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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.

For at least 700 years, the Havasupai lived in small bands roaming an area that encompassed nearly the entire Grand Canyon drainage. In summer, they farmed deep in the canyon near creeks and springs. Come winter, they migrated to hunting grounds on the open plateau along the South Rim. Although the Havasupai reservation had been established in 1880, the tribe wasn’t confined there until its members were perceived as trespassing in the national park. Havasupai who lived within the boundaries of the park at traditional summer homesites like Indian Garden and Santa Maria Springs were instructed to move to the reservation. The Forest Service also evicted the Havasupai from their plateau hunting camps.

By 1920, the Havasupai world had shrunk to a 518-acre prison inside Havasu Canyon. This tributary of the Grand Canyon held spiritual significance for the tribe, but it had never been a primary dwelling site. The Havasupai attempted to farm year-round, but gradually the fields were supplanted by homes. Totally isolated and without access to winter hunting grounds, the tribe nearly starved to extinction several times between 1920 and 1970. Meanwhile, the waterfalls that were technically part of the reservation were off-limits to the Havasupai for most of the 20th century. (Claims under a 19th century law allowed miners to live in cabins between Havasu and Mooney Falls, a sacred area where the tribe had cremated and buried its dead.) In 1957, the National Park Service bought out the mining claims, fenced off 62 acres, and established a campground between the falls.

By the 1960s, Supai had shrunk to about 150 residents. A 1971 GCNP Master Plan didn’t acknowledge the existence of the reservation, says Stephen Hirst, author of I Am the Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People. Federal officials thought the tribe would die out within a decade or two and that the reservation would become part of the park.The tribe’s struggle to survive, without access to traditional means of sustenance or to infrastructure like electricity and plumbing, fomented a deep resentment toward the federal government (especially the NPS) and white people (especially tourists camping on burial sites).

Although the Havasupai have remained anonymous to most Americans, the tribe figures prominently in the traditional Native American world. "The Havasupai are the guardians of the Grand Canyon, which is the origin place for many Southwest native cultures," says Hirst, who lived in Supai on and off for 40 years. The tribe’s geographic isolation has also helped give it the highest rate of language fluency of any Native American group in the United States.

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