Three Chapters from Pure Land
The path to Havasu Falls begins at the edge of the Earth. Here, at the dead end of Indian Road 18, which is eighty miles from the closest gas station, the modern world is swallowed in one big gulp by the Grand Canyon. The trail cuts steeply down a series of switchbacks descending some three thousand feet through colorful layers of geologic time. Then it rambles over a wide, dry wash and squeezes in between the narrowing walls of Havasu Canyon where the blue-green waters of Havasu Creek first bubble up from the red earth.
After eight miles, the trail reaches the Native American village of Supai on the Havasupai Reservation and follows the main road through town, past horse corrals, plywood shacks, a tribal community building, store, school, and two-story tourist lodge. Located deep in the Grand Canyon, Supai is notoriously remote for a world-famous tourist destination; it has no paved roads, no cell phone service, and can only be reached by foot, horseback, or helicopter.
Just beyond the village, the path is lined with willow and cottonwood trees, following the meandering creek as it picks up velocity on its way to the Colorado River. Rushing waters crash through green thickets of willow and, suddenly, the trail emerges at Havasu Falls. The pulsing creek cascades one hundred feet over travertine ledges into turquoise pools that are surrounded by fern-decked grottos. It is the most beautiful place in the Grand Canyon, if not the entire United States. The spot is often described as a Shangri-La in travel articles that feature spectacular photos of the falls and gushing descriptions of natural beauty. Some twenty-five thousand tourists a year venture here, lured by the promise of a real life paradise.
On May 8, 2006, Tomomi Hanamure hiked the path to Havasu Falls. She went alone. She had traveled halfway around the world from her home in Japan for this trek. It was her thirty-fourth birthday and seeing the falls was going to be a birthday gift to herself. But she never made it. After a lodge cleaning woman found Tomomi’s bed untouched on May 9, a search crew discovered her body four days later along the creek in an eddy above the falls. It was submerged in the blue-green waters and riddled with twenty-nine stab wounds.
My journey began where Tomomi’s ended. On Jan. 9, 2007, I found the hand-painted sign “Supai, 8 miles” at the corner of the dirt parking lot that marked the way down. On assignment for Backpacker magazine where I work as Southwest editor, I intended to investigate the story behind Tomomi’s death and rumors of violent crime at a popular hiking destination. A month earlier, the FBI had announced that an eighteen-year-old Havasupai tribal member named Randy Redtail Wescogame was charged with murder in relation to the case. It was the culmination of a six-month-long investigation that was conducted mostly in secret despite hungry reporters from around the world trying to sniff out the details of the killing in Grand Canyon, an unlikely location for violent crime.
Over the last decade, I had hiked numerous times in the Grand Canyon, always in the national park, and always for positive stories about outdoor adventure and the unspoiled wilderness of a natural wonder. During these explorations into the depths of the seventeen-million-year-old chasm I had witnessed the unleashing of rockslides, the fury of flash floods, a mountain lion darting across a ledge and sunsets so spectacular they made me cry. Grand Canyon had become a beloved touchstone for me that I kept returning to again and again as a way to recharge my spirit with its limitless beauty and wildness. But this was my first trip to Supai; the Havasupai reservation was new territory for me, as was the subject of murder. Yet, as I made my way down the switchbacks on the trail to Supai, I felt the space of the Grand Canyon wrap around me like a favorite blanket. The familiar rainbow of rock unfurled before me: white Kaibab limestone, green Toroweap Formation and red Hermit shale. Then I noticed something red on the white rocks beneath my feet. At first I wondered if it was a mineral deposit, but as I kept hiking and the spots got bigger and more numerous, I knew it was something else. Blood.
Because the murder case was expected to go to trial, authorities had shared few details with the media about Tomomi or her accused killer. The only picture of Tomomi to appear in hundreds of stories about the murder was her passport photo, in which she stared blankly at the camera. It was used by Coconino County Sheriff’s detectives on “wanted” fliers during their hunt for her killer.
But journalists, including myself, had obtained the coroner’s report on Tomomi’s autopsy. What reporters did know and publicized widely was that this murder was shocking for its brutality. Performed by Coconino County Coroner Lawrence Czarneki, the report listed in gruesome detail all of the injuries to Tomomi’s body. Of the twenty-nine stab wounds, twenty-two were to the head and neck, a number of which, all by themselves, were severe enough to result in death. With a single blade that was approximately four inches long and one inch wide, Tomomi was stabbed repeatedly. The carotid artery on the left side of her neck was sliced; her lung was punctured; her skull was chipped from blunt force. The cuts were deep, penetrating the skin, organs, and bone. Many of the stab wounds were described by the coroner as “gaping.” Cuts on her arms and hands showed she fought back.
“Clearly the murderer was in a frenzy,” surmised Tom Myers, a Flagstaff physician whom I had asked to evaluate the report several weeks before my Supai hike. Myers is co-author of Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, which chronicles all known deaths in the natural wonder. “The killer must have been so psychotic or incoherent, he couldn’t appreciate what he’d already done. He was still stabbing her even though she was unresponsive, basically dead.
“This is the most brutal killing in the Grand Canyon in modern times,” he added. “There is no other incident that is so horrific.”
After about a mile of hiking and not passing a single soul, the explanation for the blood exploded past me. A young man on a horse, probably a Havasupai tribal member, was driving two mules loaded with tourist backpacks. He was charging hard up the trail, kicking his horse to go faster and whipping the mules. I jumped to the side of the narrow trail in a cloud of dust. As the animals passed, I could see their ribs sticking out and the saddle straps digging into raw skin. The blood of saddle sores dripped onto the rocks.
I continued down the switchbacks and spotted just below me two more mule trains headed in opposite directions, each driven by a Native American man. They had stopped, were blocking the narrow path, and appeared to be visiting with each other. But as I approached, I could see that these young mule drivers wearing black t-shirts, baseball caps, and MP3 earbuds had pulled their horses up next to each other so they could pass a pipe back and forth. Not exactly the kind of friendly, Camelbak-sipping, Patagonia-wearing travelers I was used to encountering on Grand Canyon trails; they were sharing a hit of something. I shrank on a distant rock and waited for them to finish their business so I could resume my trek. And I questioned the wisdom of my covert reporting strategy, which was to retrace Tomomi’s footsteps, witness what she might have experienced, and piece together clues about what had happened on her birthday.
Most of Grand Canyon is located within Grand Canyon National Park and afforded the protections and visitor accommodations that come with being a crown jewel in the richest country in the world. But the slice of Grand Canyon that encompasses Havasu Canyon and its iconic waterfalls is in a different world altogether. Like many small, economically impoverished countries still reeling from the effects of colonization, it is a third world, and it lacks the basic safety and public services taken for granted in much of the United States.
Hiking the path to Havasu Falls means entering the sovereign nation of the Havasupai, the Havsuw ‘Baaja — “people of blue-green water” — where there is great natural beauty, but life can be brutal for both humans and animals. Randy Wescogame had such a life; he spent much of his childhood in Arizona’s juvenile corrections system. Law enforcement officials said that in the months before Tomomi’s murder, when Randy was living in Supai and getting into trouble, he was using drugs and had become addicted to meth.
Entering the village, I walked over a wooden bridge crossing the swift waters of Havasu Creek where graffiti of a giant marijuana leaf was spray painted on a concrete berm. Sheer orange sandstone walls rose five hundred feet, framing the broad canyon bottom and gray, winter-bare cottonwood trees rattled against the wind. Horses snorted and nodded along fences as I walked by, and the steel drums of reggae music pulsed from open windows.
I was visiting in the off-season, but the residential paths and yards seemed eerily empty. Windows were blown out everywhere and covered with plastic or plywood. This combined with a whirlwind of trash to create the sense that a tornado had touched down just minutes ago, and I was following the path of its destruction. Lining the main dirt road and plastered against barbed wire fences were empty cartons of Pampers, U.S. mail crates, old saddles, Backpacker’s Pantry packages, Clif Bar wrappers, CDs, horse tack, abandoned furniture, and lots of plastic Gatorade bottles. Ravens as big as turkeys picked through overflowing bins of garbage. The pungent smell of sewage wafted from an open ditch.
As I walked farther into the village, the canyon became crowded with homes. A maze of dirt paths branching off from the main road led to closely-spaced small structures that appeared to be slapped together with whatever wood was available. And attached to nearly every roof was a satellite TV dish. There were also trampolines; in tiny backyards everywhere children silently bobbed up and down like fish hitting the surface of a lake.
Like Tomomi, I planned to stay at the tourist lodge, a twenty-five-room hotel run by the tribe at the edge of the village and fortified with a twenty-foot-high, embassy-style concrete wall and an iron gate that was locked at night. I had booked two nights at the lodge and checked in after a group of hikers who arrived with an outfitter. The quiet in the village gave way to the excited chatter of tourists inside the compound. They were the type of travelers who appreciated the opportunity to visit an authentic Native American community and likely saw the unkempt village setting as simple, rustic charm.
“What brings you here? Are you going to the falls?” asked one of the hikers cheerily as we sat on picnic tables waiting for our rooms to be readied. He was assembling a camp stove on the table so he could brew tea for his group. Meanwhile a pack of ten stray dogs squeezed through the gate and panhandled for bites of pastrami and Clif bars.
“Oh, I’m just visiting,” I said, feeling somewhat paranoid because journalists were not supposed to be in Supai. The Havasupai Tribal Council had banned the media from the reservation since Tomomi’s murder. Publicity about a brutal killing was bad for business. And, so far, I had been unable to get any tribal members to talk to me for the Backpacker story.
“What will you get out of this story?” responded Roland Manakaja, the tribe’s director of cultural resources, when I had called him before my Supai visit to ask if he would agree to an interview. “And what will we get? Nothing! We don’t even have a fire truck that works down here. Buildings burn to the ground.”
A steady tourism business from the lodge, campground, café, store, entrance fees, and mule packing earned $2 million a year for the five-hundred-member Havasupai tribe, most of whom lived in the village for at least part of the year. Yet, according to the most recent census, two thirds of Havasupai children lived below the poverty level. And there were other problems: epidemic diabetes, lack of education (the village school only went through the eighth grade), alcoholism (even though alcohol was illegal on the reservation), drug abuse, and, lately, violent crime. In addition to Tomomi’s murder, there were ten violent assaults under investigation by law enforcement during the six months after her death, which was a 200 percent increase over previous years. Most incidents were drunken tribal members attacking each other, usually with knives and baseball bats. Reports of child abuse had also risen sharply in the last few years.
The two Bureau of Indian Affairs police officers stationed in Supai were exhausted and eager to talk to me. They blamed the spike in crime on a group of juvenile delinquents in the tribe who were committing petty thefts in the village and campground to buy booze and drugs. After these young men got wasted, they would get into fights. Because Supai had no high school, kids were sent to government-funded boarding schools in faraway places like Oregon and California. The majority dropped out by eleventh grade and returned to Supai. “Sometimes they help their parents with the family packing business, transporting tourist cargo and village goods up and down the canyon,” said BIA officer Kendrick Rocha who had been working in Supai since 1992. “Mainly these dropouts just lurk around town getting liquored up and looking for tourists to rob.” He said they were responsible for the broken windows and graffiti in the village. But Randy did not hang with these bad boys.
“Randy was a special case,” Rocha added. “His whole life, he was the black sheep of the tribe. He was a loner.”
There are two streams flowing through Supai. One is the traditional world of the original inhabitants of the Grand Canyon, the ways of the Havsuw ‘Baaja. It emanates from the depths of the Earth and speaks a language that only the Havasupai understand. The other stream contains everything else; it arrives by helicopter, satellite dish, and fleeting visitors who expect Starbucks, ATM machines, exceptional customer service, and being able to buy anything they need, or don’t need.
Steve Hirst, author of the book I Am the Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People, has an anthropological explanation for this paradox. “In addition to the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), the Havasupai have two other ways of orienting themselves: In the canyon and away from the canyon.” Hirst says in the Havasupai culture there are two realities, two worlds: in or out; down or up.
Sometimes, one of the streams overflows its banks and intermingles with the other in comical or wonderful or cataclysmic ways. But generally, each stays in its own channel, flowing side by side, and the tribe, tourists, and police seem to prefer it this way.
After unpacking my things and letting some of the stray dogs nap on my bed, I walked to the café, hoping I would be able to strike up conversation with tribal members willing to talk about the murder. Sitting on a stone wall outside the restaurant, I watched the parade of Down Here and Up There flow by: hikers in bright colored fleece jackets on their way to the campground followed by dogs looking for scraps; young Havasupai women speaking to each other in their native language and carrying children on their hips; a white woman in heels asking about a cab to the falls; transgender tribal teenagers giggling behind their press-on nails; a white handyman shaking his hammer about the recently broken café windows; and old Havasupai men sitting on an aluminum bench sipping coffee and watching people step off the helicopter as it landed in the middle of town.
Emerging from a whirlwind of noise and dust were tribal members who used the helicopter to go on grocery runs and loaded cases of eggs and bottles of Mountain Dew into a wheelbarrow to push home. A BIA cop appeared with a stack of Pizza Hut boxes to take to the elementary school DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) meeting. There was also a black Rasta guy wearing sunglasses, and a red, green and yellow knit hat over elbow-length dreadlocks who was quickly ushered away by tribal members waiting to greet him. And a group of white attorneys wearing business suits and carrying briefcases stumbled through the sand into the nearby tribal office building.
“Where’s your husband?”
The question jarred me. It came from a middle-aged Havasupai man standing in front of me dressed in a camo jacket with an American Indian Movement patch and red, yellow, and green Rasta stripes on the sleeve. His hair was in one long braid down his back and he carried a stack of Hirst’s book I Am the Grand Canyon, which he was selling to tourists. He introduced himself as Damon Watahomigie and took a seat next to me on the rock wall. He said he was a medicine man and also the official sergeant at arms for the Havasupai Tribal Council.
“Oh, my husband is working,” I said. “He couldn’t come with me.” This was a lie. My husband, Mike, and I had just split up. Several months before my visit to Supai, Mike had told me that he had quit his job although I suspected he had been fired. He had started going on drinking binges again. It was the latest in a long line of jobs lost while I held down multiple jobs to support the two of us along with our ten-year-old son Austin. On top of that, I had been trying to care for my ill parents, both of whom had become increasingly incapacitated as they slipped into the clutches of Alzheimer’s disease. The only thing that felt right about my life at that moment was being a journalist, finding reasons to hike in Grand Canyon, and an unexplainable if not unreasonable determination to uncover the whole story behind what had happened to Tomomi. So, despite the gag order from the Havasupai Tribal Council, I decided to tell Damon that I was writing a magazine article about the murder. I offered to buy him a cup of coffee and we went inside the café.
When I asked Damon about the vandalism around the village, he said it was caused by the youth in the tribe who had lost their traditional ways. “The kids go to boarding school and bring back negative influences.” Damon talked so softly, his voice was barely audible as he looked beyond me at some tourists walking to their seats with baskets of fries. “TV has become our culture, not the elders,” he whispered. “The dominant culture tells our kids: buy, obey, consume. Their parents are under the bad influences too, getting drunk and addicted to meth. I am trying to educate our people about ways to fight the dominant culture, about how to politicize their ideas like Leonard Peltier did with the American Indian Movement.”
The Havasupai had endured a long history of betrayals by the dominant culture. One of the latest, and the reason for the attorneys’ visit, involved genetic researchers from Arizona State University who obtained blood samples from tribal members in the 1990s under the auspices of trying to help the tribe stem a diabetes epidemic. Instead of using the blood samples for the research that the donors thought they had agreed to, the professors conducted studies and published papers on genetic inbreeding and schizophrenia within the tribe. Tribal members believed misuse of their blood, especially that taken from those who had since died, was not only deceitful but put the tribe spiritually out of balance. The tribe filed a lawsuit against the state of Arizona’s university system in 2003 demanding financial damages as well as the return of the blood samples. When I was there in January 2007, the attorneys visiting Supai reported that the case was still making its way through the judicial system (having been appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court), and the vials of Havasupai blood were still in the genetic researcher’s freezers on university campuses in Phoenix and Tucson.
Damon said he did not think Randy murdered Tomomi. “He is not capable of that.” He believed the murder was part of a covert campaign by the U.S. government to destroy the Havasupai tribe in order to claim the world-famous waterfalls. Damon whispered that he suspected the murderer was an Irish guy named Neil who was living as a transient in Supai the previous summer and that Neil had been planted there by the feds. He was a drug addict who hung out with the tribe’s meth dealers, and his body was covered in satanic tattoos.
“I have been praying that someone would come down here and put the puzzle pieces together about what is happening,” Damon said, looking me straight in the eye. “And now you are here.”
The journalist in me was pleased with this news. It looked like I might be able to pull off the story after all. Yet another part of me felt trepidation about what I might be falling into—the other stream with an unfamiliar current that could sweep me to a place I should not go. But I quickly pushed these fears aside, dismissing them as silly superstitions, and pressed on with my reporting.
Damon told me to come back in a few weeks. There were other tribal members who he thought would be ready to talk.
The first person to break rank was Billy Wescogame, Randy’s father. Like an undercover spy, I returned to Supai in February hoping I could sneak over to Billy’s house for an interview without being noticed by the tribal council.
“I want the world to know what is going on here, and I want to speak out against the bootleggers and drug dealers who are destroying our tribe,” Billy told me. We sat on plastic milk crates in front of his small, weather-beaten house next to the helicopter landing pad. A baby shoe was nailed above the doorway and a couch, bookcase, and foosball table were against a chicken wire fence and covered with tarps. White cottonwood blossoms swirled through the air like snowflakes.
Billy’s eyes darted back and forth, looking up and down the path to see who might be watching him. “I am not speaking up because of Randy,” he said. “Whatever Randy did is on him.” Billy, who was fifty, a convicted felon, and the father of eleven children, said he was coming forward to protect his other children from the village juvenile delinquents. “They’re trying to beat up my [adult] daughter and my other kids. They go to parties and come home all bloody. One boy recently attacked another boy with a machete.”
Billy came from one of the longtime Havasupai families that just a century ago had nearly the entire Grand Canyon to themselves. He said his great grandfather (and Randy’s great, great grandfather) was Billy Burro, who protested the creation of Grand Canyon National Park in the 1920s by refusing to leave his homestead and move to the 518-acre reservation. Burro, the last “Indian” living at Indian Garden along the Bright Angel Trail, operated his farm for more than a decade after the park’s creation in 1919 until officials threw him out. Even a geologic layer in the Grand Canyon’s Supai formation bears the name Wescogame.
As the village tattoo artist, Billy’s arms and chest were covered with his handiwork, including Sanskrit swastikas on his forearms and the letters l.o.v.e. on his fingers. He liked to sit on his front stoop and carve pieces of cottonwood while listening to reggae. He said he had whittled a memorial cross and put it at the murder site last May before he was told by the police that his own son might be involved. “Randy was a known thief, no doubt about it. He would always steal from the tourists, from anybody and everybody, to get money to buy drugs and booze,” he said. “But Randy is not a murderer. He is not a bad kid.”
Billy was once a police officer (until he was fired for committing a felony), and he said he had also spent a lot of time studying psychology. “In the psychology books it states there is a line between murder and thieving,” he explained as he dragged his boot tip across the sand. “A thief will not cross that line and murder somebody to get what he wants. Randy’s intentions were to steal, not to murder.” He paused. His defiant tone melted into faint words that choked with emotion. “If Randy did murder, it was because of that meth.”
Over the course of our three-hour conversation, Billy’s demeanor swung from smiling and friendly to excited and agitated. When he talked about crime in the village, he became especially angry. He said the police were afraid to enforce the laws in such a closed, isolated community, and the meth dealers roamed freely because they were related to tribal council members. He said no one — not tribal members or tourists — had any civil rights in Supai.
“If I went into my house right now and got my gun and said, ‘Give me all your money, right this minute. I want everything you have.’ And then you give it up and you go to the nearest police and tell them I robbed you. Well, they would just laugh at you. You know why? Because this is a sovereign nation! We are self-governed! We do as we please! Even the president of the United States can’t do nothing about it.”
I was already well outside of my comfort zone and Billy’s hypothetical threat only heightened my paranoia. Although I did not understand why then, I reacted as I always had when I thought things might take a turn for the worse: I steeled myself. “Huh,” I said nonchalantly, trying to appear unfazed.
Then Billy’s mood brightened and he walked into his yard to point out an ancient ancestral cliff dwelling high on the canyon wall. The sound of the helicopter landing nearby forced him to raise his voice. “What you need to understand about this tribe is we have a lot of stories!” he shouted. “We used to get a lot of power from these stories and beliefs! We had the ghost dance! We had black magic! But now all that power is gone.”
Billy said he had not had a drop of alcohol since he got out of prison a decade ago. He blamed Randy’s problems on Randy’s mother, who he said was “boozing and drugging all the time” when Randy was a young child. Billy became visibly agitated with this topic; his jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed. Suddenly, his wrath turned toward me. “I don’t like the way you are asking these questions. You don’t believe me?”
“Well, yes, but …” I stammered.
Billy stood up and disappeared into his house. And I waited, wondering if it might be smarter to leave.
Five minutes later Billy emerged with a ten-inch-high stack of file folders that he handed over to me. “Here, I have all the papers to prove it,” he said, a bit more calmly.
These photocopies chronicled years of custody fights, restraining orders, child support disputes, and other battles waged by Randy’s parents in Supai tribal court. The files from Billy were the beginning of what would become a research obsession for me, eventually taking up an entire room in my house for document storage and nearly a decade of my life. As I sought to understand Randy’s motivations in the coming months and years, my questions multiplied like mosquitoes in a stagnant pond. The hunt for explanations would lead me to also explore Billy’s life, the Havasupai tribe’s history, and the plight of all of Native America.
Billy next showed me a cottonwood root with a whittled handle he kept propped inside the front door. He held it up like a samurai sword. “This is to fight off the drug dealers!”
He said that shortly before Tomomi’s murder, Native American medicine men performed an exorcism in the village. “There are bad spirits here. We may need to close this place down to the public to get things straightened out. It is our tribe’s destiny that we will hit bottom and then we will get help.” He sat the cottonwood root back in its spot and stood in his doorway, the tiny baby shoe above his head.
Thanks to Damon’s help, Roland Manakaja also decided he would talk to me. In addition to his official job as the tribe’s cultural resources director, Manakaja was a Havasupai medicine man who was often described as “the spiritual voice of the tribe.” He is the great grandson of Chief Manakaja, the last man to serve as chief before the tribe converted to a council form of government in 1934 to comply with U.S. government-imposed reservation regulations. Modern-day Manakaja also commanded respect throughout the community and seemed almost like a de facto chief.
Damon escorted me to Roland’s homestead at the edge of the village. He had a small, tidy house, a sprawling yard, and nine children. A big man, full of sage-like protestations, Roland sat in a small school chair in his yard. His long hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and he was wearing a black “Homeland Security” t-shirt that had a picture of Geronimo and his Apache warriors on it. Roland was gazing out at the rock formations at the top of the canyon, “the deities” that talked to him.
“We are struggling to survive here, fighting against a lot of things brought in from the white man’s culture — uranium mining, alcohol, meth,” he said. “These things are impacting our youth and throwing our world — the whole world — out of balance. Out there, in the white world, you have all these problems, too. But they are magnified down here.”
Roland said he was worried about how far his tribe had strayed from their cultural traditions and family support systems. “The kids involved in this violence and drugs, they don’t have family love. They are scared and angry.
“The Havasupai are an endangered species on the verge of extinction,” he added. “This is the history of America that is at stake here.”
Always looking up at the canyon buttes where the sun was sinking, Roland spoke with a soft, steady cadence that was like water trickling over rocks. His train of thought was serpentine and frequently digressed into tribal stories from the past. “We make offerings at every spring in Grand Canyon because water is our most sacred thing. The Earth is our house.”
When he talked about the destruction of the Grand Canyon or how bad he felt about the murder, he started to cry. “Before the murder, there was a dark aura down here. I could feel it,” he said, his voice breaking into sobs as he thought of Tomomi. “But I believe that our oriental sister who suffered here enjoyed this place — before the demons on that side of the creek rolled with the flow and kept going.”
It was not until my second visit in February that I finally hiked all the way to Havasu Falls. On my first trip in January, I had set out from the village and was soon followed by a tribal man who said his name was Goofy. I thought I would be able to spot suspicious people before they got close, but as Goofy popped in and out of the brush and attempted to make conversation, I realized that there was a network of private trails around the main tourist path. Two streams. Feeling vulnerable, I turned back.
On this second attempt, I passed the familiar marker at the edge of town — a concrete drainage channel that was painted with graffiti reading, “Fuck the police.” About a half-mile outside the village, houses disappeared as the trail paralleled the creek, following a steady flow of twenty-eight thousand gallons per minute. Coupled with the beauty, there is a certain fury to this creek, the potential for an unbridled rage that is wildly destructive. These beautiful yet unpredictable waters are at the center of Havasupai spiritual beliefs. Here, the Grand Canyon is much more than a tourist attraction. It is an omnipotent being.
Off in the distance, beyond a thicket of willow, I could hear Fifty Foot Falls. A few tribal members and tourists passed me as they headed in the opposite direction and offered friendly hellos. Then I came to the one-hundred-foot cascade of Navajo Falls, and just beyond that, I stood in the icy spray at the foot of Havasu Falls. The waters spilled over the cliffs and into deep pools that vibrated blue and green and turquoise, like the plumes of peacock feathers. Swimmers shrieked as they plunged into the frigid waters, and two photographers were setting up their tripods on the ledges at the base of the falls to get that postcard-perfect shot.
On my hike back to the village, I thought of Tomomi, and just before reaching Fifty Foot Falls, I noticed tattered yellow crime scene tape tied to the bushes. It was lining a side path that led to the creek and in a place where the tumbling water rumbled like a passing freight train and a steep cliff fenced in the main trail. I wandered into the dense thicket of willow and oak. I stood there, alone, listening to the blood curdling screams of swimmers off in the distance. This was where the murder happened. But why?
From my perspective, juvenile delinquency, even the use of meth, did not explain such brutality. Nor did the tribe’s assertion about the invasion of a “dark spirit.” When announcing the charges against Randy, law enforcement officials offered only that his motive in killing Tomomi was to rob her, “to steal her cell phone, credit cards and cash.”
And then there was the matter of Tomomi hiking to the falls by herself and the implication that, if only she had not gone alone, the murder would not have happened. “Most Japanese tourists who visit northern Arizona and Grand Canyon travel in large groups, often by bus,” noted Coconino County Sheriff’s spokesman Gerry Blair during a December 6, 2006 press conference when charges against Randy were announced. “But Tomomi Hanamure usually traveled by herself.” The Japanese press had even scolded Tomomi’s father for allowing her to travel alone in America.
Before my February visit to Supai, I met with an attorney for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Flagstaff, Arizona, who brought the charges against Randy. All the details and evidence from the murder investigation remained sealed by the courts in anticipation the case would go to trial. Still, this woman was an avid Grand Canyon hiker and there was something about Tomomi that stoked a sense of kinship — between her and Tomomi, and ultimately the two of us. Although she couldn’t tell me anything, she wanted me to keep digging. While working as an attorney over the years, she had dealt with numerous tragic cases involving crimes on Southwest Native American reservations, but Tomomi’s murder really got to her.
“It could have been me,” she said, as she handed me a copy of Randy’s indictment. “Or it could have been you.”
Soon after Randy was charged, the media coverage of Tomomi’s murder stopped. If the killer had been found, and law enforcement officials said they had solid physical evidence linking him to the crime, then it seemed the story was over. But it wasn’t over for me. I was caught in the current. Lingering there, amid the crime scene tape along the path to Havasu Falls, I sensed something powerful and painful, forces unseen that can move water, carve a canyon, make people do terrible things to each other. Well beyond the professional curiosity of a journalist and for no apparent reason, I longed for real answers, for the truth.
When I returned home from Supai, I tried to contact Tomomi’s family through the official channels of the U.S. Japanese Consulate’s office in Los Angeles. I wanted to know more about her and what she was seeking when she hiked to Havasu Falls. But I was told her father would not grant any interviews to the media, in the United States or Japan, under any circumstances. “He is very, very distraught,” the consulate’s public affairs director said.
Eventually, I would be entrusted with Tomomi’s travel journals, letters to family, and the most intimate details in her diary. But in January 2007, as I continued to report on the Backpacker story, the only personal information about Tomomi came, sadly, from her autopsy. In addition to the many injuries, it described what Tomomi was wearing on her birthday.
“The body is received clad in a brown short sleeve shirt, a dark blue short sleeve shirt, a brown bra, two brown boots, two socks from the right foot, two socks from the left foot, green shorts, a belt, and black panties. Personal effects include a ring from the left index finger, a leather band from the left wrist, and a green bellybutton ring from the umbilicus.” Under identifying marks, the report noted: “1 by 1/8 inch color tattoo of a heart on the left lower quadrant of the abdomen and a 3/4 by 7/8 inch dark ink tattoo of a Japanese symbol on top of the left foot.”
A Japanese TV station in Tokyo that had covered the murder and also obtained a copy of the autopsy report, quoted one of Tomomi’s friends in a June 2006 story. The friend said the tattoo on Tomomi’s left foot was the kanji character for “hana,” the first part of her last name. In Japanese it means “flower.”
The Nation of the Willows
During much of the nineteenth century, as forced relocations to reservations devastated Native American tribes in the Southwest, the Havasupai existed in a sort of bubble, remaining largely untouched by the intruders thanks to their remote location and small size. In 1864, U.S. Army Col. Kit Carson led eight thousand Navajo people on a forced march called the Long Walk from Arizona to a New Mexico reservation. Hundreds died along the way. Also in the 1860s and 1870s, the Hualapai and the Yavapai Apache in north/central Arizona went to war with the U.S. Army and experienced brutal retaliation from a federal government that was intent on getting this unruly part of the West “settled” once and for all. Unbowed, the Apache and Hualapai had a reputation for raiding wagon trains, stealing cattle and horses, and waging a ruthless, guerilla-style warfare to protect their homeland.
But when twenty-four-year-old anthropologist Frank Cushing descended into the Havasupais’ home at the bottom of what was then called Cataract Canyon in June, 1881, he discovered a welcoming Shangri La. Cushing was on assignment for the Smithsonian and was one of the first Anglos to visit the tribe in order to document Havasupai culture. He called the tribe “the nation of the willows,” and he chronicled his experiences in two lengthy articles for Atlantic Monthly magazine that were published in 1882. Cushing wrote that his first glimpse of the canyon bottom “revealed numerous cultivated fields of corn, beans, sunflowers, melons, peaches, apricots, and certain plants used in dyeing and basket making … Everywhere these fields were crossed and re-crossed by a network of irrigating canals and trails.”
Cushing went on to describe how his party was taken to the home of a tribal headman. “He welcomed us with jolly cordiality; gorged us with succotash; cleared the principal portion of his hut of women, children, and dogs, for our use; and soon after summoned a council, which kept us blinking, jabbering and smoking until past midnight.”
In what was likely one of the first descriptions of Havasu and Mooney Falls in a general audience magazine, Cushing offered this: “It is useless to try to paint these falls, with their crown of perennial verdure, their three hundred feet of crystal glory, their footstools of eternal, circling rainbows, which sink far into the clear green depths of the fathomless pools, or rise on the clouds of mist, and turn to ashes and lime on the leaves of trees around them.” Cushing then went on to recount his gravity-defying scramble below Havasu Falls and how he came upon the tribe’s sacred burial ground above Mooney Falls where the Havasupai cremated their dead along with burning all the deceased’s possessions. He also added that Mooney was the name given by Anglo prospectors and that the Havasupai called the falls “Mother of the Waters,” a place the tribe believed “the spirits of … ancestors sometimes float up and down amid the mists and rainbows, or that animistic demons lurk in the green, shadowy depths of the chasm.”
The Havasupai world that Cushing witnessed was much the same as it had been for millennia. While the neighboring Navajo and Apache migrated to the Southwest from the northern plains in the fifteenth century, the Havasupai, who speak a Yuman-based language that is connected to the oldest known dialect in North America, had been in the region for at least one thousand years.
And for as long as the tribe could remember, their traditional and undisputed home had encompassed almost all of the 280-mile long Grand Canyon, but also hundreds of square miles of upland plateaus south of the canyon. To the Hopi tribe, who had also been in the region for thousands of years, the Havasupai held an honored role as the guardians of Grand Canyon, the place the Hopi said humans first emerged. The Havasupai lived in the home of the Hopi fire god Ma’sauwu; it was a most sacred and powerful place.
As for the Havasupai origin story that was told to Cushing and has since been retold in various tribal anthologies, the Havasupai came to the Grand Canyon with instructions to be both farmers and hunters, to live along streams in the summer and on the plateaus in the winter. “Only during the summer do we live in the home of the Mother of Waters,” Cushing recounted of the story from the tribe’s headman. “But in winter we have to follow the deer with our father, the Coyote, and live only as he does.”
Havasupai life revolved around the seasons, around farming and hunting, with knowledge passed from one generation to the next about how to survive in the arid, high desert environment. In winter, small family-centered bands would scatter across the plateau above the canyon and hunt large game like deer and antelope. Hunting also allowed the tribe to obtain deer hides, which the men sewed into exquisite buckskin clothing that was valuable currency and traded throughout the Southwest. The winter uplands not only provided plentiful big game, but also pinon nuts, forage plants, juniper for firewood, and snow to melt for water. In summer, the Havasupai relocated to homes in Grand Canyon along reliable water sources to grow corn, squash, beans and fruit. Willow supplied materials for the women to weave water-tight baskets that were also prized and traded throughout the Southwest. Perennial streams in Grand Canyon allowed for irrigation systems that produced enough food to feed the Havasupai during the summer months and extra that could be dried and stored in cliff granaries for access during other times of year. Most families farmed in what is now called Havasu Canyon, but they also occupied drainages throughout Grand Canyon.
“The non-Indian descriptions of [the Havasupai] as a canyon-dwelling people miss the essential character of the Havasupai, who conceive of themselves as a people of space,” writes Stephen Hirst in his book I Am the Grand Canyon.
While European immigrants brought to the West their notion of home that was tied to one fixed location, home for the Havasupai was not so much about attachment to a place but to a way of life. This seasonal pattern of hunting and farming intimately tied them to the cycles of nature, to the stars, the animals and all that shaped the thousands if not millions of acres that sustained them. Instead of the mechanical Anglo practices of raising fenced-in domestic animals and tilling the land with a plow, the Havasupai relied on spiritual ceremonies, “power songs,” and staying in balance with the natural world in order to produce successful hunts and crops. This was Randy Wescogame’s ancestry. His father, Billy Wescogame, and mother, Carla Crook, were both from longtime Havasupai families.
Early census rolls taken two decades after Cushing’s visit recorded multiple family members with the name Wescogame. Like other Havasupai family names such as Manakaja, Watahomigie, Sinyella, Tilousi, and Putsoy, Wescogame was a phonetic English pronunciation used by the census taker who did not speak Havasupai. Others, like Crook (probably after the U.S. Army General George Crook), were names of Anglos whom tribal members encountered in the 1800s. The 1906 census also recorded a forty-year-old Havasupai man by the name of Grover Cleveland.
Even though the Havasupai were not impacted by European immigrants in the early to mid-nineteenth century the way their Native American neighbors were, the tribe was being increasingly invaded by prospectors who thought nothing of setting up shop in the middle of the Havasupais’ summer home. So when a military party from Fort Whipple in Prescott was dispatched in June 1881 (just before Cushing’s visit) to mark the boundaries of the new Havasupai reservation, the tribe was relieved. They had been told the previous year that President Rutherford B. Hayes had established a reservation for the tribe in Havasu Canyon. The tribe was tired of the prospectors trespassing on their territory. Havasupai Chief Navajo not only welcomed Lt. Col. W.R. Price and his men, but he assisted in deciding where the reservation boundary markers should be placed. A reservation was roped off at the bottom of the canyon that was approximately twelve miles long and five miles wide. It was a mere 518 acres, the smallest reservation in the United States.
The Havasupai thought that clarifying the boundaries of the reservation was the best way to protect their rich agricultural area from intruders. What they did not realize in 1881 was that they were also being asked to live year-round within those boundaries and give up their winter homes and hunting grounds on the plateau. In the coming years, as the Havasupai continued to migrate to the plateau in winter, they experienced increasing conflicts with ranchers who had moved into the area. The new homesteaders were fencing off the grass-rich plateau lands, building cattle tanks at the Havasupais’ long-time water sources, and allowing livestock to overgraze the tribe’s traditional hunting area. Within a decade, the tribe that called itself a “nation of hunters” in its origin story witnessed the disappearance of large game from the plateau and their own banishment from an area that was at the core of their identity.
The Havasupai were not only deprived of meat but also of the buckskins they used for trading. According to one account, “Visitors to the tribe in 1890 … reported that instead of dining on deer and antelope, the Indians were eating ‘rats and mountain squirrels which they dug from their dens.’ The following winter, others noted that because of the scarcity of game, the Havasupai were ‘killing and eating their horses and burros.’”
The Havasupais’ loss became official and enforceable in 1893 when the U.S. government created the 1.8-million-acre Grand Canyon Forest Preserve, which banned the tribe from hunting or living anywhere on the Coconino Plateau. “The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is becoming so renowned for its wonderful and extensive natural gorge scenery and for its open and clean pine woods that it should be preserved for the everlasting pleasure and instruction of our intelligent citizens as well as those of foreign countries,” wrote regional forest supervisor W.P. Herman to his superiors in 1898. “Henceforth, I deem it just and necessary to keep the wild and unappreciable Indian from off the Reservation and protect the game.” To achieve this, Herman instituted regulations that not only made it illegal for the Havasupai to hunt on the plateau, but also to set foot on the Forest Preserve for any purpose. Because the massive preserve completely surrounded the tiny reservation, the tribe was suddenly, as one government official noted, “prisoners within the [canyon] walls … Two hundred and fifty souls are deprived by law of all contact with the outside world.”
Rather than restoring access to the tribe’s traditional hunting grounds, the federal government tried to counter the Havasupai plight by teaching them to adopt Anglo agricultural methods. “The introduction of the plow did not meet with as much approval as I had anticipated,” lamented Bureau of Indian Affairs instructional farmer John F. Gaddis in an 1892 report. The tribe also shunned the domestic livestock they were encouraged to substitute for wild game. “They will not have them [the goats] nor will they look after them,” continued Gaddis.
Starvation, along with epidemics of measles, small pox, and influenza — diseases for which Native Americans had no immunity — nearly wiped out the Havasupai completely by the end of the nineteenth century. Most of the deaths were women and children. Census takers in 1905 counted only 115 tribal members and just forty women of child-bearing age. This was down from 293 members in 1898 and perhaps one-tenth of the pre-European population.
With the tribe teetering on the brink of extinction, the Havasupai joined other western Native American tribes practicing the Ghost Dance in a desperate attempt to return to the life they knew before Europeans arrived. In 1890 the Havasupai along with their Hualapai neighbors sent representatives on an exploratory mission to meet with the Northern Paiute tribe in central Nevada. There, a prophet named Wovoka was teaching a peaceful practice that involved dancing to summon the dead. This messiah promised not only the return of lost loved ones, but also the restoration of balance to the earth and the exodus of Europeans who would sail back across the ocean. The Lakota took the practice to their starving tribe in North Dakota, which would bring tragic results at Wounded Knee Creek later that year.
The Havasupai began holding their own Ghost Dances led by Chief Navajo and continued the practice for nearly a decade. The tribe quit cremating their dead and buried them at a cemetery above the falls so the bodies could be resurrected. In the winter of 1892-1893, Ghost Dance ceremonies were held on the Coconino Plateau at Sheep Tank and Black Tank. Dances were also held in Havasu Canyon and were observed by Bureau of Indian Affairs representatives in 1900 and 1901. The tribe danced for hours and sometimes days around a pole. Participants climbed the central pole and touched eagle feathers, the “medicine” at the top. Exhausted dancers collapsed and were removed from the circle. But the others continued on, praying, shouting, often hysterically, asking for the return of all that had been taken from them.
The final blow to the Havasupai came in 1919 with the creation of Grand Canyon National Park. Up to that point, tribal members had continued to farm throughout Grand Canyon in riparian areas like Indian Garden and Santa Maria Spring that were outside the reservation. But with the park and its ever-increasing visitors and ranger patrols came a mandate to not only keep the Havasupai off the plateau, but also out of the rest of Grand Canyon. A few years before the park dedication, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the canyon and rode a mule down the Bright Angel Trail. He stopped at what Anglos called Indian Garden, and, with much fanfare, personally informed Billy Burro and other Havasupai families that they would need to move out to make way for the park.
For countless generations, the family of Billy Burro farmed the oasis the Havasupai called “the place below the spruce trees” along the Bright Angel Trail. The Havasupai had created trails throughout Grand Canyon to access their farms and granaries and winter dwelling sites scattered across the plateau. While the others abandoned their summer homes at Indian Garden and relocated to Havasu Canyon, Burro refused. He and his wife Tsoojva stayed in their mud and wood wikiup until 1928 when park rangers physically removed them and tore down their home. Havasupai tribal members recalled that once he was on the South Rim, Burro looked down one last time at “the place below the spruce trees” and cried over what had become of it. He died on the reservation one year later at age eighty. Tsoojva died in 1935.
Over the span of little more than a single generation, the world of the Havasupai had been completely transformed — from one that followed long-held traditions and natural cycles, to a life that required adapting to a cash economy in order to avoid starvation. In the early twentieth century, the best place for the guardians of Grand Canyon to earn money to feed their families was by working low-paying service and construction jobs at the national park. Growing numbers of tourists were arriving by rail and automobile to visit the natural wonder, and they expected the comfortable accommodations the Fred Harvey travel brochures promised. Ancient trails needed to be improved, utility infrastructure built, hotel rooms cleaned, and restaurant food cooked. It was back breaking if not soul crushing work, but the steady wages gradually allowed the tribe to move away from the brink of extinction.
Park projects built in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly by crews of Havasupai men, included a suspension bridge across the Colorado River, a sewer line through Grand Canyon Village, and a pipeline that pumped spring water from Indian Garden up to the South Rim. Most were temporary, menial jobs, but National Park Service payroll records show that some Havasupai tribal members were involved in more skilled work. Dallas Wescogame worked as a projectionist at Kolb Studio where he showed the Kolb brothers’ infamous motion picture about their river trip through Grand Canyon. Jim Crook worked as a “powder man” and was responsible for setting the dynamite blasts used to clear routes for trails and pipelines within the canyon’s steep rock walls.
The Havasupai had established a kind of de facto village called Supai Camp on the South Rim that gave tribal members working in the park a home base. Family and extended family also moved into these traditional wikiups to be closer to the breadwinner and other amenities unavailable to them at the bottom of Havasu Canyon. But in 1955 the Park Service deemed Supai Camp in Grand Canyon Village an eyesore. Park officials burned the wikiups to the ground, including all the tribal members’ possessions that were inside. The Havasupai were informed that only tribal members who were employed by the park could live within park boundaries, and those individuals had to live in authorized housing they could rent from the Park Service. As for the others, mainly women, children and elderly tribal members, they were driven by the Park Service to Topocoba Hilltop west of Grand Canyon Village and told to hike fourteen miles and down 2,300 feet, to their reservation in Havasu Canyon. It was winter and the trail was covered with snow. “Those abandoned at Topocoba were too tough to freeze,” writes Stephen Hirst. “They were also too angry to forget.”
Meanwhile, the village at the bottom of Havasu Canyon known as Supai was under the management of various federal programs, all aimed at getting Native Americans to be self-sustaining. But crops were often destroyed by floods and little could be grown in winter. The canyon bottom was also stripped of firewood. Unlike the energy-efficient wikiups, poorly constructed government housing was cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and filled with mold in the perpetually damp village, which remained cut off from the rest of the world with no utilities or roads. And, yet, an ever-growing stream of Anglo tourists was passing through the village en route to the falls. Missionaries also arrived and attempted to convert tribal members to Christianity, always with the promise of giving them food. One such mission was documented in a 1938 article in Life magazine that showed Havasupai member Jim Crook, Randy Wescogame’s great grandfather, being baptized at Fifty Foot Falls. Some sixty-eight years later, Randy would invite Tomomi Hanamure to follow him off the trail to see these falls.
Federal policies also required that the tribe’s children be sent to boarding schools far from home. Even children as young as six were ripped from their families and placed in an environment that was often not only alien but also abusive. The relentless goal was to get the Havasupai to assimilate with the European American culture and discourage them from using their native language and spiritual practices. According to the federal Indian Relocation Act of 1956, Native Americans of all ages were to be encouraged to move to urban areas and abandon their native land and traditions in order to make a successful life for themselves.
In their cramped quarters at the bottom of Grand Canyon, the Havasupai attempted to farm and remain self-sustaining for several generations, but gradually fields and orchards were replaced by tribal home sites. There was an increasing reliance on store-bought food that was packed in on horses. Havasupai spiritual tradition had long encouraged boys to “run toward the dawn,” so they would be fit, strong hunters. But life on the small reservation discouraged physical activity; obesity, which was previously unknown, became common. So did alcoholism. Resentment toward the federal government and Anglos in general was becoming part of the tribe’s DNA, now running two to three generations deep.
The waterfalls down canyon from the village that were technically part of the reservation were off limits to the Havasupai during much of the twentieth century. Claims under a nineteenth-century mining law allowed miners to live in cabins between Havasu and Mooney Falls, occupying the tribe’s “Mother of the Waters.” In 1957, the National Park Service bought out the mining claims, fenced off a sixty-two-acre area to separate it from the reservation, and established a park-run campground between the falls on the tribe’s sacred cremation site.
“Morale was extremely low,” writes Stephen Hirst about Supai in the 1950s and 1960s. “Drinking and fighting became rampant in the little canyon village … Suicide, an act almost unknown among the Havasupai, began to occur … Gas and glue sniffing became widespread among young people, and their despairing parents ceased offering them any direction.”
Some Havasupai families turned to a cash-driven packing business and competed for tourist dollars, while others had no means of income in the isolated village. The once strongly communal tribe started to split apart, and sometimes children fell through the cracks. In the early 1960s, representatives from Arizona’s child welfare department were called to Supai to investigate a young Havasupai boy who had apparently been abandoned by his parents. Billy Wescogame, aged five or six, and the great grandson of Billy Burro, was found living in the bushes by the creek. Billy was removed from the reservation by the state and eventually placed with a foster family in Tempe, Arizona, who was already looking after four other Native American foster children. Spanish replaced Havasupai as the language he spoke at home, and Catholicism became his religion. Billy was teased in public school for being Native American and disciplined for his frequent and angry outbursts. Yet, Billy believed he was better off in Anglo culture and shunned the reservation. Soon after dropping out of high school in Tempe, he married an Anglo woman and they had a son named Billy Junior.
But when Billy was eighteen, his father died and he returned to Supai for the first time in years to attend the funeral. Billy would recall years later that the tribe “seemed really screwed up” to him on that trip, and he was thankful for his upbringing in Tempe. Yet, he also felt the undeniable pull of his ancestry, his language and his traditions. When he was a young man, Billy answered the call. After splitting with his first wife, he abandoned the Anglo world in the city. He moved back to rejoin his tribe in the nation of the willows.
Origins of Violence
After years of trying, I would eventually connect with Tomomi’s family. My son, Austin, and I stayed with them in Japan for three weeks in 2009. Once back in the United States, Austin and I maintained contact with Tomomi’s family as if they were distant relatives. Her father, Tetsushi, wrote brief letters in broken English to Austin asking how he was doing in school. I sent Tetsushi Christmas cards, presents for Blues — the dog from a South Dakota reservation that Tomomi adopted and brought back to Japan — on his birthday, and Austin’s school photos. I also sent Tomomi’s cousin, Konomi, letters containing news of our lives in Flagstaff as well as Navajo and Hopi crafts to feed her fascination with Native American culture.
In late August 2010, I went to a Native American arts store in Flagstaff to buy Konomi a gift. She was getting married and I wanted to give her a Hopi katsina doll to hang in her new home in Japan. I picked out the Grandmother doll, one of the Hopi’s most revered katsinas, because the figure represents Mother Earth.
“Do you have a good box?” I asked the man who was ringing me up. “This is going to someone special in Japan.”
“Sure. Who?” the clerk asked.
I explained that the katsina was a gift for the cousin of Tomomi Hanamure who was murdered in the Grand Canyon in 2006.
“You know,” the clerk said as he rolled the Grandmother in bubble wrap and placed her in a box, “my aunt is the daughter of the woman who was Billy Wescogame’s foster mother.”
A few years earlier, I would have chalked up this encounter to a fortunate coincidence. Now I felt as if nothing was happening by chance. My three year-long investigation into the reasons behind Tomomi’s murder had led me down a winding tunnel that produced many more questions than answers — about Tomomi and Randy, and also about myself. I was still on a journalistic mission to investigate Tomomi’s life and death, but I was now also researching my own history and the darkest secret of my childhood. A chance to get some answers was handed to me along with the wrapped Grandmother katsina.
Two weeks later, I sat in the Tempe, Arizona, living room of Raquel and Gustavo Gutierrez. Their small, cinderblock house had no air conditioning and it was 109 degrees outside. Fans hummed all around as their two Chihuahuas smelled my shoes. The darkened room was filled with statues of Mary, crucifixes, Native American baskets, katsina dolls, and pictures of foster children who had become part of their extended family.
Raquel was the daughter of the late Eloise Ruiz who had taken care of some eighty-two foster children during her adult life, one of whom was Billy. Eloise was a licensed foster parent with Arizona’s Department of Child Safety (DCS) and after she raised her own children, she began accepting DCS cases, mostly Native American children from the reservation who were abused or abandoned by their parents.
Billy came into Eloise’s home around 1967 when he was ten. Before that he had been bounced around in foster care in the Phoenix area, and when one foster family said they could no longer manage young Billy, he was sent back to Supai for a year where his mother, Nancy Lee Burro Tilousi, was unable to care for him. His father, Bela Wescogame, wrote a letter to DCS asking that the state take Billy back into the foster care system.
“His mother was an alcoholic,” said Gustavo. “She had a lot of problems.” Gustavo recalled that Billy’s father was an accomplished equestrian and a rodeo champion. But even when Billy’s father and mother got back together after a long separation, Bela felt it was in Billy’s best interest to stay in the care of DCS.
“Billy called my mother-in-law mom,” said Gustavo. “I consider him my nephew.”
Gustavo and Raquel, who were both in their late seventies, had been married for fifty-two years. They used to live just a few miles from Eloise and her husband Cristobal, and visited their home often when it was bustling with foster children many years ago.
“There was Richard, Tony, Bobby Joe, Joseph and Billy,” recalled Raquel. “Those boys were like brothers and grew up together. Other foster kids stayed for shorter periods.”
Raquel said that despite all the young children running around her mother’s home, the house was “immaculate” and the boys were disciplined if they did not follow the rules. “There was never clothes on the floor in their bedroom. Never.”
Raquel said money was tight because Cristobal was ill and unable to work. Eloise fed the family mostly beans and potatoes. “Mom kept a tight rein on the kids,” she said. “Every boy had chores to do.”
“She showed them order. Supai is all disorder,” Gustavo mused, letting out a deep laugh from his Santa-sized belly. His blue eyes sparkled beneath long gray hair that was pulled back in a ponytail.
Raquel took a long puff on a cigarette as she thought of her mother who had died in 1994 when Billy was in prison. Raquel had a petite, trim build and short grey hair. She kept a cigarette in one hand at all times while she held a water spray bottle in the other which she used to discipline the Chihuahuas.
“Mom took the boys to Catholic Mass every Sunday,” Raquel said. “She also wanted them to learn about their own culture, but there was just no support for that in Phoenix back in those days. The boys knew very little about their own tribe. They never spoke their language; they didn’t know their songs or their stories.”
Gustavo recalled the time when he hiked down to Supai with Billy in 1975 to attend Billy’s father’s funeral. The service lasted all night as the tribe sang ceremonial songs. “Billy had a hard time knowing what to do during the funeral because he had forgotten his language,” said Gustavo in between chuckles. “I told him he needed to relearn it.”
Gustavo said he admired how Billy had assimilated back into his culture in adulthood. “I have a lot of respect for what Billy has done for himself over the years, the way he carries himself, and that he is proud of being a Havasupai. He has made himself a better human being.”
Eloise kept records of every child in her care, and she had compiled a scrapbook containing memorabilia about Billy. Raquel handed me the book to flip through while she sprayed the dogs who were barking at a noise outside. There was a school photo of Billy when he was ten and another photo of him when he was seventeen, standing proudly as a groomsman in the wedding of one of Raquel’s daughters. In fifth grade Billy’s artistic talents led him to win a contest for the “best book jacket design.”
“Billy was a joker,” recalled Gustavo. “He was always smiling and laughing and playing jokes on people.”
A May 1965 newspaper story celebrated a field trip made possible by Luke Air Force Base to take Havasupai school children from the reservation “to see the outside world.” Billy was living in Supai at the time and was one of thirteen first and second graders on the trip. The children toured metro Phoenix, rode a train, went to the circus, ate Mexican food and visited a department store. The Officers’ Wives Club gave each child ten dollars in spending money for a shopping spree “and they knew how to use it,” enthused the story. As the 1956 Indian Relocation Act was still very much in force at the time, the message for young Native Americans was loud and clear: Look at the wonderful life you can have if you leave the reservation and abandon your culture.
“Billy had a lot of anger issues, but that is to be expected,” said Raquel. “When he started going to school up here, he found out how people didn’t like Native Americans. It was very racist. And that just builds up more and more anger.”
As I flipped through the scrapbook, I came across a magazine article from the late 1960s written by Ilva T. Schweizer titled, “Supai Billy and the Urban Environment.” In one amazingly racist and sexist description after another, the article summed up the twisted world that Billy was subjected to as a child.
Billy lived in Grand Canyon, Schweizer wrote, “with two old medicine men, rough men who cuffed the boy and left him to himself. There was no woman to cook his food … and hug him.” The article described how Billy “grew close to the soil” and foraged for food. “Then suddenly he was torn from the friendly earth, transplanted to Phoenix by a welfare agency (that found him to be a neglected child) and grafted precariously to an unlikely stem — a Mexican American family who spoke very little English.”
Schweizer described how “this child of nature was tamed by the urban environment,” but he could not learn to read “even ten words” and got into trouble at school. “He was escorted to the office for a private talk with the principal after too forceful an exploration of the mammary protuberance of a playground teacher,” wrote Schweizer. The article went on to pine about the wonders of the assimilation policy that Billy and all Native Americans were subjected to at the time. “During the summer, the young warrior was kept from his village and brought closer to the ways of the white man.”
Gustavo said that after Billy dropped out of high school, he began drinking and “wandering around.” Eloise wouldn’t tolerate anyone in her home who used drugs or alcohol. Soon after high school Billy married an Anglo woman and they had a child named Billy Junior.
“Billy has been through various phases,” Gustavo added. “He has a short temper, and he can be mean and angry when he’s drunk. But everybody has their faults.”
But not everybody had to endure what Native American children did between 1860-1978 as they were effectively disenfranchised from two worlds: their own traditional culture and the dominant culture that had placed them in boarding schools or urban foster homes. Even though Billy was teased in Tempe schools for being Native American, he was expected to seamlessly blend with Anglo culture and to be grateful for the opportunity to do so.
“The [Native American] foster kids didn’t have any basis for understanding who they were,” said Raquel. “And they were at an all Anglo school where kids were mean to them.”
The last paragraph of the “Supai Billy” article stated as much in Billy’s own words. It quoted an “imagination stretching” essay that Billy wrote as part of a school exercise: “I am a red book. Boys and girls open me and write on me. Sometimes they rip my pages. They put me in their desks and never keep me clean.”
Like a tinder bundle that sometimes sparks and sometimes smolders but never goes out, trauma is passed from one generation to the next. Children unwittingly receive the bundle from their parents, perhaps in the form of physical violence, sexual abuse, abandonment, or simply a complete deprivation of love and affection. But trauma is not just a personal affliction. It can be a global one that infects an entire culture, ethnic group, or country.
According to author and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, “The critical difference between a stressful but normal event and trauma is a feeling of helplessness to change the outcome.” In this context, being driven from your homeland is a trauma. Genocide, slavery, starvation, epidemic disease, and a government policy that seeks to strip an entire people of their cultural traditions all constitute a communal kind of trauma.
As PTSD became an accepted medical diagnosis in the 1980s, and as researchers identified trauma as a root cause of a spectrum of social problems, including substance abuse, domestic violence, and other crimes, those studying the condition also broadened the understanding of who might be suffering from it. There were war veterans and victims of domestic violence, but also people who survived the Holocaust, Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II, and anyone who was exposed to life-altering accidents, environmental disasters, or political horrors. Researchers found that not only were the survivors of these events suffering from the effects of PTSD, but so were their descendants. As van der Kolk pointed out in his publications, the imprint of the original trauma lived on in the victim’s mind as he re-experienced it through overwhelming emotions, but it also altered brain chemistry and even the individual’s DNA, which was passed on to his children.
When Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, a clinical sociologist and member of the Lakota tribe, was doing her doctoral research in the early 1990s, she found the widespread suffering among her people was not accurately described as PTSD. Brave Heart was a descendant of Sitting Bull, and her family heritage was deeply entwined with the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. “I became conscious of my own unresolved historical trauma,” she said. Brave Heart observed that the modern-day response to trauma among fellow Lakota people took the form of substance abuse, depression, domestic violence, and suicide. But she believed the spark that kept the tinder bundle burning was rooted in a cultural history of pain and unresolved grief dating back a century or more. To describe this broader mental health and cultural phenomenon, Brave Heart coined the term “historical trauma.”
“Historical trauma refers to cumulative wounding across generations as well as during one’s current life span,” writes Brave Heart. “For Native people, the legacy of genocide includes distortions of indigenous identity, self-concept and values. The process of colonization and varying degrees of assimilation into the dominant cultural value system has resulted in altered states of an Indian sense of self.”
Just as the Havasupais’ traditional identity was defined by an intrinsic connection to Grand Canyon and their communal way of life, the Lakota sense of self was intimately bonded with the northern Plains and the collective Oyate (Lakota nation). “Being Lakota means carrying the welfare of the Oyate in one’s heart, making all decisions with the well-being of Oyate in mind,” explains Brave Heart. “Connection with all of creation, both the present universe and the ancestor spirits, is essential to positive self-esteem. The sense of self and one’s identity does not exist apart from the spiritual world, the Oyate and all of creation.”
When the buffalo were slaughtered to near extinction and the Lakota were corralled onto the reservation, Brave Heart maintains the identity of tribal members became that of victims instead of warriors. And the individual was no longer connected to the spiritual realm of the natural world that had long sustained the tribe. “With the United States government’s confiscation of the Black Hills in 1871 and prohibition of traditional spiritual practices in 1881, the Lakota were unable to perform sacred duties in the Black Hills,” continues Brave Heart.
The final trauma of that era came in 1890 with the Wounded Knee Massacre, “a deep psychic wound to Lakota men because they were unable to perform their traditional sacred roles as the protectors of women and children and the guardians of the land and the natural world,” according to Brave Heart.
The tinder bundle remained white hot as it was passed on to successive generations in the twentieth century. “Lakota grief was denied the necessary open, culturally appropriate communal expression,” notes Brave Heart. “Federal policies of forced assimilation were enacted through boarding schools where Indian children were often physically abused, prohibited from speaking their language and forbidden to practice their traditional spirituality … In response to cumulative group trauma, the Lakota developed features of a trauma response and unresolved grief among survivors.”
And just as war veterans with PTSD experience flashbacks of past battles as if they are reliving the conflict in the present, people with historical trauma may remember the dark chapters of their ancestry from stories that are passed down, but they also relive the events in their own bodies in real time. The long reach of traumatic memories over generations can negatively impact the way a person’s cells respond to stress. Various studies have proven that individuals who are descended from a family tree that is full of nurturing sunshine are on a much longer fuse when dealing with present hardship than people whose grandparents experienced genocide.
“The psychological and even physiological effects of the original trauma of colonization and U.S. Indian policies are not limited to the individuals or generations who actually suffered the traumatic events,” explains criminal justice professor M. George Eichenberg in the book American Indians at Risk. “The trauma becomes part of the culture, with each succeeding generation experiencing the trauma anew.”
And while Anglo culture may view the Ghost Dance movement of the 1880s as a relic of American frontier history, Eichenberg argues the Ghost Dance still carries symbolic power for many tribes and could hold a key to healing current historical trauma among Native Americans. Brave Heart also emphasizes a return to Native American practices and spiritual beliefs, or what she calls “retraditionalization,” as the only way for Native Americans to heal from historical trauma.
“The Ghost Dance movement should, perhaps, be seen as a collective, distinctly Native American means of dealing with the trauma caused by European colonialism,” writes Eichenberg. “It was an attempt to heal all nations through a return to the security of an idealized past as a means of dealing with historical grief. The Ghost Dance movement failed … Native Americans were left with no collective means for dealing with the trauma of colonialism and thus turned to individual internalization of the pain and rage, manifested through self-destruction (self-victimization through substance abuse and suicide), victimization of one’s family (another form of self-victimization), and victimization by outsiders (playing one’s historic role).”
There is a great deal of shame that comes with victimization. Whether it is passed down and internalized from previous generations, comes from being victimized in one’s own lifetime, or is born from victimizing others, shame is like a gasoline-soaked rag when waved over a spark of conflict. Any tense situation explodes into flames.
“I believe that the most effective and powerful stimulus of violence in the human species is the experience of shame and humiliation,” says author and psychiatrist James Gilligan, M.D., the former director of mental health for the Massachusetts prison system.
Randy is descended from a long line of shame, humiliation, and violence. His father, Billy — the man who Randy said he loved most, but who also beat him — was abused by his biological parents, foster parents, a strict brand of Catholicism that demonized his native spirituality, an Anglo school system that denied him his native language, and a century of U.S. government policy that evicted his ancestors from their native land and precipitated starvation of his people through prohibition of hunting.
Does all this violence and trauma explain how a child who is born innocent can become a murderer?
“Not all violent adults were subjected to violent child abuse. Nor do all who were subjected to violent child abuse grow up to commit deadly violence,” writes Gilligan in his book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, which is based on extensive interviews with prison inmates. “Child abuse is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for adult violence, any more than smoking is a necessary or sufficient cause for the development of lung cancer. There are, however, plenty of statistical studies showing that acts of actual and extreme physical violence, such as beatings and attempted murders, are regular experiences in the childhoods of those who grow up to become violent, just as we know that smoking is a major, and predictable, cause of lung cancer.”
Gilligan goes on to explain how just about all of the men he interviewed for his book who were in prison for violent crimes had been repeatedly and brutally beaten as children. And, as adults, he said they seemed spiritually dead. “How can violence to the body kill the soul, even if it does not kill the body?” he asks. “Having heard hundreds of men describe the experience of being beaten nearly to death, I believe the answer to that question is that violence — whatever else it may mean — is the ultimate means of communicating the absence of love by the person inflicting the violence … The self, starved of love, dies.”
While I shared a strong bond with Tomomi over our mutual love of Grand Canyon and the natural world, I came to learn during my investigation that I also had something in common with Randy. I had experienced childhood trauma. I had forgotten it, repressed it. And when I remembered, that knowledge threatened to annihilate me.
Going by the statistics, I should have been spiritually dead, just as Gilligan predicted. And yet for reasons I never could have imagined when I first hiked to Supai in 2007, I beat the odds. I lived. I thrived. Why?
To appreciate what it was that had kept me alive, I had to follow Tomomi down her path that eventually became my path, and face not only what had killed her but, also, what had nearly killed me.about the author