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.