Problems in Paradise

A murder near the famed waterfalls of Havasu Canyon reveals the social ills of a tribe that needs help

  • Havasu Falls on the Havasupai Reservation, where Japanese Tourist Tomomi Hanamure was murdered last summer

    Photo illustration. John Dougherty Photos
  • Havasu Falls on the Havasupai Reservation

    Joe Carter/ISTOCK
  • A poster distributed by the Coconino Sheriff's Department just before Tomomi Hanamure's body was found

    Coconino County Sheriff's Office
  • The falls where the body was discovered

    John Dougherty
  • Havasupai Lodge, where Tomomi Hanamure checked in but never slept.

    John Dougherty
  • The tribal headquarters building, like many houses and businesses in Supai, has boarded-up windows

    John Dougherty
  • Gangs have tagged signs and structures throughout the village

    John Dougherty
  • Havasupai Map

    Diane Sylvain
 

SUPAI, ARIZONA

From her home in Yokohama, Japan, Tomomi Hanamure traveled halfway around the world to celebrate her 34th birthday amid the spectacular turquoise waterfalls along Havasu Creek, a spring-fed stream that tumbles magnificently into the southwest corner of the Grand Canyon. An experienced world traveler who had hiked the canyon before, Hanamure strapped on a pack and began her 8-mile hike down into the heart of the Havasupai Indian Reservation.

As she walked toward the trailhead, Hanamure passed Havasupai cowboys strapping camping gear onto mules for tourists clustered at Hilltop, a dusty parking area perched above the canyon. Like most of the tourists, Hanamure knew the trail before her — a three-hour trek that traverses 2,000 vertical feet — leads to a series of magnificent travertine-lined waterfalls and swimming holes of unparalleled beauty. Unlike most of the other tourists, the 5-foot-1, 139-pound office worker planned to hike alone.

Hanamure spent the morning of May 8, 2006, hiking down the trail and exploring an offshoot of the Grand Canyon. That afternoon, she checked into the Supai Lodge, paying $145 for a room. She left the lodge alone late in the afternoon and followed a cottonwood-lined dirt path toward Navajo Falls, the first of three waterfalls beyond Supai. It appears she never made it there.

A federal grand jury indictment handed up in December alleges that an 18-year-old Havasupai man, Randy Redtail Wescogame, brutally murdered Hanamure during a robbery. According to a subsequent autopsy, Hanamure was beaten and stabbed 29 times in the head, neck and back. Days later, her clothed body was discovered submerged in Havasu Creek, about a mile from the village. Authorities say there was no indication of sexual assault.

Hanamure’s murder generated sensational headlines across Japan, but in the U.S., the homicide was a minor story. In the year since her death, the Havasupai Tribe has taken aggressive steps to stem negative publicity about the murder, banning reporters from the canyon for extended periods. By this spring, the murder was becoming a distant memory the tribe wanted to forget entirely. Responding to inquiries for this story, Havasupai enterprise director Roland Manakaja said the tribe “has given enough interviews.”

“We want to let this issue die,” he said.

But tribal court records, other documents, lengthy discussions with current and former officials of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and interviews with reservation residents, including Wescogame’s father, show the 650-member Havasupai Tribe to be troubled in ways that go beyond the murder of a single tourist.

Those sources say law enforcement is all but nonexistent in Supai, where — because of persistent underfunding by the federal government — just three BIA police officers try to keep order. In fact, at the time of the murder, the regional BIA jail was closed because of a lack of personnel to manage it. With no place to house prisoners, BIA police were turning most offenders loose.

By many accounts, meanwhile, Havasupai youth have become immersed in a hip-hop culture that is fueled by methamphetamine and punctuated by violence. Drug and alcohol smuggling are prevalent, a former BIA official with long experience of the reservation says; tribe members report teens running amok, terrorizing older residents and chasing off schoolteachers.

In the months leading up to Hanamure’s death, at least two tourists had been assaulted near the falls, but violence isn’t just a problem facing visitors. The Havasupai Reservation has become dangerous enough that tribal elders want to build a fenced apartment complex to protect them from the tribe’s own, rampaging youth. And Randy Wescogame has been on a rampage for much of his life.

 

As early as 1300 A.D., the Havasupai Tribe roamed millions of acres of high desert plateaus south of the Grand Canyon, hunting and gathering in the highlands during fall and winter and gardening in the Grand Canyon and its side gorges during spring and summer. The arrival of cattlemen after the Mexican War forced most Havasupai into Havasu Canyon, and in 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes established, by executive order, a Havasupai Reservation centered on Havasu Creek. Two years later, the reservation was reduced to 518 acres. The tribe numbered 200 in 1882, but epidemics reduced the population to 106 in the early 1900s.

In 1974, President Gerald Ford signed a bill that returned 185,000 acres to the tribe — the largest Indian land-repatriation measure ever enacted. But agriculture, the tribe’s economic mainstay 100 years ago, had declined on the reservation, and tourism is now the major source of income.

The tourists come to see a set of three classic waterfalls on a 1.5-mile stretch of Havasu Creek, which eventually joins the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon. The closest cataract to the village of Supai is Navajo, a cluster of 75-foot high falls that tumble into an alluring swimming hole surrounded by close, dense vegetation. The next on the trail, Havasu, is among the most photographed falls in the world. Here, 30-foot wide Havasu Creek launches off a cliff and arches over a blue-green pool before curving sharply downward 100 feet into translucent water. At the third and lowest falls, Mooney, a narrow ribbon of water plunges 200 feet with a thunderous roar into a pool nestled within a horseshoe-shaped rock formation.

Anonymous
Sep 10, 2007 11:52 AM

It made me very sad to read this story. I hiked into Supai the first time in 1952 with Bill Belknap - an old friend of one of the Supai families (Lemual Paya) and I have made many trips in there since - a few with Harvey Butchart -  but the last one is more than 35 years ago. Yes, it was a paradise in those days and I would sometimes spend several days camping in the area. I made a photo story in Supai in the fifties featuring Dan Hana and Lemual Paya which I had published in Europe. In those days there was very little tourism and life was simpel. You were charged 50 cents if you brought a camera. The people didn't like to have their picture taken, but you could take dozens of beautiful shots of the canyon and the water falls. I had special permission to take the photos for my story and everyone was very cooperative. This is all history now, and I shall probably never go there again.

Jorgen Visbak, 766 Darlene Way, Boulder City, NV 89005

 

Anonymous
Sep 17, 2007 12:11 PM

I just returned to Havasupai Canyon for the first time in 31 years, taking my two grown children to one of the 'must see' beautiful spots in Arizona.  I was disappointed to see the canyon littered with discarded beer and Dr. Pepper cans, gatorade bottles and trash from the trailhead to the village.   Approaching the village we were confronted by a Havasupai youth with a boom box asking if we had any whiskey to sell.  When I declined, the youth turned away saying, 'Okay, conversation over."   A very uncomfortable meeting, I was glad my 22 year old son was with me. 

The campground is overrun with feral dogs looking for a handout.  Skinny, malnourished animals that shy away during daylight but come back at night looking for anything to eat.  I was awakened at 2 am by the sound of a dog trying to get at our food supply tied up to the tree limb!  And I thought I only had to worry about mice!   Several times scruffy tribe members wandered through the campground keeping to themselves while checking out the occupied sites, I didn't think they were rangers.  

I paid the tribe to have our backpacks brought out of the canyon on a pack horse.  We were told to leave our packs at the campground entrance as we left with our names and reservation tags on them and they would be brought to the trailhead.   We left the campground at 4:30am and made it out at 9:20am, but the packs were not there.  The tourist office tribe member at the top was no help, saying she didn't know anything about our packs.  After waiting 3 1/2 hours tribe member, Wilfred, finally arrived on horseback with a pack horse and three packs on it.   Wilfred fell off his horse when his boot stuck in the stirrup, then his horse tried to kick him.  We watched in shock as Wilfred slowly got up and began beating the horse right in front of us.  I intervened by asking to get our packs, when I got close enough I smelled the strong odor of alcohol, he was very drunk.   The really bad news was he had only two of our packs, one was (and still is missing).  A new pack, sleeping bag, tent and all my cooking gear, including my prized SVEA 123 stove, which is no longer in production.  

During the hours we waited in the hot sun for the packs to arrive, police cruisers from the neighboring Hualapai Tribe circled the parking lot as if looking for someone.  Two marked cruisers and one unmarked police car made repeated rounds of the parking lot checking cars and trucks parked there.   

Again the tourist office tribe member at the trailhead, who makes her office in a dilapidated old RV was not helpful, finally saying we'll mail it to you.  I think it was just to get rid of me.  It's been three weeks and no pack.  Repeated emails and phone calls to the Supai tourist office and I still have no idea if I'll ever see my lost pack again.  

It was sad to see the conditions in the village, the waterfalls are still as beautiful as I remembered and will still be there when the tribe finally gets it's house in order.   But, unfortunately, this was my fourth and final trip to Havasupai.   

Dave Walsh, Marblehead, Massachusetts 

 

Anonymous
Nov 06, 2007 11:27 AM

Reading this story brought back memories of my end of the year camping trip to Havasu Falls back in the early 80's with fellow students from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. On our hike out I had gone ahead by myself. As I hiked past the village area I saw a man hiding in the tall grass. I continued walking and next thing I knew I heard rapidly approaching footsteps behind me and then was attacked by this stranger. Fortunately for me, this person had an arm in a sling and I was able to fight him off in spite of my backpack. He then disappeared back into the tall grass and I quickly turned around to get back together with my group.

It seems that there has been trouble brewing in "paradise" for a long time. I am very sad and sorry for what happened to Tomomi Hanamure.

Anonymous
Mar 18, 2008 02:42 PM

Part of the problem is that uranium mining threats inthe late 80s finally caused the tribe to break longtime tradition and allow helis in and actually grow their tourism. Back in the 80s, you'd call a number, wait for 5 minutes and someone would answer and your'd reserve your campsite. Now it's all flashy and fancy and people are dropped in and the experience of actually communicating one by one with the people has dissapeared.

 

It's a bummer because I last went in 2005 and I remember thinking, they're in trouble. They had opened their village to people who didn't have to hike in and didn't return and have a connection to the place. I'm not articulating very well what I'm thinking, but I recall it started to change when they needed money to pay for the attorneys to fight the mine. They used to be held up as a success, but now they have been forced to pimp their homes to rich white folks and I think that has an effect on the cultural subconsciousness as well.

Anonymous
May 15, 2008 12:31 PM

I agree that it is a bummer. Im a 22 year old male now in 2008 but I last went down to the Havasupai reservation  in the spring of 2006. It was a very nice place as u all know and very beautiful but he natives were very mean and rude from the start. Once in a while u could find a very nice and welcoming elder. I was down there with my classmates from school. I would rather not post which one cause I want to remain annonymous. We had a wonderful time down there and got to experience a lot of very interesting things that most people do not. Such as we were invited to participate in a sweat, in the sweat lodge. It is a little mound of mud were a tribal ceremony of healing is held. When we attended the sweat there was massive marijuana smoking inside which I personally really enjoyed. Our teachers didn't let us smoke but 2 of the elder natives would cover me so I could participate in the smoke out. As we finished one of the men, whom didn't tell me his name invited me to go on a hike with them later on that night but in order to do so I somehow had to get away without my teachers knowing so i did. But had a crazy life changing time. This story is 100% true in every way and if anyone decides to write a story or movie on it I would like to collect 50% of all the profit, can be negotiated. At 8:00 pm I met up with the natives but I brought one of my friends with me and we both brought knives with us that we had bought from behind the counter at the local store. The knives were definitly efficient hunting knives and were very nice. I still have mine somewhere. Anyways, we went on this hike with 5 natives. We wondered though caves, sat on cliff sides and saw many amazing places that the other tourist dont ever see. Around 9pm we started to get tired and let the natives know that we wanted to return to our camp and that people might be looking for us. The natives spoke amongst eachother and brought us back to the village, but not to go back to our camp site. We were led to a house outside of the village and before we could even see it the smell of methanphetamines being made was very present. We approched the door and a native man looked out and told us that if we ever told anyone about this place that he would murder us and scalp us when he caught us in a very scratchy and evil voice. We agreed to keep silent and entered the home. Inside were a bunch of teenagers. We entered and smoked a lot of meth, got really drunk, smoke a lot of marijuana and had a wonderful time on  the payote! It was an excellent night. Eventually at 5am the next morning we made it back to our camp and went to sleep without anyone knowing we ever left. That day we slept in till about 8 am when we all got up and helped with breakfast. During breakfast I saw one of the natives over a hill top walking through the campground as they always do and he pointed towards the restroom. I kindly approched him and said that we would be there in a minute. After I ate my Breakfast me and my 2 friends met the natives at a parkbench near havasu falls (where the porta pottys r and where there strap up the horses). The natives invited us on another hike and we were more then willing to go this time because the night before we had perchaced something to keep us safe from a local teen. We hiked for about fifteen minutes until we got to a cave. The natives told us it was amazing at the other end but were starting to get rude for some reason. We walked through the cave with our coleman high powered flashlights but we led to a ledge in the cave that dropped for as far as u could see.  The natives surrounded us and told us to jump or they would kill us. My friends started to cry and freak out! I had been in a similar situation in my life and dont fear death. These days u will get killed for fear. I turned over, looked at one of my friends and hit him in his face, knocking him out. The natives seemed enjoy this but backed away from me. I leaned over my friend and grabbed the weapon we purchased the night before and used it to scare the natives without harming anyone! I told them that I would kill them if they came towards me and to leave. They immediately ran for there lives. I picked up my friend and told my other friend, lets go man! And we got out of there. Man what an experience that was and Ill never forget it! Someday I would like to find the kid that sold me that weapon and thank him because he told me I would need it and I sure did, he also warned me of what was to come without giving me the details, so he saved me and my friends lives! THANK YOU BUDDY!!! After that all of the natives were complete ass holes and showed how connected they all are. I didnt want to tell my teacher about our little situation  so that day me and my friends went to the local authorities. While talking to them about it he said something o one of the other officers about one of the native guys that was with us that day and he got up, leaned over the counter and said, "we r family down here, u white men are the problem and I suggest u leave before u die! There is nothing I can do for u! Please leave!" and he walked out of the office. Lucky us, the next day our school trip was over anyways so me and my friends just went back to camp and talked quietly about what to do. We decided to stay and enjoy our time peacefully and quietly, and that is exactly what we did. And our story has remained a secret until today, right now, when I write this letter to the public to let u know, u dont want to try to interveen with these people, they wont let it happen. BEWARE! I have seen the secrets they have but I shall never tell just as I promised. 

 

JUST FOR MY RIGHTS TO THIS STORY MY EMAIL ADDRESS IS SecretKeeper@mocospace.com.  FEEL FREE TO WRITE ME OR VIEW MY UPCOMMING PROFILE TRUE CRAZY STORIES AND EXPIRIENCES!

Havasupai near death experience 2008
Jim W
Jim W
Dec 19, 2008 10:11 AM
As a former Flagstaff resident since the late 70's and an avid AZ hiking fan, I decided to make a return trio to Havasupai this past summer. I got dropped off at the parking lot by friends and thats where my story begins. There has been alot of auto break-ins at the parking lot and i decided against bringing my new 4Runner out there to sit for 4 or 5 days. Just be careful in parking as the lot is unattended at night. There were 3 of us, all white males in mid 40's and experienced hikers as were our wives but they decided not to go with us and this made for a guys get-away.
About a half hour into the hike after the first big drop off and switchbacks, we encountered 4 male indians sitting on the trail. One on the right and the other three on the left. When we got closer, they stood up and at first I thought it was just politeness as the trail was somewhat narrow there. I did the usual cursory nod and when nobody gave one back, I knew something was up. The one on the right said he was collecting hiking fees and our 'fee' was $25 each. I knew better and just walked on by as did the other two with me. Looking back I could see them talking but no words were exchanged and I thought that was the end of that. Farther down the trail we decided to take a break and got off the trail into some large rocks and found a place to stretch out and take in the views.........one view was of the trail we had just hiked down. Sure enough, here comes the 4 indians trotting and the one in front as well as the second one had pistols in their hands. I never ever hike without a weapon, mainly a pistol myself, and have found the ideal AZ carry gun for most situations is a 6 inch 357 revolver. All of the 4 coming after us were talking excitedly and looking everywhere for us. My friend, Bob, had a pistol also and although it was only a 22 caliber, it was better than nothing. When the band of 4 were approximately 100 feet from our position, I stepped out and faced in their direction and they all slowed down to a slow walk and began to tell us in many bad words that "our time was up" and "prepare to die", and words like that. I always learned that when confronted by someone with a drawn pistol coming towards you and threatening you, that well, one needs to take action. I fired over their heads (slightly) and they scattered to both sides of the trail. One returned fire and at that point there was nobody on the trail as all parties had dived for cover behind rocks or shallow depressions on the ground. After a minute of them and us exchanging curses, one of the indians stood up and began firing his pistol one round at a time and at that point all of us thought that the 4 were advancing on us. I raised myself up to get a better view and he fired at me hitting the rock directly in front of me causing rock fragments to hit my cheek and left ear. I needed to get to better cover and stood up in a bent over form to run for a rock about 5 yars to my right when I was shot in the stomach. The bullet (a 22 caliber) hit me next to my navel. Thank God I had on a thick web belt that held several items like a shovel, extra water, first aid kit, ect. The bullet was tremendously slowed by the thickness of the webbing as well as thicker clothing (as the doctors and law enforcement people later stated) and the actual penetration was under 1 inch in my stomach. By now I was crouched on my knees still looking for an escape route as this shooter had focused on me instead of my hiking companions. I saw a chance to shoot back, a clear shot, and shot him in the arm just below his shoulder and down he went. So here we were...........wanting OUT of the canyon at this point but we were between our assailants and the bottom of the canyon. After the shooter went down, our small group found ourselves and regrouped. We waited and tended to my stomach wound. I was bleeding but not real badly and I could actually feel the bullet thru my skin and stomach muscle. One of the guys squeezed the wound and the glint of the brass or copper bullet could be seen and I was quite relieved at this time to know that I had no internal injuries.
There was absolute silence after this from their end. No sounds whatsoever. We thought a trap or ambush but ruled that out as we began peeking out and looking for them from our rock cover. Apparently they had retreated and took another route below us or just to one of our flanks to avoid a direct confrontation. We waited 2 hours and 15 minutes and then began our walk back. No signs of anything except a blood pool about the size of a dinner plate but no blood trail. These guys knew this area real well and I would guess in hindsight that there were many alternate routes to escape. We reached the parking area and of course, there was nobody there except one Havasupai who slept there overnight to man the parking shack and he was the guy who collected the ridiculous parking fees and allowed the burglary of vehicles to go on. He had a radio and called someone who asked if anybody needed medical attention and then after a series of native tongue conversation, the attendant told us we could sleep there on the ground in the lot until morning. What a choice, huh? Out of cell phone range and a guy who could care less. Fearing some kind of reprisal from the 4 indians, we began hiking down the road away from the lot and away from any more trouble. At this point we did not know if the attendant had passed info to the 4 or his friends.........we were suspicious of everything at this point. At 6 AM the next morning a BIA car came down the road and we flagged it down. We did not know it was BIA until it actually stopped and could see the emblems on the doors. It was someone heading to the lot/canyon and after alot of persuasion, the worker (not a true BIA agent) turned around and began driving us back towards the interstate. Along the way we kept trying our cell phones to see where the signal to make a call would come on and my Verizon phone found a signal (hear that? Verizon seems to have better coverage) and we made a call to my wife and explained what happened. When the worker saw that we had made contact and we in better spirits, he stopped the car and asked us to wait for our ride home as he had to turn around and get to Havasupai as that was his original destination. Some compassion there.
At any rate, we we picked up and I went to the hospital where the bullet was removed without any surgery. Of course the Coconino Sheriff Dept was notified and you would think that they had Sadaam Hussien on the gurney as at least 3 cars responded. Then came the run-around. The county deputies said since it happened on reservation land, the reservation police and/or the FBI needed to be notified. So we called the FBI from the hospital. We were passed from agent to agent and after agent number 7, I hung up. Nobody cared and the whole gist of the conversation from their end was that "the Havasupais surely do not need negative press at this time as this was their only means of support.......the hikers, backpackers, and photgraphers". "Besides, you weren't really hurt that bad". OK, well what about the indian that I shot and freely admitted what I had done? No weapons check for verification, no statement needed unless this particular indian needed medical attention or passed away from the wound received. So in other words, what happens in the canyon.........stays in the canyon.
I have been down there again twice. Both times fully armed and no sign or talk of a wounded indian or anything about this ordeal. This all happened the 3rd week of August, 2008.
So what if something really happened down there? What if one needed medical or police help right away? What if the 4 indians assualted a group of 3 or 4 women? Why does the FBI, the BIA, and the tribal police pass this off? How many other things happen with these same results from law enforcement?
My suggestions are these:
A. Hike with a small group and be armed. Everyone armed.
B. Do not park in the lot unless it is a rental car and you have insurance for auto thefts as well as the auto itself.
C. Verizon only after leaving I-40
D. First aid kit and lots of water
E. Keep moving in the canyon itself. A long pause here and there can only lead to trouble as you will be watched by small bands of thieves.
F. Remember.....YOU are the law there. From the parking lot down and back. The existing law will not protect you in any shape or form. Threats against tribal police from locals are at an all time high and the police there simply turn their backs on help.
G. As good as they are, the Sheriff Department will NOT arrest any indian for several reasons (Havasupai) as the reservatons are on federal land and the tons of paperwork involved will choke a boar hog. Outide the res........yes........inside? No.
G. See the canyon while you can and go prepared. This is NOT what it used to be even 5 years ago. Plenty of litter along the way and plenty of drugs available there. If you are a drug user, do not bring anything in as the quantity and quality in the bottom of the canyon are far superior to what you can buy a few blocks away from Northern AZ University.
Anonymous
Jun 23, 2008 11:57 AM

I hiked Havasupai Canyon in 1987 with a large group from Havasu Regional Hospital in Lake Havasu City. We paid $40 a backpack to have them brought into the Canyon while we hiked down with daypacks. That was our first mistake. The tribal youth that arrived on horseback were over two hours late and they were rude and angry. They portered our packs down while we walked. We found our packs in a dirty ditch at the bottom and my pack had been completely rifled but there was nothing of real value in my pack.

I  would not have been comfortable camping outside at the bottom below Havasupai Falls if I were not part of a large group with several men. The native americans we met seemed angry that we were even there even though tourism is their largest business.

With recent developments such as are discussed above I would not consider hiking into Havasupai Canyon again. I would stay in the National Park area were there is some element of safety. The problems I am talking about occurred over 20 years ago. Their once proud tradition is now a gang controlled environment that they are trying to cover up. 

 

RR  Phoenix, AZ.