Preserving the Beauty of the Remote

*Editor’s Note: Facts in this article may change based on information provided by the Havasupai.*

Wrap your mind around this: the Havasupai Indian Nation owns 185,000-plus acres of the Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It is arguably the most beautiful real estate in the country. And the remote world of the Havasupai, 2,000 feet down in the heart of the canyon, is sought by people the world over.

Mooney Falls in Havasupai. Photo by Jennifer Boley

Mooney Falls in Havasupai.
Photo by Jennifer Boley

Everything one thinks one might know about Native American communities in the modern world is surely redefined by this most remote of American towns, this dwelling of Supai, Arizona, home to about 200 people, next to the vibrant, cool, unpredictable Colorado River.

There’s a saying that geography is no longer our master. But remote is remote, and in this instance, geography is absolutely the master.

To get to Supai, one can only walk, ride a horse or a mule nine switchback miles down, or take a spectacular helicopter ride through the canyon from Hualapai Hilltop, just off of Indian Route 18, by way of historic Route 66.

Owning part of the Grand Canyon must be a beautiful, a daunting and a scary circumstance in and of itself. It is a large trust, and, as a nation within a nation, probably is precariously susceptible to altered legal status.

In a nutshell, the Havasupai were chased into the canyon, previously only their summering grounds for hundreds of years, by the United States Army in the late 1800’s.

Thousands of Years

Prolific historical fiction author Gary Paulsen has written about the nature of the interactions of the early pioneers of European ancestry with Native Americans in the Western states. He says that archeology shows the “western canyons, deserts and mountains” may have been inhabited for twenty thousand years, and that there was “rarely, very rarely an attack on a wagon train…All the difficulty…came later, after (Native Americans) were invaded by the military and their lands were stolen…This happened after 1860…” (Paulsen, Tucket’s Gold, 1999).

And while the Havasupai fought long and hard to regain ownership of these summer grounds, their physical home — until the 1970’s– there must be many variables keeping them on their toes, not the least of which are the psychological pro’s and con’s of remoteness.

One can only imagine the tenacity it has taken the Havasupai to maintain their culture and language — with its breathy, staccato notes — in the modern, cinched-in world of electronic media, and the never-ending stream of tourists.

A touch of the modern, a helicopter shuttles people and supplies in and out of Supai Village.  Photo by Jennifer Boley

A touch of the modern, a helicopter transports people and supplies in and out of Supai Village.
Photo by Jennifer Boley

Imagine a sparkling, corporate yellow brick road leading to the bottom of the canyon and to the front door of a casino in Supai. Now imagine a meeting of tribal elders in which each and every decision washes over not only every single resident, but every visitor who challenges himself to interact with the Grand Canyon. It becomes clear that remoteness serves a beautiful purpose here.

At the same time, economics must be an issue in Supai — managing the tourist trade while maintaining a quality of life that honors ancient traditions. Internet sources state that Supai’s population has dwindled by more than half in recent years. It must be noted here that questions submitted to the Havasupai Tribal Council about this article were not answered.

Safety Net and Ethernet

The internet also highlights and sensationalizes some of Supai’s normal human troubles — as well as those unique to its circumstances. This is no surprise. No one who swims in the net is immune from its undertows and backwashes. Yet, ironically, this traveller would not have known about Supai without the dichotomously wide, yet small and messy world of the internet.

Mules and Horses help move people , mail, and supplies through the canyon to Supai Village.  Photo by Jennifer Boley

Mules and Horses help move people , mail, and supplies through the canyon to Supai Village.
Photo by Jennifer Boley

Indeed, Supai is a world where the logistical and physical challenges of arriving there may create just enough obstacles to help the Havasupai maintain the beauty of the natural world they inhabit.

And because of the stark, beautiful harshness of the desert, the cultural differences in Supai also seem direct and visceral. And one might think it lacking in some of the buffers middle class American urbanites have devised for themselves.

But that would be wholly untrue, because if one looks deeply into Supai there is a group awareness, and an acute awareness of otherness — surely born of cultural maturity — that is prevalent in many cultures, but which seems to be uniquely lacking in middle-class America. Some would question whether this hyper-awareness and/or tradition inhibits innovation. And then the question becomes whether tradition has to change or fade away for innovation and survival to take place…but that is a different story.

In any case, no matter how much one may try to define it, there is something mysterious there in the bottom of the canyon — thus the twenty-thousand years of human footprints. And one suspects that mystery is not ever supposed to be solved, or even fully described — much like the canyon itself.

Keeping it Alive

One of those mysteries is how the Havasupai will continue to hold onto their culture and language. Unfortunately, cultures have gone extinct  all throughout time — the Mayans and the Incans, for example. The fading, assimilation, or compromise of a culture is the partial death of another point of view, another window into the big mystery of life.

Obviously, it’s people who keep cultures alive. But surely in this time of space-age technology in which reams of data can be stored on a computer microchip the size of a speck of glitter– surely, now, finally — there is no excuse for letting any language or tradition completely slip into oblivion. For example, folding Native American heritage, language and values into a “mainstream” education has to be part of that process.

So the upshot is that Supai, the town, and the Havasupai, the people, culture and language, need to be treated as the treasures they are.

A lone hawk greets visitors entering Supai Village.  Photo by Jennifer Boley

A lone hawk greets visitors entering Supai Village.
Photo by Jennifer Boley

Every culture should be kept alive like the Olympic flame, like the smallest stem cell nurtured in the most prestigious medical lab, like the tiniest of fragile plants of the rain forest that carries the hope of curing disease.

With all due and appropriate apologies to the Havasupai community for the stem cell comparison, on the heels of settling the blood sample lawsuit with Arizona State University (Amy Harmon, New York Times, April 21, 2010), the parallel remains: We always need to protect that which is small and unique, which does, and will continue to yield mysteries and wonderments.

So for the Havasupai, for hundreds and hundreds of years, it’s in and out of the canyon, in and out. And, for their part, they seem to be holding onto all of that beauty in their culture and in their environment very well.

Most of us are not, and never will be Havasupai. But Supai is a microcosm of almost whatever you may choose. It can be all-cultural, all-dimensional, many truths, many pasts, many futures. Supai is not out of the norm. It is, in fact, and in deed, the norm.

We are, all of us, living in Supai.

Please revisit us soon for more stories about life in and around Supai and the Grand Canyon, as well as a special interview with Arizona artist and teacher Cheryl Thomas…

For their insights regarding the stories in this issue, special thanks to Ernestine Hill, Merryl and Frank Piper, Gene Po Wong.