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Havasupai History & Culture

Havasupai

The Havasupai Indian Reservation is home to the Havasupai tribe and encompases land within the Grand Canyon as well as on the rim of the canyon. The Havasupai or Havasu Baaja tribe currently has 650 tribal members, of which approximately 450 live in the village of Supai. All members speak their native language, a northeastern Yuman dialect that is a division of the Hokan linguistic family. It has been a written language for almost 25 years. Pai means “people” and Havasupai means “people of the blue-green water.” Supai is the most remote village in the U.S.; approximately 160 miles from the closest grocery store, all supplies including mail come to the village by packhorse or helicopter.

The People

Prior to the 1900s the Havasupai would spend the spring and summer months in the canyon planting and harvesting gardens of corn, squash, and beans. During the fall and winter they would move to the high-elevation plateau lands around the canyon where they would hunt game and gather from what the earth provided. The first white man to visit the Havasupai was the Spanish explorer Padre Garces in 1776. It was nearly 100 more years before they again saw a white face.

In 1882 the Federal Government confined the Havasupai to only 518 acres in the bottom of the canyon. With their way of life devastated, many tribal members were forced to seek wage labor outside the canyon. This imprisonment and resulting exodus had a profound effect on their culture and economic status.

It was not until 1975 that Congress reallocated 185,000 acres of their ancestral land. Today, with the advent of tourism, the Havasupai are prospering once again. By working closely with the Havasupai Tourist Enterprise, our guided hiking tours strive to show you their majestic land with the respect and reverence due to these proud and resourceful people.

The Havasupai Tribe does not permit the use of alcoholic beverages on the reservation and drugs are as illegal in Havasu Canyon as they are anywhere else. Additionally, tribal law does not permit the bearing of firearms by anyone on the reservation.

Out of respect, never take photos of individuals in the tribe or homes without first asking permission. Many will allow it, however, please be respectful of the fences and their privacy.

The Place

Havasu Canyon is as fierce as it is beautiful. The landscape is ever changing. Havasu Creek is a tributary of the Colorado river and the canyon itself is within the geologic boundaries of the Grand Canyon although it is not a part of Grand Canyon National Park. In fact, Havasu Canyon is the largest individual side-canyon to the Grand Canyon. The geology of Havasupai is much the same as can be seen in other parts of Grand Canyon, but it is unique because of high concentrations of travertine in Havasu creek. Travertine is a type of limestone that forms by rapid preciptation of calcium carbonate. As the waters of Havasu creek bubble out of the spring that is their source in the upper reaches of Cataract Canyon, the water is oxygenated and the calcium carbonate separates itself from the water and clings to the streambed as the water flows down canyon towards its confluence with the Colorado. The result is the characteristic aquamarine color of the water and the formation of spectacular terraced pools and waterfalls surrounded by delicate hanging veils of rock.

Hiker overlooks Havasu Falls on backpacking trip
Havasupai waterfall and pool on Havasu Falls backpacking trip

Within the Grand Canyon, perennial water sources are rare and life-giving. The water of Havasu creek has been the life-source of the Havasupai Indian tribe who have called this part of the canyon home for centuries, and it also gives life to thriving plant and animal communities. Canyon grapevine and giant Fremont cottonwood trees create a swath of lush greenery against the red rock of the canyon walls and provide refreshing shade to hikers and adventurers. The biologic diversity here is astounding and it is not uncommon to see canyon tree frogs, cottontail rabbits, rattlesnakes and desert king snakes, a variety of cactus, or even a majestic california condor soaring overhead. This riparian community exists in a careful harmony which we as visitors threaten with our very presence, we must take great care to treat this canyon oasis with the respect and awe that it deserves, it is a delicate balance.

Recommended Reading List

  1. I am the Grand Canyon – Stephen Hirst
  2. Grand Canyon: Solving Earth’s Grandest Puzzle – James Lawrence Powell
  3. Grand Canyon: True Stories of Life Below the Rim – Sean O’Reilly, James O’Reilly & Larry Habegger, Editors
  4. Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon – Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers