havasupai childhood. Neither do McGivney’s scattergun generalizations about the Havasupai community reflect everyday life there.

Regardless of what Randy’s father, Billy, may have told McGivney, no responsible member of the Havasupai community condones lawlessness or violence against their visitors. They will prosecute the perpetrators, but they need to hear about it. Victims must report what happened to tribal police.

Murders have occurred in Yosemite, Yellowstone, and, yes, even Grand Canyon National Park itself and on more than one occasion. Only the Havasupai merit your travel alert. Why? Because they’re not us?

I shake my head. It would require more space than you have available to correct the misimpressions and plain misinformation about the Havasupai people that McGivney has offered your readers. You and she owe them an apology.

Stephen Hirst

author, I Am the Grand Canyon: the Story of the Havasupai People

The article “Freefall”, by Annette McGivney, tells an eye-opening but too-common tale of a Native American culture feeling the delayed effects of long-passed wrong-doings manifested in modern day self-destructive retribution.

Some members of the Havasupai find themselves lashing out against present day’s society for undeniable wrongs done to them by whites, but done long ago and by people none the less long gone. I think the first and most important step these people must take is to look long and hard at what they are doing to themselves.

Regardless of past injustices, the choice is solely theirs whether to rebuild their culture or succumb to the ghosts of that unjust past, ghosts they alone can truly exorcise.

The ultimate, sad price was paid by Tomomi Hanamure, for the unchecked rage and self-loathing of a people truly in self-wrought free-fall.

Ron Thuemler

Tampa, Florida

Thank you for possessing the courage and integrity to print the truth. Annette McGivney wrote the ugly and sad reality of Supai.

David Ramos

Flagstaff, AZ

I applaud Annette McGivney’s story in the June issue for breaking through the idealized “Havasupai are the guardians of the Grand Canyon” mystique to find the reality of a crime & drug infested ghetto in one of the most beautiful spots in the world. Just a week or two before Tomomi Hanamure made her fateful trip into the canyon, I was in the Supai campground with a dozen Scouts and parents hoping to show them this place that is like no other on the planet.

As we hiked down into the canyon from the Supai trailhead, we saw the trash littering the trailside, the feces barely concealed off the trail and used TP flying through the dusty air. The kids immediately started talking about the unthinking, uncaring, disregard for the natural beauty of the canyon that the tourists (undoubtedly those “mules” who were riding their way down the trail rather than backpacking in) showed in desecrating the canyon. And then we saw a mule team driver guiding his herd up the trail heading for “up there” to pick up supplies. As he passed, he finished the candy bar he was eating and threw the wrapper over his shoulder, shortly thereafter joined by his empty soda can. So much for the Indian protecting the land.

Hours later as we rounded the bend into Supai Village itself and were confronted by the ghetto McGivney describes, it became apparent to all of us that the “guardians of the Canyon” had created an oasis of garbage, debris, and filth in the bottom of the canyon. As one of the kids said, “just because you’re poor, doesn’t mean you need to be dirty and throw your garbage in your yard”. Looking up we saw the grandeur of the towering canyon walls; looking back down the eye was confronted with the worst that man can do to their own nests.

After a week amongst the falls, we headed back out of the canyon through the trash littering the way, and to the fresh air of the sky above the rim. Camping on the rim in the National Park that night, the air was cold and clear and we felt cleaner than we had for a week. The next day heading down the Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden we saw only a single tissue discarded on the trail, fallen we suspect from an errant child’s daypack. Where the Havasupai seemed to disregard the environment they had trashed, the tourists we encountered treated the most heavily used trail in the park almost with reverence, or at least recognizing it for the unique place it is. We agreed on our way out that the Indian with the tear in his eye in the old TV commercials was undoubtedly crying about what his people had done to this most special place. We will always have the juxtaposition of the beauty of Navajo, Havasu, and Mooney falls set against the backdrop of South L.A. transplanted to the bottom of the canyon.

Jim Hatch

Simsbury, CT

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