Blessed to be born Havasupai


John Dougherty’s article “Problems in Paradise” paints an unfair picture of the Havasupai people (HCN, 5/28/07). He and another writer, Annette McGivney in Backpacker magazine, make us sound like a lawless community, with gangs running amok. Supai Village is a community where all of us feel safer letting our children out of our sight to play or go to school than we would feel even in Flagstaff. This is a place where we and our visitors don’t have to worry about ourselves the way we would in Phoenix or Los Angeles.

One year ago, the terrible murder of Tomomi Hanamure took place on our reservation. It shocked and grieved us, and even more when we learned one of our people might have done it. Never once in more than 200 years of contact with non-Indians had any of us taken one of their lives, whatever the provocation. We were very proud of that fact.

We are a private people, and suddenly dozens of reporters were clamoring to see the “savages” and point cameras at us. They threatened to disturb the crime scene to the point that the FBI asked us to keep them out. None of us knew what to say or how to handle it. We were in shock. All we wanted was for people to leave us alone to come to terms with this horrible loss while the investigators did their job. We prayed for Tomomi Hanamure’s soul to send her home to her people.

We strive to make our lives the best that we can and to keep our home a place that we are proud to share with our visitors. Your readers need to understand that we would not want to live in an unsafe place. Maybe people think because we are Havasupai and we live on the bottom of a canyon that we are different. We are not. We love our families and our children the same as you, and we feel blessed to live where we do.

Terrible acts take place every day in the cities of the world. Here it happens one time and reporters are still coming after us a year later, trying to make us look as if we are all at fault. What are they after? Do they crave recognition whatever the cost to us? When do we say our own people can no longer swim at the falls, even on our own land, because reporters like Dougherty and McGivney make people afraid of us?

Anything that happens in the country and the world affects us. If the president should decide to divert money and manpower to the borders or to Iraq, it affects how many police we can have or whether we get better health care or support for our school. When American youth begin making and using amphetamines, before long they arrive here. When American television shows hour after hour of violence, it appears on our screens, too. Influences like this do not fit our culture and hurt our young people. These issues face many communities, including yours. We are well aware of them, and we have been working to deal with them. Last year, we approached the Bureau of Indian Affairs for more law enforcement officers, but met delays and excuses. While we are still hoping they will honor their obligations to help us keep our community a good place, we are also looking at whether we need to operate our own law enforcement program.

Law enforcement, however, only makes a partial solution for our young people in trouble. Even if they are a small number, we care about them. Substance abuse counseling, mental health services and conflict resolution all offer ways to recover these young people. Our school needs to reinforce our values. We are not a wealthy community, so it is not easy to put everything we want in place, but we are making every effort.

We feel blessed to be born Havasupai and see a bright future for our people. Visitors have always come to us for who we are. We welcome them, proud to share our canyon home with the world.

Havasupai Tribal Council
Edmond Tilousi, Bernadine Jones, Colleen Kaska, Carletta Tilousi, Joe Watahomigie, Leandra Wescogame
Supai, Arizona
Jul 13, 2007 11:27 AM

I lived and worked in Havasupai for 3 weeks in late 2002.  The locals were friendly, and the tribe was trying to find a balance between their traditional way of life and the inevitable creep of modern culture.  The falls are magical, and the energy overwhelms the eyesores. The canyon and society are very isolated, both physically and psychologically, and the conditions there are similar to other reservations where I lived.  There is alcoholism, drug use, and violence, that exists in so many impovershed "welfare" type states, where the traditional way of life was destroyed, and the people endured a history of persecution and mistreatment. 

It is sad to see the canyon desecrated - by anyone, and there is no excuse for that.  Murder is never acceptable, and is a warning sign of a society unraveling.  The slow destruction of the Supai culture is also inexcusable.  Whatever combination of events led to this horrific murder, maybe we will never know.  Any justice that can be brought, hopefully will be fairly brought.  And, as the tribe stated, I am sure most of us are praying for Hanamure's soul and family.

Unfortunately, fear is the prevailing sentiment in America today, and we need to guard against laying blame and judgement, and creating more fear, for that never solves anything. We all need to take responsibility for the condition and care of our fellow humans.  If you are interested, visit Supai, ask the people how you can help, and see the conditions and issues down there through your own eyes.  Things are never as simple as they seem, but if we live with love, respect, and compassion, the solutions become easier.

I sincerely hope things can be repaired in Supai - it is a very special place.   


Mar 11, 2008 02:27 PM

I met Annette and her young son in the cafe when she was writing the article that this article mentions.  I think she and her son really loved the place and felt safe there.  There have been many changes to the Supai culture that I have witnessed over the past 36 years of going there.  Some good, some bad, but there have definitely been changes.  I think the negative coverage reflects the mindset of the writers more than it does the place Supai.

 It is my suggestions that everyone visit Supai at least once in their life.

 Craig X

Mar 22, 2009 11:15 PM
The home of the Supai is a sacred place to me just as it is to most of the Supai themselves. You can not understand the conditions there with out understanding the history. There are many social ills that come from making a culture change and adapt to foreign ideas and methods. The Supai are no different. And they are working hard to better their environment for themselves and their guests. The article "Problems in Paradise" is very misleading. While the ploblems faced by the tribe are real, they are not any different than those faced by any other community around the world. It is as safe of a place as anywhere that a tourist can go and safer than most any large city. I commend the tribal counsel for their response and pay them respect for the work they do in trying to keep such a special place sacred.