Shaman's Drum, Fall 1992
The trail into Havasupai Canyon twists and turns with rocks rising up like towering walls. Near the village of Supai, the place that the Havasu'uw Baa'ja call home, cottonwoods appear, to cool the trail. Up the walls a play of gold and copper caused by the bright sunlight unfolds, stopping at the band of azure blue sky at the top.
Past the village, at the base of the canyon, trees lift their arms towards Heaven in silent, never-ending supplication. Havasupai Falls empties into a mirror-like pool that is surrounded by wildflowers and crystal beds. The air is clean, fragrant with the scent of grass and earth and sweet-smelling trees. Here nature and tourists who come to camp communicate.
There is a magic about this little secluded canyon and the sweetness of the water that makes the real world seem far away, a peacefulness that strips man of anger, frustration, cares, making them seem insignificant and meaningless. None can help but fall under the canyon's tranquilizing, almost hypnotic power. Many tribes of the region call this land sacred, and revere it as such. Here is where they come to pause for an instant in the attitude of worship.
At this summer's (1992) Peach Festival (the annual inter-tribal rodeo powwow held in Supai, Arizona), the main topic of discussion was uranium mining in the area, and its threats to the Havasupai people living there. Tensions ran high. A grandfather spoke of the days when he was a child and the clouds swept from the horizon, trailing mantles of rain over the land. He said he was not afraid because his grandfather had taught him that the Thunderbeings were his friends. But nowadays his own grandchildren are afraid of the thunderstorms... and he cries with them because he knows that with the rains comes runoff from the ponds where the uranium waste from the mines is stored unprotected from the elements. He knows his beautiful home and children are endangered.
Water is something most of us take for granted, yet it is vital to everyone's health. For the Havasupai, who live in and near the Grand Canyon in Arizona, this very basic necessity is in danger. Many of their homes are located on the canyon floor downstream of uranium mines, and their waters - including Havasu Creek, their drinking water - are threatened by contamination from the mines.
"We say everything we see is related to us," said Rex Tilousi, a Havasupai spiritual leader. "The springs run through the Grand Canyon, the springs we drink, it runs in our blood and nourishes the earth. We are the Grand Canyon. We were put her to protect her and to take care of this place. If the Canyon is destroyed, then so is our meaning, our reason for being."
The Havasupai Reservation lies along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, and extends down into the canyon, where Supai, their main village is located. The tribe of about six hundred members calls itself Havasu'uw Baa'ja (People of the Blue-green Water).
For seven years, the Havasupai have been fighting Energy Fuels Nuclear (EFN), a Colorado-based mining company, over the construction and operation of uranium mines near the canyon. One of its mines, Canyon Mine, is located at Mat Taav Tiivjundva, a sacred site that lies near the base of Wii'i gdwiisa (Red Butte), which is also sacred. According to an unidentified Havasupai author, Wii'i gdwiiisa is the navel, and Mat Taav Tiivjundjva is the womb of the Mother who gave birth to the Havasupai, and who renews them and their world each year. Thus, they believe that mining at those sites will destroy them. Although neither site lies on their reservation, the Grand Canyon Enlargement Act of 1975 affirmed the Havasupai's right to use them for religious purposes. "Congress extinguished certain aboriginal rights," wrote the Havasupai author, "but provided that the Act preserved for Havasupai a right to go to the land for religious purposes and gatherings." Now, due to the mining, they're unable to gain access to Mat Taav Tiivjundva.
In an attempt to prevent the mining, the Havasupai went in 1988 to the US District Court in Phoenix, Arizona to plea for their First Amendment religious freedom rights. Judge Roger Strand ruled against them, saying they provided insufficient evidence to prove that their religious rights had been violated, or to prove that their claim to the site was valid. The Havasupai then took their case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which also ruled against them.
The Havasupai found it necessary to take stronger steps to protect their lands and waters, and in December 1991, they approved a constitutional amendment that bans all uranium mining activity within reservation boundaries. (the amendment, which passed by a 113-4 vote, was the first of a newly rewritten Havasupai constitution.) However, the ban will not prevent off-reservation mining, so the struggle continues. Canyon Mine is currently in operation and another, Sage Mine (which is closer to the canyon), is under construction. The Havasupai plan to take their case to the Arizona State Supreme Court, but no court date has been set at this writing.
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