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Healing More Than Her Tribe

The Havasupai Tribe in Northern Arizona has had to fight to hold onto its land in the Grand Canyon. And now tribal members are struggling to maintain their culture, too. Eight miles down into Havasu Canyon lives a medicine woman who is on a mission to save it.

From the Fronteras Changing America Desk in Flagstaff, Laurel Morales takes us there.

There are three ways to get to Supai Village -- by foot, by helicopter or by mule. We choose to walk the trail. I’m traveling with a group from Arizona Highways Magazine, a publication that’s been writing about the southwest for 88 years. They’re working on a story for their March issue. About a dozen mules make their way out of the canyon as we hoof it down the switchbacks, on a cold but sunny November morning.

It’s a 10-mile hike  to the majestic waterfalls for which Havasu Canyon is known. Before you reach the falls visitors must walk through Supai Village, where about 400 tribal members live. Just beyond the helicopter landing Dianna Baby Sue White Dove Uqualla waits for us at her home.

UQUALLA: "This whole canyon is sacred so I honor each and every one of you for walking and touching my ancestors."

Uqualla stands out like a rare desert flower. She is the only one we see in a traditional satin dress. Most are in T shirts and jeans like the tourists they rely on. Uqualla wears beaded jewelry and an eagle feath er in her hair. She’s painted dark red lines from her eyes to her chin. She says they represent the tears she cries for all human suffering.

As the ceremony begins she asks Arizona Highways’ Kelly Kramer to face the sun.

UQUALLA: "Could you turn clockwise?"

Kramer has asked for a blessing. Baby Sue, as she’s known, burns sage to cleanse anything heavy on Kramer’s heart. The medicine woman waves eagle and condor feathers across her body.

UQUALLA: "I asked spirit to give you the strength in both your mind and heart that you can be able to see things that aren’t just level but in the way of looking from the sky unto  the earth to understand the values and the hope we bring as the human people."

Baby Sue says she discovered she had this healing gift when she left the canyon for high school. She had visions that came true. It wasn’t until a friend of the family told her that her grandfather was a medicine man that she embraced the calling.

Baby Sue ends the ceremony with an astonishing cry to the heavens, which she calls “the spirit of the warrior.”

The modern era has slowly eroded traditional scenes like this one. And it’s part of the narrative Arizona Highways will capture in its piece.

For hundreds of years the tribe spent summers in the canyon tending to crops. Then Baby Sue says in the winter months her ancestors would hike out to hunt on the rim.
UQUALLA: "My people were the ones protecting that area for many many years until we were asked to move."

In 1880 the federal government confined the Havasupai to the bottom of the canyon. Then, nearly a century later, Tribal Chairman Lee Marshall declared to Congress: “I am the Grand Canyon.” His testimony led to the reinstatement of tribal land on the rim.  

UQUALLA: "We are the Grand Canyon. We watch her. And we are blessed by her. We take care of her."

But Uqualla has struggled to find a young Havasupai person to apprentice with her and learn their traditional practices.

UQUALLA: "I’m crossing that bridge from my ancestors to teach the children of today instead of just saying you need to wear your headdress and you need to wear your feathers."

More and more tribes are losing their traditional practices as young people become distracted by technology, western capitalism and other outside influences, according to Lomayumtewa Ishii. He teaches indigenous studies at Northern Arizona University

ISHII: "I think those who are able to understand what’s happening that the role or the place that their indigenous community plays in this dominant society is a key factor in realizing the relevancy of traditional activities in today’s world."

Ishii says many tribes are asking how they reconcile their traditional culture in a modern world.

ISHII: "The cliche has always been Natives in this type of predicament walk in two worlds. But it’s more than two worlds now. It’s multiple worlds on multiple levels."

And even here where “the people of the blue-green waters” live in this isolated Shangri-la they’re exposed to multiple worlds.

Uqualla hopes stories like this one and the Arizona Highways piece will show the Havasupai youth that people outside the tribe admire their home and traditions, and that it’s ok to embrace who they are.