VILLAGE OF THE DAMMED

WHEN A LEVEE ON BABBITT RANCHES GAVE WAY, THE HAVASUPAI INDIANS WERE LITERALLY PUSHED AGAINST THE WALL. NOW THEY'RE PUSHING BACK.

Flash floods from localized rainstorms would pass through the canyon, but, archaeological records show, the tribe adapted to the natural forces, in part, by building light, timber-and-brush shelters.

In the cold months, when more destructive floods were likely, most of the tribe would hike out of the canyon, spending the winter on the vast Coconino Plateau. There they would hunt elk and deer. The Havasupai's traditional range was vast, spreading from the Colorado River on the north to Bill Williams Mountain to the south, and from the Little Colorado River on the east to the Aubrey Cliffs on the west. The area contained more than two million acres.

The westward push of white settlers reached northwest Arizona in full force by the mid-1860s. Cattle ranchers began fencing off the Havasupai's traditional winter hunting grounds. Conflicts over scattered springs and stock tanks increased. Prospectors began moving into Havasu Canyon in the 1870s. One miner, James Mooney, fell to his death in 1880 at a waterfall, since named Mooney Falls.

Arizona territorial governor John C. Fr‚mont asked President Rutherford Hayes to establish a reservation for the Havasupai in a five-mile-wide, 12-mile-long corridor along Havasu Creek. Hayes created the reservation by executive order on June 8, 1880. Two years later, the tribe's land was further reduced by President Chester Arthur, this time to a mere 518 acres.

In the span of 20 years, the Havasupai lost more than 2.2 million acres of traditional hunting and gathering grounds and were confined to a treacherous, narrow canyon subject to heavy flooding. The loss of its land destroyed the tribe's economy. The once-independent people became a ward of the federal government.

The tribe never recognized the loss of its traditional homelands and continued for decades to seek the return of at least a portion of it.

In 1968, former congressmen John Rhodes and Sam Steiger introduced legislation that would have returned 173,000 acres of Grand Canyon National Park land and Kaibab National Forest land to the Havasupai.

The bill died without a hearing.
The Havasupai pressed on. Within two years, they found themselves in a pitched and bitter battle with the nation's largest and most powerful environmental group, the Sierra Club.

In the early 1970s, the Sierra Club was backing a long-range plan by the Grand Canyon National Park to consolidate holdings around the Grand Canyon under control of the park service. A map showed the elimination of the tiny Havasupai Reservation, located on the western edge of the park.

The Havasupai were outraged; they found powerful Arizona political allies in former representative Morris Udall and former senator Barry Goldwater.

In turn, the Sierra Club mounted a nationwide campaign opposing the return of Grand Canyon South Rim lands to the Havasupai, saying the Indians planned a massive commercial development and were nothing but a front for developers. The club's campaign disgusted Goldwater, and he resigned his Sierra Club membership.

"I don't believe the Sierra Club is actually interested in anything but demonstrating Sierra Club muscle," Goldwater said then.

Steiger again joined the political forces backing the tribe, and the struggle on Capitol Hill dragged on for a year.

Legislation was stalled in the House of Representatives until the fall of 1974, when Rhodes, then House minority leader, pushed the bill to the floor for a vote. The bill lost by voice vote, but Rhodes insisted on a roll call. The bill passed 180-147.

President Gerald Ford signed it on January 3, 1975--returning 185,000 acres of land to the Havasupai.

Although the return of some of the tribe's traditional lands was a great moral victory, the Havasupai have been unable to use the land effectively.

Short of funding, the tribe couldn't develop even one small water well on the plateau.

The Havasupai want, but have been unable, to construct houses on the plateau, away from the constant threat of floods. The homes also would help alleviate a serious housing shortage in Supai, where, often, as many as ten people will share a small house.

Construction of a community on the plateau would enable children to attend local high schools, rather than boarding schools, where the Havasupai now show a 74 percent dropout rate.

The plateau community would make life easier for the tribe's elderly.
Finally, development on the plateau would expand the tribe's tourism industry. The tribe doesn't want to build a massive resort, Tribal Chairman Wayne Sinyella says, just a simple lodge, market and gas station. Right now, the closest gas station is 70 miles away in Peach Springs.

But these goals remain elusive. Until Congress provides funds for the tribe to develop its plateau resources, the Havasupai will remain confined in their beautiful and bucolic, yet isolated and economically depressed, canyon village.

And every few years, a flood will roll through, causing millions of dollars in damage. Only then will a limited amount of money be made available.

Floods are a way of life in Supai. But the February 1993 flood was different from the others that routinely tumble down the canyon narrows, tribal officials say.

The damage to the village and natural resources was caused only partly by natural forces. The bulk of the wreckage, Sinyella says, was caused by the neglect of the tribe's neighbor--the Babbitt Ranches.

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