Review: Stephen Hirst's I Am The Grand Canyon

Reviewer  Tom Hebert is a writer and policy consultant living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation outside Pendleton, Oregon. Here he reviews  I Am The Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People which first came out in 1976, then was revised in 1985 and again in 2007.

i-am-the-grand-canyon-140I Am The Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People
by Stephen Hirst (Liberia 1962-64)
Grand Canyon Association
Copyright 2006 by the Havasupai Tribe
276 pages

Reviewed by Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962–64)

The last ethnographic book to be reviewed in this three-part series for you to Amazon and read is Stephen Hirst’s 2006, “I Am The Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People.”

First published in 1976 and updated in 1985, this book has the ultimate jacket blurb: “This book is our Bible. We use it to teach our kids who they are.”

-Fydel Jones, Havasupai. Book writers are always getting remaindered, cut down to size, but that book is growing new tribal children.

The book is divided into 12 chapters, including those tribal sagas, a history of what is known about these rather mysterious people, the invasion of the whites, a clear retelling of the long legal battle for the return of Havasupai lands, and finally the current life there, complete with dam failures upstream that flooded the canyon. But with successes like the establishment of their own school which resulted in not only the end of onerous boarding schools away from the reservation, but “steady improvement in the children’s behavior and achievement levels bore out the Havasupai’s faith in themselves.”

As he writes, this ethnography paints a picture of the Havasupai people from their point of view, drawn from their stories, from interviews conducted over many years. In three long chapters, the Havasupai speak directly to the reader in particularly vivid stories of confrontations with Euro-American newcomers to their lands. “I have tried to set the narrative within the Havasupai mind and world, as they would have seen it and told it.” He also included a treasure of photographs, modern and old, with detailed descriptions and names of long-dead Havasupai who populate the book, reaching as it does back into the still-living past of these people.

That’s the kind of work that Peace Corps service can lead to. Remember you young memoir writers, dig deeply, keep notes, don’t get lost in your own stories, reflect fearlessly upon your experience, then bring it on home! As I noted in the African Horse review, the only thing about the Peace Corps you can take to the bank is the Third Goal: “To contribute to the education of America and to more intelligent participation in the world.” This is where you come in.

Hirst could do this in spades because for many years (1967-1983), he and his wife Lois lived and worked with the Havasupai tribe in the almost inaccessible Havasu Canyon, part of Arizona’s Grand Canyon First. Hired to operate the tribal Headstart preschool, they later wrote this book which grew out of the daily sorrow of watching-up close-as a fine people died because our government in pursuit of “higher goals” so willed it. 

A horse and cattle people who traditionally took to the Canyon in the hot spells of summers but lived on the plateau above for most of the year, for 66 years the Havasupai had been reduced by thieving federal land policy to about 400 Indians living precariously year-round at the bottom of the Canyon, ultimately crowded onto a tiny reservation of 518 acres. This while their original grazing and living land up on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim lay abandoned except for local white ranchers who illegally ran stock on it while the Indians were prohibited from even visiting it. Of course, in the 1930 all their homes had been knocked down, so where were they to stay? Their fate had since become entangled with ranchers, Congress, the Park Service, the White House, lawyers, tourist hotel operators, plus environmental organizations claiming to know what was best for the land, et cetera and et al. But they fought back.

As Hirst details the 66-year legal battle of the Tribe, the Havasupai’s fiercest opponents-the organization that coupled with all their other adversaries to defeat the Havasupai Indians as they sought the restoration of their stolen aboriginal lands-was the Sierra Club which claimed that “all the people” should determine the use of the Tribal land up on the South Rim. But the Sierras were no match, ultimately, for this hard-scrabble tribe. For example, the Havasupai scored a nifty blow in a December 1973 letter to the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club: “The Havasupai fail to see why ‘all the people’ should determine how the Havasupai are to use an area that has always been their homeland, just as they feel to see why ‘all the people’ should determine how the citizens of Tucson use their homeland. The people who live in an area, know it and love it should determine its use.”

They ultimately did, because this legal battle ended on January 4 1975 when President Gerald Ford over-ruled many in Washington and in the environmental community by signing P.L. 93-620 into law. This act granted the Havasupai trust title to their entire free-use area of 251,000 acres. Since then the tribe has prospered and so has their land. In 1975 they put forth a Tribal Land-Use Plan which called for the preservation of the magnificence of their homeland, the preservation of their cultural identity in every way, and to use their homeland to “provide sustenance for themselves and to return once again to a self-sustaining life.” Of course, it took seven years for the government to approve it the plan. It’s hard work being Indian.

But the book ain’t all come hell or high water. Not quite. This from the end of Chapter one, The People of the Canyon:

Before 1975, the old houses up on the plateau waited silently through the decades. Watahomigie and Gswedva lay in a quiet little cemetery among the juniper-clad hillocks on what was then Park Service land. Short little graves covered children lost too soon. Young wives lay there, gone and returned to the beloved plateau, having left broken men and children behind.

And now the long years of separation have ended. Only by understanding the Havasupais’ long attachment to these lands can one know the joy that burst upon them at their return in 1975. The restoration of their winter lands finally offered hope that Havasupai people could once again return to living on the plateau. A handful of Havasupai rangers and other workers live there now, some with their families. The tribal government is also studying ways to accommodate other families’ desire to relocate to the plateau, using sustainable water harvesting and storage, home construction, and power generation. Like the plateau, the possibilities beckon.

And here a scene from chapter seven, A Season on the Plateau. Based on detailed tribal remembrances of actual events, this chapter is Hirst’s nicely crafted evocation of “the final years of the old life,” someplace in the 1920s to 30s. Listen as a family talks of certain down-to-earth otherworldly powers.

Gswedva stops here, and they sit in silence. Finally, Baa asks, “Do people go in that mountain now, Baagtaya?

Gswedva replies, “I went there once but not into the mountain.”

“Tell me of that.”

“It was in the raining time [August] when there is water in the rocks, and traveling is easy. I started from the Spruce trees and rode toward the mountain for four days. On the evening of the fourth day I came close to the mountain. The pines were very large and even then I could not see snow high up above. From there I rode back again until dark, where I stopped. I didn’t go any closer after that, but just came back, because they say the rains beings in the mountain will make floods if we bother them too much.”

“Sometimes I wonder, Baagtaya, if there are truly such beings in that mountain,” Baa muses.

“Consider this. When all the country around is dry, the mountain always has rain, does it not? This is also true of the Riding Mountain. When clouds appear they always appear on the high places, and the high places often have clouds when you find not even on anywhere else. See it now.

Clouds shroud the upper half of the distant mountain.

“Who is to say if these are beings? Gswedva continues. “Certainly the mountain contains forces that bring the clouds. I cannot truly say what these forces may look like, but you can hardly deny there is some force there. Is it too much to say the mountain is the home of the clouds? The Moga people say more, that the mountains are the home of the cloud people. This may be so; I don’t know much about things like that, but I do see the power of the mountains to bring rain. I’m not the one to play with this power when water is so precious. We know that it takes water to live.”

Hirst’s seemly Dedication to the Havasupai people in the 2006 edition ends thus:

Your stories tell of a more honorable, demanding life. But those stories carry more than nostalgia. They carry a vision of a bright time when humans knew what the earth could afford and what it could not. You cherish the memory of that life and that land with a fire that finally burns into us both. The lines between us blur.

Isn’t this the uber-message of fine ethnographic writing, a blurring of lines between us? Who better than you to do this?

The title of the book? On May 18, 1971, during one of the interminable public hearings about the possible repatriation of these lands to his people, long-time tribal Chairman Lee Marshall finally got to speak. He took his time. He talked of people who were so very concerned with plant ecology but had no time for human ecology. He talked softly of the possible end of his people. He said he also spoke for the wild plants, the wilderness, the forests, the wild animals and “fowls of the air” and even the beauty of the Grand Canyon who couldn’t speak for themselves.

“I hear all you people talking about the Grand Canyon. Well, you’re looking at it. I am the Grand Canyon.”


On January 22, 2010 after reading a draft of this review, Hirst emailed Hebert:

Tom, readers may want to know that Havasu Canyon suffered a disastrous three-day flood in August 2008 that destroyed one of the waterfalls and buried the campground. It took the Havasupai nearly a year to repair the damage. No lives were lost.

You might also downplay the hurtful part the Sierra Club played in 1974 because the club has since seen that the Havasupai have the same love for the canyon that they do. The club and the Havasupai now work together on many projects as partners.

Likewise with the Park Service under the Grand Canyon National Park’s new superintendent Steve Martin. The park hosted an exhibit honoring the Havasupai’s place in the Grand Canyon for the first time in 2007 that was one of the most-visited exhibits of its type. Martin introduced it and informed the opening-night crowd that, in case they didn’t know it, they were on Havasupai land.


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