A Tribe on the Threshold

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

With her long black hair framing her sad, narrow face, Charmaine stares blankly at a color television set. Bob Barker is selling soap on The Price Is Right.

"What am I gonna do, go back to school or something?" Charmaine says, after a screaming woman wins a dishwasher. "I'm stuck right here until I die."

THE PEOPLE OF the Tall Pines--the Hualapai--once roamed over half of what became the Arizona Territory. But the nomadic tribe would always return to the desert plateaus, pine-forested hills, grasslands and canyons south of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. Today, this is the site of the reservation where 1,400 tribal members live.

A priest trekked through northern Arizona and had friendly contacts with the Hualapai as early as 1776. But white people did not arrive in significant numbers on the frontier until the 1850s, when prospectors began mining for riches on lands traditionally populated by the tribes of the Yuman language group--Hualapai, Yavapai, Havasupai, and Mohave. Travel to the area increased dramatically after settlers finished a toll road through Mohave County in 1865. The town of Peach Springs is said to have gotten its name from the fruit trees planted by Mormon missionaries a few miles away. As more and more settlers arrived, violence between the whites and the Indians became commonplace. To protect the settlers, in 1867 the U.S. Army--fresh from the Civil War--launched an offensive against the northern Arizona Indians, killing them with impunity. Though they battled ferociously for a few years, the Hualapai didn't stand a chance in the long run.

"Lo, the Hualapai!" the Mohave Daily Miner noted in 1871. "His days are numbered. The name will be retained as the name of a place--a county or town--as the names of many tribes that once inhabited the eastern, middle or western states have been perpetuated. But the names alone remain. The tribes have passed away. Savages have passed away and civilized beings have taken their place . . . "

As the Indian wars wound down in the early 1870s, Army Captain Tommy Byrne convinced many Hualapai to work for him as scouts against the Yavapai, their traditional enemy. By all accounts, the Hualapai scouts performed admirably for Byrne--who is remembered by the tribe with respect to this day--and some collected pensions from the U.S. government for their efforts.

But trouble brewed again in 1874 when a band of Hualapai was accused of attacking a stagecoach along a toll road. More blood was shed on both sides. Later that year, the Army decided to move the entire tribe from its aboriginal mountain home to the steamy bottomlands of the La Paz area in the Colorado River Indian Reserve.

The brutal sixteen-day walk that followed, starting on April 4, 1874, is as central an event to the tribe--though not as well-known to outsiders--as the Long Walk of the Navajos and the Cherokee Trail of Tears.

To be herded to that hell like cattle decimated these once-free nomads physically and psychically. Many Hualapai died on the way to La Paz, and many more died during the scalding summer months there.

The late Hualapai elder Fred Mahone--whose parents survived the march--said during a 1968 oral history project: "They march the Hualapai people, nice young children, barefooted old people--they just die on the road to Parker."

A year to the day after their imposed exodus, the surviving 600 Hualapai escaped La Paz and walked home. Army officials pondered what to do, taking heed that the Hualapai leaders had vowed to fight to the death if ordered to return to La Paz.

The Army decided to allow the Hualapai to stay in the Peach Springs area, if the tribe promised to defer to the authority of the United States government. After this, in fact, several Hualapai resumed their work as U.S. Army scouts in the last wars against the western Apache.

The Hualapai efforts on behalf of their white conquerors led President Chester A. Arthur in 1883 to establish a million-acre reservation for the tribe. But like other nomadic groups of hunter- gatherers forced to settle in one location, the Hualapai became mere caretakers of what they once had ruled. They turned to haycutting and other labor jobs to survive, and some Hualapai took up cattle ranching in the early 1900s. The tribe still maintains a small herd today, but the recent drought in northern Arizona has taken its toll.

The Hualapai suffered another economic setback in the early 1970s, when newly completed Interstate 40 by-passed Peach Springs. That practically ruined the growing tourism industry of the town located on the old main road, Route 66. Now, Peach Springs is just a desolate speck along a little-used highway. The town has one general store, a health clinic, tribal headquarters, a small tribal museum and gift shop, three churches--two Protestant and one Mormon--a community center, senior citizens center, skills center, youth center and a basketball gym. With 80 percent unemployment and virtually no industry on the reservation, the prospect of a uranium mine is alluring. While many individual Hualapai have done well for themselves, the tribe as a whole is hurting. Still, tribal leaders try to be optimistic.

"When I think about it, it's pretty amazing that we're still alive," says Hualapai vice chairman Edgar Walema, a retired 25-year Army veteran who was wounded in combat during the Vietnam War. "We complain about all our problems, and we sure got 'em, but we're alive. We're trying to take the next step--to live, not just to be alive."

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