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."

But more significant for the future of the tribe than the state-of-the-art technology is the school's language program. Until Watahomigie and Reed arrived at the school in the mid-1970s, it seemed likely that the Hualapai language would have been lost to all but scholars in a generation or two. That would have been a devastating blow to tribal identity; language is how a people preserves its sense of self, even as it adopts some of its conquerors' ways. Without a language to call its own, a tribe is hardly a tribe anymore.

The Hualapai language was falling into disuse because of a century-long government policy of assimilation that held sway until a generation ago. Until native tongues were granted official legitimacy as a result of Indian activism in the early Seventies, most Hualapai--and members of other tribes as well--were sent to Indian boarding schools and forbidden from speaking their own language.

"They used to take the paddle to us for speaking Hualapai," recalls Peach Springs school board president Grant Tapija, a high school dropout and father of eight who works for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. "I think about that now. `Why did they do that to us?'" Now, he says, "We're coming back with all these computers, and with our language, all these things."

Eight of the school's sixteen certified teachers are Hualapai, and Watahomigie says almost two thirds of the students now are able to speak fluent Hualapai. (All of them speak English.) And, backed by federal funding, the school has published a series of bilingual books and pamphlets that shows aspects of Hualapai life. One is called Nya Hwalbay Yivch Yu--"I Am a Hualapai"--which includes numerous photos and a text in Hualapai and English. The self-published Hualapai books are part of the Peach Springs School's curriculum.

Principal Lucille Watahomigie has been one of the guiding forces behind these changes. The oldest of ten children, Watahomigie was raised in nearby Milkweed Canyon--"in the center of the middle of nowhere," she says with a laugh. Her ambition took her to Tucson where she earned her master's degree in education from the University of Arizona; her concern for her people brought her back to Peach Springs in 1975, where she lives with her husband, Philbert, who teaches seventh grade at the school, and their four children.

A year after Watahomigie arrived, the school hired Reed--a white northern Arizona native who lives in Kingman. The school then was ramshackle and outmoded, but the pair soon tapped into state and federal grant monies and turned things around.

While Indians have the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group--only two out of three complete high school, according to the U.S. Department of Education--three out of four students who have attended the Peach Springs School graduate from high school. (After the Hualapai children finish eighth grade, they have the choice of attending Kingman or Seligman High Schools. Many once attended Phoenix Indian School, but it's scheduled to close in May 1990.) Almost half of those onetime Peach Springs students who finish high school continue their educations--in college, Job Corps or vocational school. The school can't provide statistics on how many of those students complete those curricula. "We're saving a language," Watahomigie says, "and we're trying to educate our kids so they'll at least have a chance. That should be worth any amount."

What Watahomigie and superintendent Reed can't guarantee, however, is work in Peach Springs after their students complete their schooling.

"Something has to happen in this town to get people work," Reed says. "If you want to work, you basically go somewhere else. Our job is to try to attack these kids with education before the cycle starts. I mean, the booze cycle, drugs, the whole thing. That's our job."

One of the lures of the uranium mining project is the opportunity it may provide to find work at home. The Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates that about 90 percent of the Hualapai live on the reservation, most of them in Peach Springs.

As Watahomigie says, "The ideal for us is to get an education, get experience, then come home. Home is always going to be here--the land, the culture, the tribe."

What returning Hualapai find waiting for them, however, is often the kind of life exemplified by Charmaine Cordova, whose eight- and six-year-olds attend the Peach Springs School.

A Phoenix Indian School dropout now in her mid-twenties, Charmaine spends her days huddled next to a wood stove in a government-built tract house. Although the look-alike structures--dubbed "gingerbread houses" by one local--that federal authorities have built in Peach Springs over the past two decades are equipped with electric heat, most Hualapai have installed wood stoves because electricity is too expensive and inefficient.

Charmaine's husband, Frank, is an unemployed Hispanic from Phoenix who has a problem with liquor and drugs--mostly booze, he says, because it's cheaper. The couple scrapes by on poverty-level welfare payments, and on the money Frank occasionally makes by cutting up firewood on the reservation.

Charmaine takes care of her two-year-old son, Aling, during the day. While neat enough on the outside, the house inside is a litter of dirty diapers, dirty dishes and dirty clothes. Charmaine picks up a handful of cold mush off a filthy living-room floor. She dumps the mush into a small bowl and hands it to her dirty-faced tot, who stuffs some in his mouth.

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."

EDGAR WALEMA IS probably the most controversial member of the Hualapai tribal government. A onetime drill sergeant, the lanky, rawboned vice chairman looks like a guy you'd want on your side in a brawl. He's outspoken--and bullheaded--about the direction he wants his tribe to take. That direction involves change, an active solicitation of business, an embrace of modern American life--all things that make traditional tribal members nervous.

"When I got out of the Army in '77," Walema says, "the attitude here was, `If it was good enough for my grandfather, then it's good enough for me.' It's still like that in a lot of ways. We take so long to negotiate that some people just leave shaking their heads."

Phoenix businessman and amateur astronomer Tom Kelly, for instance, announced plans last January for a "scientific Disneyland"--a hotel and astronomy complex which would be built on the east side of the reservation and which would include telescopes in every hotel room. But Kelly's negotiations with the Hualapai seem to have stalled, as they have with Phoenix developer Ron Whitten, who has proposed a 120-room hotel and a Hualapai museum.

It is no coincidence that Walema--a former tribal chairman--was the driving force behind one of the few projects ever to get off the ground. Grand Canyon West, a tourist attraction which opened in February 1987, is on the reservation's west end and includes stunning views and hikes from the Canyon's South Rim. The tribe undertook the joint venture with a white-owned Las Vegas tour company. Grand Canyon West has been a moneymaker so far, although it only employs about a dozen Hualapai, depending on the season. As of October 1, the Hualapai share in this year's proceeds from Grand Canyon West--one third of the gross--was $81,415. That money goes into the tribe's general budget, which for fiscal 1989 was just $702,445.

"Our community was dead-set against Grand Canyon West at first," says Walema, who was raised on the reservation near a remote outpost called Frazier's Well. "The same thing goes with that observatory"--he refers to Kelly's proposed hotel--"and with that uranium mine."

The uranium project has been on and off the tribe's agenda since 1979, when the Hualapai leaders first inquired about opening the reservation to mining. Since then, the tribe has sought advice on the uranium question from the U.S. Geological Survey and from the Council of Energy Resource Tribes--a nationwide Indian-run organization.

In 1986, the Hualapai finally started to solicit offers from mining firms. On the surface, it would have seemed a strange time to ask for bids. The uranium market had collapsed in the early Eighties, with the selling price only about one third of what it was a decade earlier.

But Denver-based Energy Fuels Corporation found a way around the slump in the form of breccia pipes, a geological oddity that holds uranium five to seven times more concentrated than anywhere else in the U.S. Even mainstream environmentalists agree that the way Energy Fuels mines its uranium is not nearly as messy--nor as overtly dangerous--as the unforgivable stripping of the Four Corners area about three decades ago. The firm processes all its ore at a plant in Utah. By agreement with the Hualapai, it will not build a mill on the tribe's reservation.

Edgar Walema sidesteps objections based on uranium's potential health hazards with a brusque, "I know that." He continues, "We don't have any money to do anything. Over the years, we've had people like [indicted Navajo tribal chairman] Peter MacDonald--a lot of misappropriation of money. But we're so small no one made a big deal out of it. Now, we're pretty honest, and we're still broke."

His sentiments are echoed by Carrie Bender, a diminutive 38-year-old mother of three who has headed the tribe since her election to the chairmanship in June 1988. Bender says she voted for the uranium project for a simple reason.

"The uranium would bring revenues to our little tribe," Bender says. "We could hire a tribal administrator, provide our own gas station, all kinds of things. It would mean employment when we have hardly any. Jobs! We have to do something."

A relentlessly upbeat person by nature, Bender prefers to think of the good the uranium mine may bring, although she is aware of its problems. "I have a gut feeling that it's not good, that it's scary, but there's more to it than that," she says. "You hear about these radiation exposures--incidents. You wonder about side effects, about the water, the wildlife." But, she says to console herself, "Everything in life is a risk." Bender was widowed earlier this year and says her loss has caused her to reflect about herself and her tribe.

"I've seen a lot of sorrow, misery, pain--we all have," she says matter-of-factly. "Sometimes I have to pep-talk myself. I didn't know my mom 'til I was eighteen. I remember waiting for people outside the bars as a girl, just crying. Then when I got old enough, I started falling into the same behavior. When I had my kids, though, I told myself, `No way. I'm gonna break out of this circle, this cycle. I'm not going to be like them.' And I'm not."

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."

But both Wally Majenty and his mother Malinda Powskey have seen firsthand that a Hualapai trying to better himself can be the object of resentment rather than support. "It's really hard to succeed here because a majority of the people want to pull you down," Powskey says. And when Majenty visits Peach Springs, he says, "They call me `white boy,' because I'm different--I'm doing something." It troubles him to see old buddies like Falcon Honga getting fat and drinking until they drop. "Falcon's a great guy, but he's got to get himself together," Majenty says.

A onetime all-state basketball player at Seligman High, Honga was honorably discharged from the Army about four years ago. He returned to Peach Springs but hasn't found much work to speak of. So he takes care of his two-year-old daughter, Cougar, while his wife works at the local medical clinic. The little girl tags along while Dad wiles away the hours drinking and carrying on with pals like Elvis Havatone and Frank Cordova.

"I don't do much but hang around," says 26-year-old high school dropout Havatone, as he, Honga, Cordova, and little Cougar sit in a pickup truck outside the tribal headquarters.

Havatone didn't participate in the tribe's Sobriety Festival, held over the Memorial Day weekend. Sponsored by the Hualapai government, the festival included a powwow, construction of a sweat lodge and a novel challenge. The Sobriety Festival dared tribal members with alcohol-abuse problems--a big chunk of the population--to quit drinking for the weekend. Those who took the challenge had to sign in sober three times a day at "sobriety checkpoints."

They won themselves a "Sobriety Festival" tee shirt if they made it for a day without drinking. If they stayed sober for the whole weekend, their names went into a drawing for a number of prizes. The prizes show the contradictions in Hualapai life: microwaves, stereos, a weekend in Laughlin, Nevada--and horses. Dozens of Hualapai participated in the challenge, and about half who signed up stayed straight--at least for that weekend--according to one tribal member. But Elvis Havatone wasn't one of them.

"It didn't mean nothing to me to stay straight for a few days," he says. "You got to quit for good when you quit." Havatone isn't ready to do that. He turns away and says, as if to himself, "I got a drinking problem, and I don't have no work, but I'm trying to work it out. I'm still a person, you know.

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