A Tribe on the Threshold

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

An NAU graduate with a degree in social work, Bender says she wants to start work on a master's degree at Stanford University after her two-year term ends next June.

Bender's pragmatic approach to the uranium mine is typical. A measure of the tribe's economic troubles is that practical questions have overridden spiritual ones when it comes to digging the land. That contrasts mightily with the Havasupai--their first cousins and next-door neighbors--who are battling in U.S. District Court the very company the Hualapai have invited onto their own land. The Havasupai contend that another uranium mine proposed by Energy Fuels about seventy miles from its tribal headquarters in Supai would "destroy the free exercise of the Havasupai religion as it has existed and been practiced for centuries." The Havasupai also have cited the possible environmental dangers in digging up and moving radioactive ore from that proposed mine.

For the Hualapai, however, Energy Fuels' tantalizing carrot of jobs and royalties has been too much for the tribe to ignore. The tribe's decision to okay Energy Fuels' uranium-exploration plan naturally elates firm president Gerald Grandey.

"The Hualapai are at a crossroads, and they've got some damned good leadership," Grandey says by phone from his Denver office. "Carrie Bender, Edgar Walema--he's controversial because he's been a conscience for that tribe. He says, `We got to look at ourselves, where we're going, what do we want, what risks do we want to take, what kind of tribe do we want to be in 25 or 30 years?'"

Grandey clearly approves of the direction the Hualapai are taking. "The contrast with the Havasupai tribe is amazing," he says.

A MAN WHO calls himself Little Bear stumbles into the Truxton Buffet Bar on old Route 66. Seven miles west of Peach Springs, it's the closest place to the Hualapai reservation that sells liquor legally.

"What are you white boys doing here?" Little Bear asks two guys sitting at the bar. "Buy me a beer." Before waiting for a reply, he dumps all his money onto the counter and asks transplanted Englishman Geoff Berry for two six-packs. "I'm gonna kick your ass," Little Bear hisses at Berry when told he's a dollar short of having enough for sixteen-ounce Buds. He grabs his two six-packs of twelve-ouncers and steps back into the biting winter air. The gas pump in front of the ancient store stopped working when gas was 73 cents per gallon.

Back inside, Berry shrugs off selling liquor to an Indian whose blood-alcohol level is off the scale. "They're almost all of our business," says Berry. He's been in the States for two decades and often sells his own "Indian-inspired" painted rocks to tourists. "We can't cut them off too easily."

Bar owner Harry Moore sidles up to the counter. A retired white miner with a smoker's hack, Moore says that hawking booze to Indians was the last thing he ever figured to be doing in his sixties. He bought the Truxton bar about seven months ago, and he insists he's not about to engage in the venerable tradition of gouging booze-hungry, rural Indians. Moore's reasonable prices bear him out.

"These guys who come in here are happy so long as they got one whiskey to drink," says the craggy-faced Moore. "I'm not gonna rip them off--I'm just not. I charge fair prices. If they want to bootleg the stuff to the Havasupai for $14 a six-pack like they do, that's their business. It's a shame."

Moore sees the problems the Indians face today as a legacy of government intervention. "The white man's taken the heart out of them--made them a second-class, a third-class citizen," he says. "They got no incentive."

Malinda Powskey used to be one of those Hualapai with no incentive. In her younger days, she spent her share of time at Indian bars like Harry Moore's. Now 49, she's a Peach Springs teacher who's beaten the odds and made something of herself.

"Stubborn, that's the word for me," Powskey says during a rugged drive down unpaved Diamond Point Road from Peach Springs to the Colorado River. "I ran away from boarding school at Fort Apache when I was thirteen. Walked for three days. Then I went to Kingman High--there were hardly any Indians there then. I raised my kids, and then I went to college." Powskey didn't enroll at Northern Arizona University until she was in her thirties, and, she says, "I only finished because I'm stubborn."

Although Powskey returned to Peach Springs after she graduated from NAU, she begged her son, Wally, to leave town for good after he graduated from high school.

"I told him he'd be dead of something by the age of thirty if he stayed," she says. "I meant it."

Now in his late twenties, married and attending school and working part-time in Phoenix, Wally Majenty has taken his mom's advice to heart.

"Peach Springs is a different culture," he says. "My mom was right. There was nothing but trouble for me there. For some of us, the light comes on: `What am I going to do there?' Nothing, unless you go into tribal politics, or work for the school or the government. No way."

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