The U.S. attorney’s office in Phoenix declined to comment about conditions in Supai and anything related to the upcoming Wescogame trial. But the federal prosecutor’s office appears to be taking a somewhat more aggressive stance nowadays in regard to Supai crime.
The office filed felony assault charges on Feb. 28 against Steven Craig Chavez, a Havasupai, alleging Chavez beat a man with a baseball bat last Dec.17. Chavez was also involved in a second beating, this one involving a communications contractor in early 2007, alleged George Linnartz, president of Kruger Communications, an Illinois Internet company.
Linnartz claims that Chavez attacked one of his employees, who was installing a broadband delivery system in Supai. No federal charges, however, had been filed against Chavez in that assault as of early May. The U.S attorney’s office declined to comment about either alleged assault.
Linnartz said he spent one evening on the cliffs above the village. “It was like nothing I ever imagined. I sat up on a mountain, and you could hear how the village goes ballistic down there,” he said. “It’s pretty scary stuff. The technicians told me they won’t go back down there, and they are pretty seasoned guys.”
Havasupai tribal leaders have complained to the BIA for years about the lack of law enforcement in Supai. “We have been asking for more police for five or six years,” said tribal council Vice Chairman Edmond Tilousi. “They promise more police, but it never happens.”
BIA law enforcement officials in Arizona did not return repeated calls seeking comment about police protection for Supai. But BIA law enforcement officials in Washington, D.C., placed the blame for insufficient police on lack of funding.
Chris Chaney, deputy director of BIA Office of Justice Services, said Congress only provides enough money for 31 percent of the officers needed on the 42 reservations for which the BIA provides police protection. The Bush administration is proposing a $16 million increase in BIA law enforcement spending for the 2008 budget. If adopted, Chaney said, the increased funding would put 51 new officers and 91 additional detention officers in the field and provide special training to address the methamphetamine epidemic that is sweeping Indian Country.
Even with the additional funding, Supai would be unlikely to receive more than one or two officers, Chaney said. As an alternative to BIA police understaffing, the tribe could operate its own police department, seeking funding from federal and state grants, Chaney said. The tribe — which mismanaged elementary school funding several years ago, leading the BIA to take control of its operations — has not formally requested permission to assume control of the police department.
Without adequate law enforcement, Supai’s problems with drugs and alcohol — which are smuggled from Hilltop by horseback, mules, hikers and helicopter — seem likely to continue. “Bootlegging is still the biggest industry in Supai,” McNichols said.
In the mid-1990s, the tribe instituted a consent-to-search ordinance at Hilltop, similar to laws that allow warrantless searches of anyone entering a federal building or getting on an airplane. The policy greatly reduced alcohol smuggling onto the reservation, McNichols said. But it was rescinded after packers complained that tribal members were being unfairly targeted. A tribal attorney had also contended that the ordinance was unconstitutional. Now, McNichols said, conditions have further deteriorated in Supai, and tribal elders and parents of young families are asking the council to finance construction of a gated community. “Elders and young families have repeatedly stated, ‘Give us a safe place where we can live. Give us a fence so we can sleep at night,’ ” McNichols said.
“The kids are way out of control down here. They rule the parents,” said Elgene Hanna, a Havasupai member who lives in Supai. “There are 10, 12, 15-year-old kids who are drinking. At school, the kids are vicious and commit assaults, throw rocks, spit and are rude.”
Tribal Vice Chairman Tilousi blames social influences from beyond the reservation — including television and the Internet — for many of the tribe’s problems. “I think it is not enough discipline and the wrong kind of influences from the outside,” he said. But he acknowledges that parents “are partly to blame.” For former Coconino County Sheriff Joe Richards, who served 32 years before retiring in 2004, a lack of supervised youth activities and the absence of “effective, proactive and aggressive law enforcement” have created a “tragic situation in a beautiful spot.”
Coconino County’s policing on the reservation is limited to matters involving non-Indians, usually search and rescue efforts in regard to lost and injured tourists. And given the low level of federal law enforcement funding, Richards said, the tribe’s only hope is to “try to work together in harmony to restore the culture of the people. The only chance they have is to do it themselves.”
John Dougherty is a Tempe, Arizona-based writer and three-time Arizona Journalist of the Year.