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Below the Rim

Humans have roamed the Grand Canyon for more than 8,000 years. But the chasm is only slowly yielding clues to the ancient peoples who lived below the rim

With the coming of Anglo-Americans, that cycle of life changed. In 1882, after miners began gouging holes in the cliff walls in their quest for silver, lead and gold, the U.S. government restricted the Havasupai to the 518 acres of their village. From then on, they could no longer hunt or gather on the South Rim. Other Havasupai families lived in mid-canyon glades, such as Indian Gardens, the halfway point on today’s Bright Angel Trail. Gradually, however, they were nudged out by encroaching tourism.

As late as the 1920s, a park service employee called the Havasupai a “doomed tribe” amounting to “less than two hundred wretched weaklings.” But today, the Havasupai number some 650 men, women and children. And in 1974, Congress returned much of the people’s traditional land to them, in the largest restoration ever bestowed on a Native American tribe. The Havasupai Reservation today covers more than 185,000 acres, where, ironically, the tourists have become guests of the people of the blue-green water.

A number of those tourists come by helicopter; most hike in to Supai with light daypacks while Native wranglers bring their duffels on horseback or muleback. The chief draw for most visitors, however, is not the village, with its cornfields and pastures full of sleek horses, but three spectacular waterfalls downstream.

Bill, Greg and I backpacked the eight miles and 2,000 feet down into Supai, looking less for the Spring Break atmosphere of high tourist season than for a chance to plumb the past. On our second day, Rex Tilousi, who was then the tribal chairman, held our nosy questions at arm’s length for an hour or so, but then relented and took us on an amble through his boyhood neighborhood.

With his flowing silver hair, Colonel Sanders goatee and weather-beaten visage, Tilousi cut a striking figure. And his monologue blended sly satire with ancestral grievances. Referring to the miners, Tilousi recalled, “Here came the hairy man from the East, looking for the shining rock, wanting to get rich.” And then, more solemnly, “If it had been up to us, we never would have let the miners come down here.”

The tourist campground, built by the park service before 1974, lies “right on top of where we used to cremate our people,” Tilousi told us. “It disturbs me sometimes to see that campground, but we need income from the tourists.” He stroked his goatee and said, “Our ancestors lie there. Then the government said, ‘You can’t do that anymore.’ So now we have to bury our dead, just like everybody else.”

We paused beside a giant cottonwood as Tilousi pointed to a high cliff to the west. “See those two white marks up there?” Through binoculars I discerned a pair of white alkaline streaks made by seeping water in the ruddy cliff, seemingly inaccessible below the distant rim. “Those are two ears of corn, placed there by the Creator,” Tilousi said. “We pray to them, asking for plenty.”

The Havasupais’ welcome mat is something of a facade, Tilousi admitted. Archaeologists had asked Havasupai to interpret the “rock writings”—had even, he insisted, taken chisels to certain petroglyph panels—but the people had objected. “We feel we should never tell anyone besides ourselves” what the rock art means, he said. “We don’t know what you want to do with that knowledge.”

Visitors without guides are forbidden to explore the canyon beyond the main trail that leads down to the waterfalls, so the next day we hired two Havasupai in their mid-30s. Genial-faced Benjy Jones had the build of a sumo wrestler; Damon Watahomigie had less girth, a sharper mien and a fund of lore. We had hiked only 15 minutes when he stopped and pointed out a knob of rock far above us on the western rim. “See the frog?” he asked. The knob indeed looked like a frog preparing to jump.

“The story is that the people were living at Wi-ka-sala—Beaver Canyon, on your maps—when all the waters receded,” Watahomigie said. “Everything was dying because of the new age. We weren’t people then; we were animals and insects. The chief sent out the frog to find a place where we could begin again. The frog hopped all over, until he finally found this place. He could hear the Colorado River.”

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