Uranium mining threatens our home, the Grand Canyon

Since time immemorial, the Havasupai have lived inside the natural wonder. We face yet another peril.

 

Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss, a Havasupai tribal councilwoman, stands for a portrait by Red Butte, Kaibab National Forest, which was originally Havasupai land. “Let us rechristen the landscape here, changing the names of places, trails and springs back to the Indigenous names, the ones the tribes are comfortable sharing with the public,” she writes.

If you were one of the 6.3 million people who visited Grand Canyon National Park last year, chances are you stood on the rim and noticed a green ribbon of trees thousands of feet below you. The National Park Service calls it “Indian Garden.” And it was truly a garden, once: Our Havasupai relatives, the Tilousi family, lived and gardened there a century ago, until the National Park Service kicked them out. The Bright Angel Trail hikers use to reach this area today is an old Havasupai trail. When the Fred Harvey Company set up its hospitality industry on the South Rim near the turn of the 20th century, they hired Havasupai and created a work camp for them called Supai Camp.

Last year, the park celebrated its centennial. There were special events, but I doubt you heard anything about us, the Havasupai — the Guardians of the Grand Canyon. You may not even know about Canyon Mine, the proposed uranium mine that threatens Havasu Creek, the entire water supply of the Havasupai Reservation. Historical erasure has made us invisible. Now, our very survival is at stake, and we are asking for your help.

Inside what you call Grand Canyon National Park, the Havasupai have lived since time immemorial. We still live here. Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe Railway reached the Grand Canyon in 1901, and thousands of tourists came in their wake. Billy Burro was the last Havasupai to live in Indian Garden, a place that had been enjoyed by our people for centuries. But industry began to dictate where Indians could and couldn’t be, and public areas were forbidden because it was considered bad for business. Discrimination was rampant. At the Grand Canyon, we Havasupais were no longer welcome on our own land, because now it was reserved for tourists. Eventually, it was taken away altogether. Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919, and Billy, together with all Havasupais, were kicked out of Indian Garden. The people were relocated to the Indian work camp, with little option but to work for the railway. These were heartbreaking times for us, as our home became a tourist attraction. We had to endure constant racism; people like Billy were given the last name “Burro,” for example, as if we were no more than pack animals.

It’s time Grand Canyon officials took some responsibility and helped educate visitors about our history, land and water. The South Rim was taken by the federal government to create Grand Canyon National Park, and Havasupai voices were ignored when we pleaded for our homeland. In the early 1930s, the Park Service burned Supai Camp to the ground, and our people, including elders and children, were loaded into covered wagons in the snow, taken to the canyon’s rim and forced to walk down a grueling 17-mile trail to Supai Village. That is where the Havasupai Reservation was created in 1880. Before that, however, Supai Village was used as our summer home. Our longtime winter home had always been the newly designated park, but now we had lost it forever. In the 1970s, the park hired a new superintendent, who shut off our food, septic and water supply. Fortunately, we already relied on the springs in the canyon, and so we weathered the assault.

Havasupai march together to protest Canyon Mine, which could potentially contaminate the Redwall-Muav aquifer, the tribe’s only source of water.

If the mine shaft leaks, it will contaminate the aquifer, which discharges into Havasu Creek — our only source of water. 

Now we have a new threat to deal with. Fifteen miles from the park boundary is a uranium mine that threatens the entire water supply for the 426 permanent residents of the Havasupai Reservation. The mine shaft at Canyon Mine is 1,470 feet below the surface, and if it leaks, it will contaminate the Redwall-Muav aquifer, which discharges into Havasu Creek — our only source of water. We have been fighting uranium mining for 40 years, but we cannot do it alone, especially if we continue to be erased.

Havasuw’ Baaja means the people of the blue-green waters. Those waters are the waters of Havasu Creek, and we are the original Guardians of the Grand Canyon. Thousands of more recent arrivals have since settled this land, built homes and raised families on our ancestral lands, and we know they love the canyon, too. Like us, they’ve come to know the names of the mountains, trails and waters in the region. The Grand Canyon has called them here, to make their lives in this incredible corner of the world. We are not so different after all.

And now it’s time for them — and for everyone who loves the Grand Canyon — to stand with us, to get to know who we are, and to work with us toward a just and shared vision for the next 100 years of this national park. We want the park to recognize our histories and to share that story permanently at the visitor center — to find a place for us in all their exhibits and in permanent signage throughout the park. Let us rechristen the landscape here, changing the names of places, trails and springs back to the Indigenous names, the ones the tribes are comfortable sharing with the public. All park rangers, personnel, outfitters and river runners should receive cultural sensitivity training, so they can teach visitors about the true history of the land.

Congress should pass S.3127 – the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act. This law will protect the 1 million acres of public land surrounding Grand Canyon National Park from the catastrophic impacts of uranium mining; it will also protect our homes in Supai Village.

Often, we gather at Red Butte, one of our sacred sites, to protest the project. There, we educate people about the many efforts to shut down the Canyon Mine, which is just three miles away. We invite you to join us here.

You are invited to stand strong with us and help us protect this landscape we all love, which is also the place we call home — the Grand Canyon. We have been trying to do this for many years, and we will continue to do for all generations to come. Please join us.

Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss is a Havasupai tribal councilwoman. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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