Book highlights Havasupai struggle
It's been more than three decades since the Havasupai won a landmark battle to regain 200,000 acres of ancestral land, but the story of their fight for their home and their culture is newly available in "I am the Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People."
The book, released in December by Grand Canyon Association, is a revision and update of author Stephen Hirst's "Life In a Narrow Place," first published in 1976.
In the early 1970s, Stephen and his wife, Lois, accepted a job on the floor of the Canyon to establish a Headstart program in the Havasupai school. What they found was essentially a Peace Corps-style post.
"We'd both been in the Peace Corps and were used to living in an isolated situation," Lois said. "Our time in Liberia and West Africa prepared us better than anything could have."
One of the first challenges they discovered was that their students did not speak English. They turned that to a strength, bringing in local aides and at the same time a more full immersion in the Havasupai culture. This led to the first written record of the language, which was taught in a bi-lingual program.
Tribal leaders were initially opposed to transcribing their language for the first time "They'd already had so much taken from them," said Stephen. But eventually they came to see the written word as a way to help save their culture.
During this time, the tribe was making its eighth attempt to regain ancestral lands on the rim, tying their request to the Grand Canyon National Park Enlargement Act.
They took Stephen on a carefully-planned camping trip to their former lands, showing him ancestral homes. It was the kind of access granted to few outsiders.
"They took me around to see for a reason," said Stephen. "They wanted me to see the lands and how they used to live. They said 'No one ever hears or understands why this land means so much. Write our words down so people can hear what we say.'"
"Life in a Narrow Place" was the result. It took research Stephen had done to advocate for the Havasupai as well as what he'd learned and heard living as a member of the tribal community.
For several hundred years, the Havasupai lifestyle was a migratory one. During the growing season, they lived as farmers in Havasu Canyon, irrigating their crops from the creek. After harvest, they moved to the rim, living as hunter-gatherers and practicing their tradition through storytelling and religious rites. Their ancestral lands extended east as far as Winslow, south to Williams and west to Kingman. That was reduced to 60 acres in 1880. Two years later, action to make their lands part of the Grand Canyon National Forest and Game Preserve, as well as pressure from ranching and mining interests, pushed the tribe into 518 acres on the canyon floor.
Stephen said that the research that would eventually become his book, along with persuasive spokespeople, was key in their success.
"Nobody had put this all together before," he said. "For the first time, they had all the facts."
When many thousands of acres were restored in 1975, it was a time of great optimism for the tribe, with Jan. 3 named Land Day and made a holiday that is still celebrated each year.
"The little tribe was euphoric," said Stephen. "They'd taken on the whole U.S. government and won."
Not only had they finally ended a struggle that had stretched over three generations, they also gained control of their school, one of the first tribes to do so under the Indian Self-Determination Act. That put them in charge of their own hiring and classroom content.
"Everyone talked about how they could use those lands and strengthen their ties," Lois said.
But, said Stephen, after a century of adapting to living in Havasu Canyon year-round, tribal members have found it difficult to return to their old ways.
"They have had their lives built into that canyon for so long that it's changed everyone's outlook," he said. "There is infrastructure down there, a school, houses. It takes a long time to change that. They are firmly integrated in the wage economy. What there is to do on top is subsist and not a lot are into that anymore."
Also, because of struggles to meet provisions of No Child Left Behind, the Bureau of Indian Affairs re-assumed control of the school a few years ago. It ended the bi-cultural program, but Stephen said that tribe members have copies of the teaching materials in their homes in the hope that they will resume control and bring back the focus on their culture.
There is much promise in the tribe's young people, Stephen said. He recounts a meeting he had with a young family man who was bringing his children to the ancestral lands.
"He started taking his kids to these places in remote areas that are sacred to them. He's been to these places and he knows what they mean. They're still keeping more than I thought, more than I knew," said Stephen.
In all, the Hirsts spent 11 years living among the tribe, but "Life in a Narrow Place" says little about those experiences. As Stephen wrote in the preface, "It is their book and their story."
While there have been books about the Havasupai somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 this is the only one endorsed by the tribe.
"They feel that it is their book," said Lois.
In the new edition, there are new photos, as well as updates on uranium mining, snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks, misuse of blood samples and the transfer of the school back to the BIA.
The Hirsts left the canyon in 1983 and spent nearly 20 years in upper Michigan. They moved to Flagstaff two and a half years ago. Lois works as an education consultant while Stephen is working with the Museum of Northern Arizona where they both also work as docents. They are also part-time forest rangers and lead programs around Flagstaff.
They've maintained their ties with the Havasupai, visiting once a month.