Photographing down on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, Arizona
Part 1- Supai Village
Recently, at a dinner party, I was lamenting to a friend about our failed efforts to get a reservation at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. To get a reservation at Phantom Ranch, you can apply online, but they also recommend that on the first of the month 13 months before the month that you would like to travel to get on the phone and call. Another friend came over to our house on the appointed 13 month deadline, and, with two separate phones, we speed dialed for three hours to the Phantom Ranch offices. We never got past the busy signal. As I was telling this story to my friend, she quietly said, “Why don’t you go down to the Havasupai Reservation?” I had never heard of the Havasupai, but a quick internet search revealed that they were noted for their three main waterfalls : Navaho Falls, Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls, a fourth waterfall, Beaver Falls, is much further down. Havasupai means “people of the blue-green waters, ” which is the magnificent color of the pools and streams coming out of these falls. The water travels a hundred miles under ground picking up limestone deposits along the way. This gives the water its blue-green color.
The Indian Reservation has a lodge in the village of Supai, where the majority of the people stay, two miles further down the trail past the village is a campground where the majority of people stay. As we were combining a skiing trip (Northern Utah) with a hiking trip (Southern Utah and Arizona), we were not going to be bringing camping equipment with us on the airplane. Our only option, therefore, was to try to get a reservation at the lodge. Given the hardships of getting into Phantom Ranch, I was not confident we could get a place in the lodge on such short notice. In short, with several phone calls and follow up phone calls, I was able to get a reservation in the lodge. I started trying to get the reservation five weeks from the time we hoped to be there. With Phantom Ranch, who knows how many years it would have taken to get a place at the lodge.
The Havusapai Indian Reservation is in the western part of the Grand Canyon near the Nevada border. Though it is probably only a 30 mile destination as the crow flies from the much visited South Rim of the Grand Canyon, it is a four hour car drive to get to the Hilltop parking area for the Reservation. If coming from the South Rim, as we were, there is only one motel, the Grand Canyon Cavern Motel, to stay in on this fairly desolate stretch of road before entering Reservation land. We got up early on the morning of our visit to the reservation and drove sixty miles down the reservation road to get to the Hilltop Parking. At first we were on Hualopai (pron: Wal-i-pie) land, then we eventually crossed on to Havasupai land. As we drove the hour down the road, we did not see one car. We saw one abandoned house and only a handful of cattle. Yet when we arrived at the Hilltop the parking lot was full. We later read that the Havasupai also leave their cars at the top of the Canyon. The Havasupai live at the bottom of Cataract Canyon in Supai village. There land is some 185,00 acres, but the village only encompasses maybe a 100 of those acres. To get to the village you have four options: Hike the eight miles down to the village and another two miles down to the campgrounds; you can be taken down by horseback; you can pay a fee to be helicoptered down and back from the village; or, lastly you can hike down and pay to have your camping gear taken down by horseback. Many people choose the latter.
We chose to hike down, using only large day packs and the minimum amount of gear. After the hour drive, we began the eight mile hike down to the Village at around 9:30 A.M. Though is was only mid-April, the temperatures that day were already in the 80s, a little too warm for our Vermont blood just coming out of winter. The first mile and one-half is a series of relatively steep switchbacks, but then after that the trail is quite flat. Yet, though the trail is flat it is not exactly easy walking. The canyon floor is sandy and gravelly- like walking on a loose sandy beach- and dusty from the horse trains that are making regular trips to the Hilltop to off-load gear and garbage. When we arrived at the lodge some three and one half ours later, we were beat and immediately took a quick nap. (We later realized it was the heat that got to us more than the hiking. When we hiked out, we started in early morning before the sun filled the canyon and we were fine. In fact, we drove five hours after hiking our eight with no problem. So if heat bothers you, be aware to hike in the cooler parts of the day). After resting we took a tour of the village, which was small and did not take long. In the village there is a small restaurant, store and post office. The post office is the only post office in the country that still delivers by Pony Express. In fact, when you mail anything from this post office you get a unique stamp showing a Pony Express symbol. Also, for hikers and campers, you can also have your gear delivered to the post office the same as any other post office in the United States. Besides the restaurant, store and post office, there is an elementary school (high school students are boarded out topside), several denominations of churches, a basketball court and small meeting center. The roads are all dirt, no cars, very few pieces of heavy machinery.
Though the Havasupai have occupied this land for some eight hundred years, there seemed to be little evidence of gardening, farm animals or other self-sufficiency sustaining activities. In fact, sadly enough, the ravages of the modern world seemed to have found this small village. Obesity seemed quite prevalent and we saw quite a number of small children carrying bags of chips or ice cream who were already clearly heading towards obesity. Though perhaps not as insidious, we also satellite dishes on most of the homes. There was four bar cell reception, and many of the locals, young and old, were seen with earphone buds in their ears attached to their Ipods. The young teenagers were mostly in the low-slung hip-hop clothing worn by many youth. All of these symptoms and symbols of modernity were probably to be expected. The most troubling, of course, was the obesity levels as this implies many future health risk.
I did fully understand their need for Ipods. The Havasupai receive on average 30,000 visitors a year, most, like us, only there for three or four days. Most past right through the village and head down to the campground with little to no real contact with the villagers. So, essentially, they get 30, 000 transient visitors who might regard them as no more than a curiosity. Hence, they are notoriously reticent to talk with strangers and use headphones and music to help maintain their distance and sanity. As we were staying at the lodge in the village, we did go hang out at the basketball court that night, just to get a feel for the rhythm and flow of the village. Because of the curiosity factor, the Havasupai do not like to be photographed and though I did take my camera with me and shot some images, I made sure to have my camera in my lap and fired images from there, hit or miss. I wanted to document the village and my trip with out invading their personal space. I am still not sure if this was still ethically the correct thing to do.
In our walk through the village we did meet one blond haired Caucasian woman carrying a heavy back pack. We stopped and talked with her and found out that she had been living in the village since 1979 as a Christian missionary whose purpose was to translate the Havasupai language into a written language, whereby the Havasupai people could read the Bible. Her name was LynAnne Palmer and she works with Wycliffe Bible Translators. She spoke fluent Havasupai. Even though I was strongly ambivalent about her core mission, I was glad that the Havasupai language and all of the other languages around the world that they were translating would be saved in written form.
So, in short, the hike down to the village was a visit and insight into another culture and became much more than just a hiking experience. An experience that I will mull over, for both good and bad, for awhile to come.