email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Grandest Canyon
Page [ 3 ] of 4

When a park archaeologist brought Leigh Kuwanwisiwma to this site by boat, she didn't have to tell him what he was looking at. "I'm proud to say I'm a farmer," he told me, "and when I'm in the canyon, I look at all the places with a farmer's eye. And I'm always amazed, because I can see that I'm farming like my ancestors. I see where they put their farms and homes and granaries near the little tributaries and oases— and I think, yes, that is right, that is where a farm would be."

Native people are, in fact, still farming in the Grand Canyon, if not in the park itself. In Havasu Canyon, a narrow side spur, the Havasupai, or Havasu 'Baaja—"people of the blue-green water"—tend fields where they've lived for at least 700 years. About 450 of the tribe's 650 members live here in the village of Supai. There are no roads or cars, so almost everyone takes the eight-mile trail in by foot, horse, or mule.

Claude Watahomigie, a slim-faced, taciturn fellow, put me on his tall piebald horse, Kid, for the trip. "Going to Mooney Falls?" he asked, since that's the prime destination of most of the 25,000 tourists who come to Havasu Canyon. (The waterfall's true name is Mother of the Waters; Mooney was simply a hapless miner who fell to his death there.)

"Yes and no," I said. "I'd like to see the farms."

Watahomigie nodded, and then his face turned blanker than a mask. He gave the horses a low whistle, and down we headed to Supai. But I'd come with the permission of the Havasupai tribal council, and slowly, reluctantly, a bemused twinkle softened his glance when I spoke.

The trail switchbacked down the rim in long, steep turns, then merged gently into Havasu Canyon. Watahomigie pulled up his horse and pointed far up the canyon, among the piñon pines. "See that bunch of wild horses? I'm planning to catch that palomino. Put him in my corral." The horses stood in a small knot near canyon walls of beige and gold, and suddenly I wanted nothing more than to see Watahomigie catch that palomino. His desire, the wild horses, the freedom to round them up, to gallop where one's heart called seemed as rare a thing as this canyon home.

Once, until the early 1900s, the Havasupai had also lived in the main Grand Canyon, farming an oasis on Bright Angel Trail now called generically Indian Garden. Then they were evicted; their wickiups, gardens, and peach orchards destroyed. All they had left were the 518 acres of Havasu Canyon with its turquoise streams and waterfalls. (Another 187,500 acres of canyon and rimland were returned to the tribe in 1975.)

So when someone like me, a paleface like those who did the evicting, rides into dusty Supai, a cluster of shabby prefab buildings tucked beneath the tall cottonwood trees, people tend to look away or right through you, as Watahomigie had initially done. You are as invisible as they believe your ancestors hoped they would become.

Page [ 3 ] of 4