A Drumstick’s Story: Part 25

By Joe Liles
Special to News From Indian Country June 2011

With special thanks to:  Anthony Paya, Michael Bonsignore, David Glenn, John Woodmansee, Edmund Tilousi, Eva Kissoon, Grand Canyon National Park, and the Havasupai People, with reference to I am the Grand Canyon by Stephen Hirst, and People of the Blue Water by Flora Gregg Iliff.

My adventures as a drumstick continue!  R.D., an Indian from California, has been taking care of me for quite a while.  I continue to trust the Creator to watch over me while I travel this country.  I am grateful for the way that R.D. respects me and makes sure that I see lots of things.  I am learning so much with each new experience.  During my last time with you, I told you how R.D. and I were traveling through Arizona visiting the families of several of the members of Skinjun, a Native American rock band.  E-rock, who was Diné and the band leader, and Philbert who was Hopi, were there.

We had just finished visiting Philbert’s home at Shungopavi on Second Mesa.  Fred was Havasupai and from the village of Supai in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  Fred was our host this time, taking us to his home.  We had taken a slight detour to see the Grand Canyon from up top.  We had climbed to the top of the Indian Watchtower in the settlement of Desert View to get an overview of the canyon that supported his ancestors for centuries.

I’ll pick up the story at this point.

We climbed down the stairs of the stone tower and headed back to the car.  Even though the car belonged to R.D., Fred seemed to have a plan for the things he wanted to show us, so he served as our driver.  We went to the headquarters of the National Park at a place called Grand Canyon Village.  As we pulled into a parking lot, Fred told us, “This place, my people have always called 'The Spruce Trees.’”

Sure enough, there were a lot of spruce trees around, and there were a lot of people too!  But Fred explained, “You think this is a lot of people?  This is still the spring of the year.  Wait until summer comes.  This place will get over a million visitors!”

We got out of the car, and Fred put several water bottles into a small backpack he was carrying.  “I hope you guys are ready for a little hike!” he said.

He took us down a path called the Bright Angel Trail that led us from the rim and into the canyon.  I was a little concerned at first but I could see from my riding place stuck through the back of R.D.’s belt that the trail was well maintained.  We hiked for a couple of hours, always going down.

Finally, the landscape opened up into a place of mostly flat ground with cottonwood trees everywhere.  A small creek made its way through here.  It was like an oasis!

“This is the ‘Place Below the Spruces,’” Fred told us.  “It is now called Indian Garden.  The Havasupai used to live here and plant their gardens.  The Cohonina and the ancient ones before them also made their home here.  This place was always attractive to Indian people because the land was fertile, and there was plenty of good, fresh water.  It is still several miles to the bottom of the canyon.

My great, great, great grandfather was the last of the Havasupai to live here.  His name was Burro.  He and the other families living here were visited by a white man in 1903.  They said that this man wore little wire-rim glasses over his eyes and had a lot of hair on his lip.  They said his name was Tedi Rosabelt.  (He was Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth President of the United States.)  They said that Tedi Rosabelt told them that change was coming to this land.  This place would soon be a National Park and would be visited by many, many people from the outside world.  Tedi Rosabelt told Burro and the others living here that the outsiders wanted to see the canyon with no people living in it.  He told these Havasupai people that they would soon have to leave.

“All these traditional Havasupai lands were first declared a Forest Preserve, then a National Monument, and finally a National Park in 1919.  Burro and his family resisted the pressure for them to leave their home Below the Spruces until 1928 when the Park rangers forced him to move.  It is said that Burro stood on the rim overlooking the canyon below and cried.  He and his wife, Dangling, relocated to our small reservation on Blue Creek.  One year later, Burro died of a broken heart.

“The reason I brought you here is I wanted you to help me pay respects to Burro and all the Havasupai who have struggled to protect our right to live within the canyon during the spring and summer for raising our crops and to live on top of the rim in the late fall and winter for hunting.  These people know the true meaning of balance.  They know that life within the canyon is confined, but it is also necessary for us to sustain ourselves with our food crops.  They balanced this by living up top in the winter time when we could tell our stories and hunt for food.  Up top, our spirits could be free.”

Fred then led us to a steep part of the canyon.  There was not really a trail here.  It was hard to tell that people had ever come this way, but Fred seemed to know what he was doing.  We came to an opening in the canyon wall, the entrance to a cave.  Silently, we all went inside.  Fred took off his backpack and pulled out a folded piece of cardboard.

When he opened it, I could see a beautiful eagle feather.  Fred held the feather and was quiet for a while.  He stuck the feather upright in the soft dirt of the cave’s floor.  “This is an offering for my ancestors,” he said.  “I know they used this cave for shelter at times.  Their spirits have crossed over to the Other World, but I know they are watching over us.  They will make sure no harm comes to us in our travels.”  Fred made an offering of corn meal that he took from the pouch he carried.  We spent a moment of silence in the dim light of the cave.

When we returned to the Bright Angel Trail, Fred passed around the water bottles from his backpack.  Before everyone took a drink, Fred poured a little water from his bottle onto the ground.  “This is for those who cannot be with us,” he said.  After a short break, we began our climb back up to the rim of the canyon.  Fred continued telling us about the history of this place.

“In the late 1920s, the National Park started rounding up all the Havasupai who were living at various places along the rim.  Some, they sent to our home on Blue Creek in Havasu Canyon.  But the Park needed a labor force.  The Park established a place near Grand Canyon Village called Supai Camp.  Many of the Havasupai who lived in the Camp were given jobs building a sewer line for the Park.  A water line was built to bring water up to the Park from down in the canyon.

Some of the men worked building trails for the new Park.  Some worked building a suspension bridge over the Colorado River way down below Indian Garden.  When all these construction projects were finished, my people in Supai Camp did menial jobs in the Park.  The women worked as maids, as kitchen help, and in the laundry.  The men washed dishes and bussed tables for the tourists.

“At first, the houses in Supai Camp were the traditional homes of my people.  They were built from logs.  Many of the homes had earth on top to keep them warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  Later, scrap building materials salvaged from the Park were used to build homes.  The people who lived here still practiced the traditional way of life. They hunted deer up on the rim in the winter time even though they were forbidden to do so by the rangers.  In the summer, many of these people would migrate to our land on Blue Creek so they could raise their crops.

“In the summer of 1934, all the traditional homes in Supai Camp were burned while the residents were down in the canyon.  Not only were the houses burned, but all the possessions inside were burned as well.  It was a sad day.

“The Park Service wanted to keep a seasonal labor force of the Havasupai so they built crude frame cabins to replace the traditional homes.  These cabins did not have running water. They had kitchen sinks but no water coming to them.  The wiring for the electricity was substandard.  The Havasupai continued to live like this with a few improvements along the way.  A community building was built in the 1950s, and a building for baths and laundry was built in the 60s.

“In August of 2010 something changed here.  Right in the middle of what was called The Great Recession, money came from the Recovery Act to renovate Supai Camp.  Foundations were made for six new duplex homes.  These homes were built outside the Park, transported in, and placed on the new foundations.  These new homes have running water, electricity, heating and air conditioning, cooking facilities, and even indoor bathrooms. We have begun the renovation of the five old cabins that were built back in the 1930s.

“My people feel that this was an important step for the Havasupai and the National Park Service.  It was symbolic because, with these improvements to Supai Camp, the Park has recognized our traditional way of living in harmony with the seasons of the earth.  Now we can live more comfortably in the way of our ancestors, respecting the gifts of the canyon and the gifts of the rim.  We can live in the way of our ancestors before there was a Grand Canyon National Park.”

By this time, we had climbed back up to the rim.  We returned to R.D.’s car in the parking lot.  Fred took the wheel again and drove to a place called Rowe Well Road.  “I want to show you the new Supai Camp,” he said.  We parked the car by one of the new duplex homes.  An old man was sitting out front in a wooden chair.

“Uncle!” Fred called out.  “How are you?”

Uncle used a cane to slowly get to his feet.  We all piled out of the car.  The old man and Fred hugged, and then Fred introduced Uncle to the rest of us.  Uncle invited us inside.  I could tell he was proud of his new home.  We found places to sit on a small sofa and some chairs, and Uncle told us about the changes that had come into his life.

“Before the new houses, life was a lot harder here.  In the old houses, we didn't have running water or indoor bathrooms.  Now I have a kitchen sink with water that comes out of a spigot.  And now, I’ve got this nice bathroom so I don’t have to go outside to use the can!”  Everybody laughed and Uncle continued.

“In the old days I had a woodstove that I heated with and used to cook my supper.  Today, I have a real kitchen with a stove that runs on propane.  That old place didn’t have any insulation.  It was freezing cold in the winter and boiling hot in the summer.  I can already tell that this place is much better.  We had some electric lights in the old house, but sometimes the old wiring would short out.  Now I have a light in every room and real outlets on all the walls.  You know, when we were living in those shacks, I was scared they were going to burn them down like they did our homes back in the 30s.  Those shacks were pretty bad, but they were all we had.  Life is much better for us now, and I feel the Park has recognized that we have a right to be here.  These new duplexes and renovated cabins will make it possible for our people to take advantage of the things outside the walls of the canyon.  Now, our families can live up here and send their kids to high school.  There are more job opportunities up here.  And besides, an old man like me needs to go the doctor every once in a while.”  Uncle chuckled.

I could see a sparkle in his eye.  “You know, I like this place I am living now, but when they finish renovating those old cabins, I’m going to ask to see if I can move back into my old place.  I've got a lot of good memories there.”

After we visited for a little while longer, Fred announced that we still had some miles to go before dark.  We all said goodbye to Uncle and headed to the car. We left Supai Camp and took Highway 64 out of Grand Canyon National Park.  R.D. was driving again, and I was in my traditional riding place on the dashboard.  Fred directed R.D. to take the long way around to where we could access the trail to his village.  “No offense, R.D,” he said.  “I don’t think your car is built for the back road that is the shorter way!”

Highway 64 took us all the way to a busy Interstate 40.  I wondered if this was the same I 40 that Longbraids and I had taken out of Albuquerque. That seemed like such a long time ago.  We got off the Interstate in a short while at a place called Seligman and got on an old two-lane road.  “This is the famous road called Route 66,” Fred said. “This old road dates back all the way to horses and wagons before there was such a thing called interstates.”

As we rode down Route 66, I could see mostly flat land stretching in all directions.  I recognized the juniper trees that dotted the dry landscape.  It was not long before we came to an old road, the Indian Route 18, that looked like it turned back to the direction of the canyon.  There were no houses, no gas stations along this road.  It just cut through the rolling prairie.  I did see the biggest bird I have ever seen run across the road in front of us.  Fred said, “My friends, that was a road runner!  That bird can easily outrun any Indian car!”

Darkness was falling quickly to the land around us. We gained some elevation into a pine forest and then descended to a place where the road came to an end at a giant dirt parking lot.      “Welcome to Hualapai Hilltop,” Fred said.  There were all kinds of cars and trucks here, but it was dark, and I could not see that much.  R.D. parked the car, grabbed me, and we all got out.  I could make out in the darkness that we were on the edge of a canyon that looked much different from the Grand Canyon.

“I'm going to use my cell phone to call my buddy who lives down on Blue Creek in the traditional summer home of my people,” Fred said.  “It is the place called Supai.  There’s no way to get there except by walking or on horseback.  It’s about eight miles down a dusty trail.  Oh, I forgot.  We could take a helicopter down there if you guys had lots of money.  But I’ll save you all that cash you don’t have and ask my friend if he can bring some horses up here tomorrow morning.”

There wasn’t much activity going on at Hilltop so the the guys made preparations to bed down for the night.  Fred, Philbert, and E-rock said they would sleep in the car.  Thank goodness that R.D. kept me with him and saved me from what I was sure would turn into a snoring festival.  He got a tarp and some blankets out the trunk of the car.  He told the guys he was going to sleep under the stars and made a great bed near the edge of the canyon.

And stars there were!  A million of them!

. . . to be continued.

Drumstick's Story Part 24

Comments and assistance:     
Joe Liles
Faculty Emeritus
NC School of Science and Math
1219 Broad Street
Durham, NC 27705
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.