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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.

To the Havasupai, the Grand Canyon isn’t just a beautiful place; it’s a reference point that defines their view of the world. "In addition to the four cardinal directions, the Havasupai have two ways of orienting themselves: in the canyon, and away from the canyon," says Hirst. In Havasupai culture, there are two realities: Down There or Up There. The situation for the Havasupai improved in 1975, when Gerald Ford signed a law returning 185,000 acres of national forest on the Kaibab Plateau to the tribe. The measure also returned the falls area, with stipulations that the tribe manage the campground and leave it open to the public. Native American advocates for the law argued that revenue generated by camping and entrance fees would save the Havasupai from extinction. Soon after the law passed and the tribe agreed to build its own tourism enterprise, federal grants funded the construction of public utilities in Supai. For three decades, the tribe has dutifully, though not exactly enthusiastically, managed a $2.5 million tourism business on which the 500-member community has come to depend. The tribe also receives several million dollars a year of Arizona Indian gaming revenue disbursed to reservations that don’t operate casinos. Federal funds pay for tribal health care, education, and law enforcement, but tourism pays for the infrastructure and upkeep of the community buildings, lodge, and campground. Unlike other tribes, which typically contract with outside corporations to run their commercial enterprises, the Havasupai insist on operating their own businesses. This gives Supai a down-home, uncommercialized flavor that you won’t find at Grand Canyon Village. But there’s also a sense that you’re on the frontier fringe.

THE FIRST SIGN of trouble came the morning of May 9, when a lodge employee entered Hanamure’s room to clean and saw her belongings and undisturbed bed. The Coconino County sheriff was contacted later that day. A search began May 10 for what was presumed to be a lost or injured hiker.

More than 40 law enforcement officers and search-and-rescue volunteers descended on Supai and began combing the area around the falls and campground. Meanwhile, an Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter circled overhead. Given the 100°F daytime highs and harsh canyon terrain, finding her quickly was imperative.

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