We drove along the South Rim tourist area of the Grand Canyon and wound our way to the west on a dirt road through tall pines. Leaving the throngs of people behind, with much anticipation, we entered a different world. During opening circle for our spiritual travel program to Hopi just the night before, I’d let the folks know an opportunity had presented itself.
The Grand Canyon is sacred to the Hopi. They emerged into this middle world in ancient times from a point deep in its interior, and the Havasupai people have called it home for at least a thousand years. A relationship exists between these peoples. So when my Hopi partner Char Joseph contacted the Havasupai Tribe inquiring if there was someone who would speak to us about their ways, they were happy to oblige saying…all too often they were forgotten.
We pulled into Supai Camp, once the tribal winter home on the rim where just a few remain. The traditional dwellings are long gone. In 1934 the National Park Service (NPS) tore down or burned the homes without notice to the residents who were away at the time. I Am the Grand Canyon documents more than a century’s devastation of the Havasupai at the hands of the US federal government, NPS, Grand Canyon Association and Sierra Club. In the book, Havasupai Mack Putesoy testified how their homes were burned to the ground with all their belongings inside. Effie Hanna said she lost things she’d been saving all her life. In place of traditional homes on their aboriginal lands, the NPS built cabins and forced the residents to pay rent.
However, I knew none of this at the time we approached the home where we’d been invited.
We were greeted at the door by Colleen Kaska, daughter of Daniel Kaska who was chairman of the Havasupai Tribe in the 1970s. Elder Daniel is now quite frail but welcomed us. He wanted to tell us the story of the Havasupai, People of the Blue-Green Waters named after the beautiful canyon waters running through the area they now mostly live. Colleen shared in the storytelling.
Their aboriginal lands once encompassed areas from the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and the San Francisco Peaks west to Ashfork and Seligman. In the warm months they lived in what is now known as Cataract Canyon in the interior of the Grand Canyon and grew crops. In winter months they dwelt on the rim in order to hunt.
Once the Santa Fe railroad came along and interest in the Grand Canyon grew as a tourist and recreational site the Havasupai were squeezed and began to suffer. In 1882 President Arthur declared the majority of their aboriginal land belonged to the American public. The People of the Blue-Green Waters lost their plateau hunting-herding lands and many thousands of acres. They were barred from rim watering holes by cattlemen and the NPS…and relegated to Cataract Canyon. This narrow 518-acre tract doesn’t see sun during winter months, and historically endured flash floods that sometimes took out homes and people.
Colleen had been relating this history in a matter-of-fact way. The more she spoke, the sadder I felt. I had no idea what we would learn when we came through this family’s door. But I didn’t anticipate such a story. I’d thought of the NPS and Sierra Club as entities that conserved beauty…not those who wrought devastation upon peoples of the land (I thought) they were to protect. I said, “This all must be heartbreaking.”
Colleen paused, became still. She had a faraway look in her eyes. “Yes. But when I walk our aboriginal lands⎯the ones taken from us⎯I know it is of my people. My ancestors are there.” The tone of her voice made clear that knowledge gave her strength.
Elder Daniel spoke haltingly of the century-long struggles to be recognized by the federal government, to regain any of the land taken from them, including his own personal involvement as chairman in this quest. Finally, in 1976 they succeeded to a small degree: 185 acres returned to the Havasupai with 95,300 acres named “Havasupai Use Lands” but controlled by the NPS.
K’iche’ Maya Daykeeper Apab’yan Tew was present as a sponsored guest on our spiritual travel program. He wanted to know about Havasupai ceremonies. He asked Daniel, “Do you have a story about some time of a spiritual nature you remember?” Daniel shook his head. It seemed the focus for so long had been a fight for acknowledgment, some recognition of their worth, that there was no energy left for anything else.
Mike Weddle⎯Kenosis Spirit Keepers board member, Daykeeper and musician⎯visiting from Maryland was able to join our group for just two days. He brought his flute. I invited Mike to offer Daniel and Colleen a prayer song. The music was sweet. When it came to an end, there was silence. Then Daniel began to sing in words and tones that entered every one of us. The energy seemed to shift.
When we all expressed how it touched us, he uttered softly, “It’s a funeral song.” And then, “We are a lost tribe.” It was painful to hear of such loss.
Our visit was over. We formed a circle outside under the pines and invited Colleen to join us. Elder Daniel was unable to do so. Apab’yan offered a Maya prayer for the People of the Blue-Green Waters and the land.
A few days later I received a note from Mike who had to leave for other business.
I think we all felt the same as elder Daniel Kaska told his story of loss and betrayal, going to Washington where no one would listen, voting against the government deal when his own people would not listen, and his final ‘I don’t know what will become of us’. When he sang his beautiful song, and then said it was a funeral song, I almost wept.
We were invited by Colleen to join a singing ceremony 8 am Saturday at Red Butte. I did go to represent us but there was no one there. There are two forest roads on each side of the Butte, but no people, no cars, and no singing.
So I climbed the switchbacks to the very top of the butte, the summit. At the very top there is a crossing with 4 paths going in the 4 cardinal directions. I’m sending a photo. Colleen called this the Supai place of origin.
I felt that in just 2 days I had been witness to the place where the Supai began and perhaps the place where they end. As there was no one else there to sing, I did the singing, and I sang the Maltyoxb’al, the [Maya] great gratitude song, for the arc of the Supai nation.
When we held our closing circle at the end of our week with the Hopi and Havasupai people, I spoke to the group.
I never know in advance how things will unfold when we hold a sacred container of pure intent. Things I can never predict come in ways that affect us all. I believe the most important thing we did during this journey was sit in respect, listen deeply to this Elder’s words and witness the grief he carries.
Sometimes that’s all we can do even in the face of our own helplessness at such recognition. And that acknowledgment matters.
Note: Elder Daniel Kaska singing recorded by Apab’yan Tew.
Go here to learn more about Spiritual Travel to Hopi: Sacred Guardians of the World, and check back for next year’s March travels.
I feel so moved by this story. I felt for Daniel and how isolated and betrayed he must have felt. So sad.
Thank you so much for sharing, so important for us to understand. I used to love to listen to John Trudell. People live their lives cocooned. It was such a revelation to me listening to John’s story.
You do such wonderful work. Thank you.