Rastas on the Res
Peach Springs, Arizona, can be found where old Route 66 swings through the southern tip of the 993,000-acre Hualapai Indian reservation. The burg was originally a resting spot for railroad workers. Now, it's a collection of several dozen prefab houses and dirt roads. When the wind howls through Peach Springs, as it does quite often, you get the feeling that you're in the middle of nowhere--probably because you are. The only thing the typically rosy-toned copywriters at the Arizona Office of Tourism could come up with to say about Peach Springs in a Grand Canyon travel brochure is that the dot on the map "offers neither charm nor anything to see."
The Arizona Office of Tourism is quite mistaken.
Peach Springs may not look like much, but it's the base of operations for an unparalleled phenomenon in Arizona music--Tribal War, a band of Havasupai Indians who have adopted Rasta as a lifestyle. They play political reggae with a spiritual vengeance.
Peach Springs is also damn hard to find, and, when a reporter shows up two hours late for an interview, the band doesn't seem surprised or uptight, just friendly and mellow. And stoned. Though "Havasupai" means "people of the blue-green water," where Tribal War is concerned it might just as well translate to "Rastas of the red-rimmed eyes."
The band members are also lucid and talkative. They're particularly excited about working with Phoenix-based Ice Age Entertainment, the agency that's started to book them gigs and got them recording time at Happy Camper Studio.
"We want to get on TV," declares War drummer R.U.
Mason Marshall normally plays lead guitar in Tribal War. These days, though, he sticks to rhythm to fill out the band's sound, because Tribal War is having trouble luring a permanent keyboard player to Peach Springs. At age 39, Marshall is the oldest member of the sextet, which consists of lifelong friends.
Marshall's modest but comfortable house is Tribal War's headquarters, and has been partially converted into a Rastafarian shrine. Reggae books, videotapes and records sit on shelves in rooms crammed with musical gear. The rehearsal space is little more than a closet with a poster of Bob Marley facing two animal pelts splayed on the opposite wall.
The band launches into an impromptu jam, and the noise attracts the attention of a tribal police officer, who sticks his head through the open window to tell the band to cool out, but pretends not to see or smell the marijuana fog in the room. After a few tense minutes and terse words, Galen Crook unplugs his bass and singer Benjamin Jones turns off his microphone.
This isn't the first time the police have stopped by. "They treat us like criminals," protests Marshall's girlfriend, Diane, who wears a gold ganja leaf around her neck. "And we're probably the most mellow people in Peach Springs." Nevertheless, band members say the tribal police have busted up several of their recent gigs at a local gymnasium--one of the few venues close to home where the band can draw an enthusiastic crowd.
"It's a freedom thing," says Marshall. "They're afraid of our freedom."
To an urban outsider, the scene at Marshall's house is, at first, surreal. For starters, there's simply the spectacle of Native American Rastafarians speaking in a Jamaican patois as they carve slices of venison from the skewer in the backyard. Out front, in the street, neighborhood children play with crutches and push each other around in wheelchairs. Marshall's own kids run around the yard, bouncing on a giant trampoline with two yapping Dalmatian pups, then tear through the house while their parents smoke doobies.
The Havasupai Rastas, like their Jamaican counterparts, see ganja as a fundamental part of their lifestyle, which embraces the plant as a psychic lubricant for meditation and inspiration.
"All creation is for the use of man," says Jones, citing scriptural authority. "Herb is part of our culture, like smoking the peace pipe in the old days."
Jones' voice, like the other band members', is noticeably tinged with a Jamaican accent. In fact, guitarist/songwriter Damon Watahomigie, sporting fatigues and combat boots, could pass for a soft-spoken Peter Tosh. His accent seems entirely natural, internalized after more than a decade of studying reggae and Rastafarianism.
"I sing mostly the hard-core stuff," he says. "The children have been steeped in the social mores of Babylon much too long. That's what I speak about."
As proof of his own spiritual purification, Watahomigie lifts his shirt to reveal a foot-long scar along his abdomen where "they had to cut the evil out." The "evil" was Watahomigie's violent past; the blade of an angry drunk was his wake-up call to salvation.
As the spiritual force behind Tribal War, Watahomigie speaks with beatific conviction of the power of Jah and keeps after the rest of the band members, who, he admits, sometimes get too high at the expense of the music. "Herb is an upliftment," says Watahomigie. "But you have to be conscious to play skillfully, you know? The old Rastas, dem used to practice for years just to make a record. But now, you have dese bald-heads, they never practice for one night, and the next day become stars. That's not how it's supposed to be."
Watahomigie's pontificating doesn't always sit well with the rest of the band. "Sometimes the others get upset and say, 'Go away,'" shrugs the songwriter. "But when they want to play, dem call me."
While the band members can't always agree how to throw a song together, their shared political agenda finds its voice in reggae, a music so popular on Native American reservations in Arizona that the Hopi Tribal Council, fearing its traditional way of life threatened, attempted to ban the music from its land in the early 1980s.
The bond between the Jamaican and Native American worlds is tighter than one might think. Themes of spiritual and environmental renewal that course through Jamaican music are echoed in traditional Havasupai culture.
"Havasupai tribal music, for us, is heartbeat," says Jones. "Reggae is heartbeat, also."
"I don't want to just follow Jamaican music," Watahomigie interjects, explaining that Tribal War's Native American heritage allows the band to put a new spin on the reggae format. For one thing, the Havasupai language is heavy on low tones delivered without much inflection. Consequently, the guitarist says, "it's tough to reach some of those Jamaican high notes, but we end up with a unique sound."
Jones hopes that unusual sound will draw people to the band's political commentary. "We have a message for people struggling and standing up against the system," he says. "As Native Americans, we're speaking out and saying, 'Learn our ways; your ways are destructive.'"
Tribal War is especially worried about Energy Fuels Nuclear Inc.'s plan to mine uranium only 30 miles southeast of the reservation, on sacred land called Red Butte. The shafts are already built, says Marshall, who claims the mining would devastate the natural beauty and spiritual integrity of the area.
Nyal Niemuth, a mining engineer with the Arizona Mines and Mineral Resources Department, disputes the Havasupai claims. "The [Red Butte] site is mined with very little surface impact," he says, "because they use collapsed breccia pipes." He describes this sort of shaft as carrot-shaped: narrow and tall, rather than wide. On average, a breccia shaft might be 200 feet in diameter and between 600 and 800 feet deep, "tiny in the scope of mining," according to Roger Smith, Energy Fuels' general manager of mining operations.
"You know how big the Red Butte mine is?" asks Smith before volunteering the answer. "Fourteen acres. People build houses on more land than that." Smith says the "long legal battle" with the Havasupai has revolved around two key points: religion and water. Both concerns have been properly addressed, claims Smith, denying any lingering litigation preventing the company from mining. "If the Indians wanted to use the land for prayer," he says, "we would certainly open all the [mining facility's] gates so the tribe wouldn't be encumbered."
Smith says Energy Fuels is in compliance with federal regulations and "can go to work any time we wish." Market conditions, however, have placed the facility on standby status, and, contrary to what the members of Tribal War say, Smith asserts the shafts have not been excavated yet. "They're about 50 feet deep at this time," he claims.
Watahomigie says it matters not when the shafts are drilled; the uranium mine will remain Tribal War's primary target of protest anthems.
"We're playing music with a purpose," he says. "See, they're the oppressors and we are the oppressed trying to say, 'Hey, this is our homeland.' We Rastafarians come with a pure mind and heart to clean this corruption."
Tribal War is scheduled to perform on Thursday, January 18, at Buffalo Chip Saloon in Cave Creek, with Hans Olson. Call for showtime.
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