Into Their Canyon

On any day of the week except Saturday between March 15th and October 15th, you can get on a chartered helicopter at Hualapai Hilltop in the southwest quadrant of Grand Canyon National Park, and ten minutes later you’ll arrive at the Havasupai Indian Reservation. The tiny village of the Havasupai people fills a bowl in the earth where two canyons cross. Farther along one of the canyons, just outside the village, are three waterfalls. The water there is sacred—an implausible blue-green pounding limestone rocks. From this source springs the name of the tribe: Havasu Baaja, Havasupai, the People of the Blue-Green Water.

If you don’t like helicopters, there is also a trailhead at Hualapai Hilltop. A mile and a half of steep switchbacks descend to the canyon floor, a dry riverbed that snakes between two close, red walls seven miles to the village. Legend has it that these walls used to open and close, crushing anyone who tried to enter. Two young brothers propped them open with juniper logs so their tribe could access the canyon. Above the Havasupai village stand two sandstone pillars, the Wigleeva, guardian spirits. If the Wigleeva are ever to fall, it is said, the canyon walls will close once more, swallowing the village and its people.

***

The year I was twelve, my father decided it was time for a family vacation. He settled, for some reason, on Arizona—perhaps on a friend’s recommendation, or after a quick look at the Barnes & Noble travel section (quick because he only made it to A). From our apartment in Brooklyn, he spent the last of the winter months feverishly compiling an itinerary that would get us from Sedona (with its Coffee Pot Rock) to Hopi Land (Don’t Worry, Be Hopi) to the Petrified Forest to the Grand Canyon and Havasupai. “Hey guys,” he’d say, thrilled, “want to hear about Arizona?” Amid the flurry of New York winter days, my mother and I never did—hot red rock and prickly pear cacti were unfathomable. And so it remained a surprise. Until July, all we knew about Havasupai was that it held an ancient tribe and three sacred waterfalls.

It’s 70 miles to Hualapai Hilltop from the nearest motel: Grand Canyon Caverns, the sort of seedy one-story complex that’ll do for a night. From outside our room there we watched tumbleweed roll past as a thunderstorm tore across the landscape, lightning crackling across the low, flat horizon. At the crack of dawn we were to drive to the trailhead and make the hike to Havasupai before the real heat of the day set in. For now all we could imagine were rains rising, rising between the walls of narrow canyon passes.

When we arrived at the trailhead, we delighted in the lone Porta-John that stood at the rim of the canyon—a blue plastic box teetering over a thousand-foot drop. What possessed me to use it, rather than to squat safely, I can’t say. What a way to go.

***

The Havasupai have walked between these walls for eight centuries, perhaps longer, their bodies painted with the land’s offering of red ochre and wrapped in winter buckskin. The blue-green water, they say, flows through each of them. They lived across a million canyoned acres until President Chester A. Arthur and his impressively continuous mutton-chop-mustache confined the tribe to a 500-acre reservation. The land they knew was settled and farmed. Soil eroded. Bucks thinned.

***

Upon entering the village, my parents and I came to a general store—a bodega, really, like the ones we have in New York. Under the gaze of the overweight proprietor, we decided to bypass the selection of candy bars in favor of a good electrolyte beverage—Gatorade or Powerade or some other neon -ade. There we were, opening a drink fridge, passing by clip-racks of potato chips to the counter, glancing at chewing gum. A few dollars changed hands. What was this pocket of New York doing at the feet of the Wigleeva?

There is one lodge in the village for tourists, ordinary as far as inns go: two double beds with reading lamps, a dresser, a bathroom. We checked into a room and began unloading our packs. Snacks and valuables accumulated on the bed. We were still occupied with our supplies when we heard racing footsteps outside.

There were six or seven of them, young kids, one with a tricycle. These little people of the tribe charged into our room. Friends! I thought. They didn’t look at us, though.

My father was the first to realize what they’d come for, as we watched their hands plunge into our Goldfish.

“HEY! What do you think you’re doing? GET OUT OF HERE!”

I’d never seen him bellow like that.

The kids stopped and looked up at him, at his blue eyes. “Chucky!” the tallest one said—naming the blue-eyed serial killer doll from the movies—and they took off in a spray of orange crumbs.

***

The trees in Havasupai bore no resemblance to any I’d seen in Arizona or elsewhere. Scanning from the ground up, I noticed their thick trunks ended somewhat abruptly in stumps, each of which offered up a shock of skinny limbs. Pollarding, my father explained, was how the Havasupai sustained their timber needs: they harvested only upper branches, leaving the tree trunks to regenerate new shoots. There was something monstrous about those club-headed stumps and the way they clutched the delicate regrowth, bark scarred at the joining of old and new.

In the afternoon, as we explored the village, we passed a native kid. He stood behind a chain link fence, wild-looking—same expression as the stray dogs in the town square. A torn shirt revealed his small, dark chest. It was stippled with scars, a constellation. I could only imagine the horror of their origin: barbed wire? A knife? Glass? He laced his fingers through the fence and stared at us.

***

With the exception of some small backyard gardens, the only sources of food in Havasupai are the Grocery Store (a few aisles wider than the bodega at the entrance of the village) and the Café. Everything must be carted down by mule or flown in by helicopter. Everything must be boxed, canned, frozen, dried, powdered, packaged, wrapped. Everything on the Café menu is a deep-fried variation on the theme: potatoes, ground meat, beans, corn chips. I relished the occasional white shred of lettuce. One woman ran the Café. She took orders, rang us up, and watched us dine each night at one of her Formica tables. She kept a tiny bun pinned atop her head, a black Wigleeva. Without a neck, the rest of her spread below like an immense rock face.

Most of the tribe, we learned, is overweight. They don’t live off the land, or if they do, it is only indirectly. They are no longer farmers. Since the 1960s, sacred Havasupai has relied on tourism. The tribe’s vitality springs from pockets like mine—not too deep, but affording enough of a blue-green flow to keep this people afloat. I’d never felt this way before. Vacationing, we sought pleasure. They served us.

***

One evening we took a walk to the fringe of the village. Beneath a pollarded tree there, we met an old woman. She smiled as no one else in Havasupai had and began telling stories. “You see?” she said. “Look.” Our blue eyes followed her gesture up the cliff to where several miniature huts had been built into the rock. Shrines? I wondered.

Her grandmother, she told us, used to come—tak-tak-tak—early, so early, with fresh apricots. They’d carry the fruits up and hang them in the little houses to dry. They were sweet in two weeks, but how she hated to get up so early—before the sun!

When we said goodbye and headed to the Café, I realized I hadn’t seen a single apricot in the canyon.

***

The blue-green water of Havasu Falls was cold, crashing down the cliffs and carving its course over the limestone. The other two falls were no good for swimming: Little Navajo because it was too small; Mooney, too big. Havasu Falls is surrounded by tall cottonwoods and mats of maidenhair fern. No one from the tribe was there. It was a relief to be out of their presence—to be washed clean of the canyon’s hot red dust and their stares.

We met another tourist family there, and I caught frogs with their daughter. We held the tiny things on our thumbs and giggled. After a picnic lunch, her family stood in front of the falls and we took their picture. Then we traded places.

I stood between my parents, wrapped in their arms, all of us wrapped in the sound of pounding water. I did my best to smile. This was why we’d come.

Hannah Sassoon grew up in Brooklyn and Harlemville, NY. She enjoys growing vegetables, playing music, and herding, milking, and hugging cows. Send her an email at hannah.sassoon@yale.edu.

 

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