A Tribe on the Threshold

Haunted by drugs, alcohol and unemployment, the Hualapai Indians look for a savior in uranium

The Hualapai tribal elder summons what strength is left in his failing body, and gets right to the point.

"If my people don't watch out, it's gonna get a lot worse," says 76-year-old Rupert Parker, his once-resonant baritone reduced to a whisper. Parker is confined to a bed in his old stucco home off Route 66 in Peach Springs, fifty miles east of Kingman in northwest Arizona. His beloved wife Rachel died in September, and friends say his health has been sliding since. He's almost blind now, and his spirits seem low. But his mind is clear.

"The government hasn't done us any good," Parker continues, as an adopted daughter pulls a comforter up to his chin in the chilly room. "Our main problem has been to keep the reservation together--to keep our tribe together. At least we still have a tribe. A lot of people have tried to get rid of us."

Back in 1951, the Hualapai elected Parker tribal chairman, a post he held for about seven years. But he is as renowned locally for his Baptist lay preaching skills and his music as for his politics.

Parker stops himself for a moment. He says he'd rather not dwell on the trail of broken promises that haunt his 1,400-strong tribe. He wants to think "good thoughts"--of his long and happy marriage, of his many adopted children and of his musical feats, which culminated in 1961 when a Navajo orchestra borrowed him to play tuba at John Kennedy's inauguration.

But thoughts of the Hualapai's history of betrayal at the hands of hay-gu--the tribe's word for white people--keep intruding upon Parker's reverie. The only solace he finds is with his God.

"He's colorblind, you know that," Parker says, shutting his eyes tight as his voice gains strength. "He doesn't know Indians from white people. We're all the same to Him. Some people don't know that. This is a big time for us. I don't know what's gonna happen. All I know is that it's God who's going to do the happening."

This is, indeed, a "big time" for the little tribe, whose lonely reservation sprawls over a million acres along the Grand Canyon's South Rim.

The Hualapai have struggled with rampant alcoholism and drug abuse and unemployment that hovers around 80 percent. Things are so bad that free enterprise for some tribe members is limited to making a few dollars by driving fellow Hualapai to the nearest bar--seven miles from Peach Springs.

And soon, they may have something else to deal with: uranium ore.
The tribal council voted during a four-hour meeting December 12 to allow a Denver firm to mine high-grade uranium on the reservation. The council's 7-2 vote gives Energy Fuels Corporation permission--subject to the expected approval of the secretary of the Interior--to start its exploratory digs.

If the project is successful, Energy Fuels would pay the Hualapai a percentage of its profit plus rental fees and other cosiderations. Uranium mining could mean millions of dollars and dozens of jobs.

Like many other western tribes, the Hualapai (pronounced WAHL-a-pie) have been debating for years if and how to exploit their natural resources. But the terms in which they have couched this question set them apart from other tribes facing similar issues. The Hualapai have never debated the possible harm to the "Spirit Mother"--whom most tribes believe gives birth each year to renewed life inside the Earth. For them, it comes down to economics. Few Hualapai actively oppose the uranium project--only about half of the dozen or so people who attended the December 12 council meeting spoke out in opposition--but almost everyone expresses an opinion about it. Some are wary. Some cope with dark humor. All seem resigned. "There's a joke going around about the uranium," says Peach Springs school principal Lucille Watahomigie. "They say, `Hey, we know a way to get rid of all the alcoholism and the drugs around here. It's called radiation.'"

PEACH SPRINGS SCHOOL superintendent Michael Reed leads a gaggle of administrators from Phoenix on a tour of his 220-student facility.

Superintendent Reed and principal Watahomigie are used to visits from out-of-towners. The pair have won hefty federal and state grants by focusing on computer teaching and a unique bilingual program designed to help preserve the Hualapai language. The ultramodern school, a startling sight in this impoverished town, is one of the few things the Hualapai unreservedly brag about. "There is more technology per square inch in this school than anywhere else in the state," says Ruth Catalano, director of instructional services for the Phoenix Washington School District. "This place is a model from a grassroots point of view. It's a remarkable experiment."

The Peach Springs School was one of the first fourteen in the United States to use CNN's Week in Review as a current-events teaching tool. Its audio-visual studio would rival that of a small television station. On a recent day, eight- and nine-year-olds joyfully sign onto word processors to write Christmas stories. "Tree, nice," second grader Wade Siyuja types onto his computer screen. "A Star makes the Tree Glow. Christmas Lights on the Tree. People Enjoy Looking at the Tree."

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