Havasu - Place Which is Green

A Poem & An Adventure

Havasupai Prayer to the Sun:

Sun, my relative,
as you rise, be good to me.
Bring good things to us.
Give me strength to work,
so that I can be strong in the garden,
so that I can hoe, plant corn, and water my fields.

Sun, my relative,
as you go down, be good to me,
as we lay down to sleep,
give me peace.
As I sleep, may you come up again.
May you go on your course many times,
Making good things happen for people.
Let me be always the same as I am now.

Imagine yourself in the boots of the young Frank Cushing, an explorer trekking across the high plateau south of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. It is the summer of 1881, you are just twenty-four years old, and you are on a great quest. Though your Zuni Indian friends have told you of the hardships of the journey and the great distances between water holes, though they say you are crazy to try it, you have come through hundreds of miles of dry and windswept land, sometimes desert, sometimes grassland, sometimes pine forests, in your search.

Your Zuni companion and guide, Tsai-iu-tsaih-ti-wa, has told you of a fabulous green canyon, like a paradise, with turquoise pools and crystal waterfalls, and of the people who call it home. But all you can see are desolate flatlands and mesas stretching into the blue distance. Perhaps the story is just a story.
Suddenly, in front of you, the land falls away into a canyon, into two thousand feet of depth, beauty, and silence. Ahead of you, across the canyon, red and white cliffs stand like castles. Below you, ravens glide on warm updrafts, scanning the barren desert floor. There is no place to go but down.

Tsai-iu-tsaih-ti-wa beckons you toward a faint trail, and you follow him down the nearly vertical cliff, now scrambling over huge boulders, now creeping along a foot-wide path, wedging your fingers into cracks in the rock, holding onto little stone knobs, anything to prevent you from falling. One wrong step means death. In the early evening, you reach the safety of a level plateau, where you camp. The next morning you walk on and finally reach the sandy wash at the bottom. Your descent to the canyon floor has taken two days.

You camp that night in a dry arroyo between"rock walls that seem to lean over you, and walk all the next morning through sand and rock, your throat itching for water.

Finally, in the early afternoon, you turn round a corner in the canyon wall and see before you fresh green groves of willow trees, watered by a rushing stream. You hear the barking of dogs and the shouts of children. A few more steps, and from a rise, you look down into fields of corn and sunflowers and orchards of peach and fig trees.

Beyond the fields is a village, the summer home of the tiny Havasupai Tribe, literally the "people of the blue-green water," who have farmed in this canyon for six hundred years. And beyond the village are the thundering waterfalls and shining pools which you will discover and explore tomorrow, and remember all your life.

You are in the "Place Which is Green," Havasu Canyon.

Today, a wide trail has made the descent to the village of Supai safer and easier than it was for Frank Cushing, and good maps and a paved road to the trail-head have replaced the Zuni guide. But the canyon's challenge and beauty remain.

Havasu Creek flows north toward the main gorge of the Grand Canyon, finally yielding its cool blue water to the cold brown Colorado River. On its course, it creates a ribbon of green through the red canyon, giving life to a wide variety of birds and animals, pooling in swimming holes that delight dusty hikers, and pouring over four major falls. The highest, Mooney Falls, drops 196 feet--twenty-nine feet more than Niagara Falls, luring tourists each year to set out on the eleven mile trail for a few days in the place that has been called the Shangri-La of the Grand Canyon.

Most tourists, however, know little about the people of this place, the people for whom the whole Grand Canyon is "Grandmother Canyon," their birthplace, the place where, in their legend, they came forth from the underworld. And the place for which they are the sacred guardians, the Keepers of the Canyon.

Seven hundred years ago, the ancestors of the modern Havasupai came to occupy the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. They lived, hunted, and planted their crops across the whole plateau. Then, just over a century ago, they lost it. Today, tourists on their way to Grand Canyon Village pass through many miles of their former lands, farther than the eye can see on both sides of the road. Tourists walk among the pinyon and Douglas fir trees where the ancestors of the Havasupai walked, and campers sleep on ground where the ancestors slept.

Though the Tribe today receives no profit from the land or businesses along the South Rim, its members still bear a sense of spiritual responsibility for the whole area, and for the soil, water, trees, and animals that sustained them through generations.

Visitors to the village of Supai will quickly see that a poignant human story is part of the Grand Canyon story. Opening our souls to the grandeur of the Canyon also means opening them to the Havasupai people. The Canyon and its people are one.

Special thanks to Karen Kennedy of WilderWalk for introducing us to the Keepers of the Canyon.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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