Havasu Canyon, Grand Canyon: Havasu Falls

On the afternoon of Sunday, October 27, after our long hike into Havasu Canyon, we wandered from our campsite to have a look at Havasu Falls, the showpiece of the canyon, that in 1974 wasn’t even part of the Havasupai Reservation.

In the summer of 1974, during the darkest days of the Watergate crisis, a bill to enlarge Grand Canyon National Park wound its way through committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation sought to incorporate two National Monuments into the Park, smooth out some of the boundaries, and regulate air traffic above the Park. It also sought to finalize Native American land claims. The bill offered a chance for the Havasupai to reclaim the vast majority of the land taken from them in 1880.

A dry fall that clearly wasn’t always dry scarred the sheer eastern wall of Havasu Canyon above the campground.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt famously, and breathtakingly, used presidential powers under the new Antiquities Act to protect the Grand Canyon by declaring it Grand Canyon National Monument. In 1919, Congress took its turn and upgraded the Monument to National Park status. Then in 1932, President Herbert Hoover, again under the auspices of the Antiquities Act, created a new Grand Canyon National Monument on both sides of the Colorado River to the west of the existing Park. By 1974, it was Congress’ turn again. The 1974 legislation would abolish Grand Canyon National Monument to the west and Marble Canyon National Monument (downstream from Glen Canyon Dam) to the east and add their lands to the National Park.

The 1974 legislation offered the best chance for the Havasupai in their decades-long push to have their plateau lands restored to them. Before the European invasion, Havasupai territory comprised much of the Colorado Plateau south of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, even stretching as far to the southeast as the San Francisco Peaks near what is now Flagstaff. Havasupais have inhabited Havasu Canyon seasonally since at least 1276. Both the architectural record and Havasupai myth are unclear whether modern Havasupais are descended from plateau-dwelling peoples whose presence on the plateau extends much further back. For instance, linguistic analysis of Havasupai language connects them to related peoples who migrated into the region from the southwest. And Havasupai mythology speaks of a migration from that direction. But the Havasupai also believe that their ancestors created stone wells and foundations scattered across the plateau. And the Hopi consider the Havasupai and the people who made these structures one and the same.

Regardless, by 1880, when President Rutherford Hayes signed an executive order establishing the Havasupai Reservation in the Arizona Territory, the Havasupai had dwelled on the Colorado Plateau for generation upon generation.

From our campsite, it was a short walk back to Havasu Falls. As we approached, we saw other visitors moving up and down the steep trail along the western wall above the falls.

A steep, narrow trail leads down to the base of the falls.

By the retaining pool, we stood and watched as a bikini-clad influencer staged and restaged a proposal photo with (presumably) her fiancé. She looked cold.

We also watched a couple take a photo announcing that they were pregnant. “They’re really announcing that the baby is dead,” quipped Rick.

Photo shoots aside, Havasu Falls is insane. An interpretive sign explains the creek’s color:

The water of Havasu Creek owes its peculiar blue-green color to the high concentration of lime that it carries. This lime is deposited on the creek bed to build terraces. Sticks and leaves trapped in the deposited travertine help this process.

Adding to the enchantment effect is that the lime in the water causes the cliffside to look like it is melting. It’s not dissimilar to the percolating effects of water that creates stalactites and other speleothems in a cave.

We made it!

The original borders of the Havasupai Reservation locked the Havasupai in the canyon. It did not even include Havasu Falls, but started just south of the falls and south from there to near the intersection of Havasu Canyon and Hualapai Canyon, where the Havasupai summer village was then located. At this time, this part of the Arizona Territory was still among the most remote sections of the United States. John Wesley Powell had made his expedition on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon only thirteen years before. As interest in mining parts of the Grand Canyon increased, it was in white interest to delineate whose land was whose. At the time, creating the border within Havasu Canyon in order to allow access for miners was the most pressing issue. Excluding the area north of Havasu Falls allowed prospectors to set up a mining camp in the narrow section between Havasu and Mooney Falls. This site, where the Havasupai had historically interred their cremated dead, became a mining camp…then a National Park Service campground…and the the campground we were staying at.

There is some evidence that the Indian Service in the Department of the Interior did not actually intend for the Havasupai Reservation to be restricted to the canyon and exclude any plateau lands. Restricting the Havasupai to year-round occupancy in Havasu Canyon would have been totally foreign to the way the Havasupai lived. While the canyon is pleasant in the summer and the creek supports crops, in the winter it is cold, dark, and barren. The Havasupai only occupied Havasu Canyon in the late spring, summer, and early fall. They spent the winter in their houses on the plateau and supported themselves hunting deer, elk, and pronghorn and collecting nuts and legumes. Theirs was always a seasonal life transitioning as a people from the canyon to the plateau and back again, marking the moves with communal celebrations and festivals.

But the establishment of the Havasupai Reservation restricted them to Havasu Canyon. Whatever got lost in translation, it appears to have happened in the layers of bureaucracy at Interior. The Havasupai did not realize for years that the reservation restricted them to the canyon. And the Indian Service, later the Bureau of Indian Affairs, more often than not over the succeeding near-century, supported the inclusion of plateau lands in the reservation.

Hi, Bev.

Other groups were also at the falls exploring and taking photographs. A few asked various of us to take photos of their groups.

Image: Sean M. Santos

As the nineteenth century waned and the twentieth arrived, the Havasupai continued to migrate seasonally from canyon to plateau as they’d always done. Meanwhile, the plateau lands came to be controlled by a patchwork of owners: railroad companies, white ranchers, the U.S. Forest Service, and after 1908 the National Park Service. Slowly, but inevitably, though, ranchers complained about the Havasupai trespassing on their land. In late winter of 1914, cattlemen accused a Havasupai named Waluthma of poaching a calf for him and his wife to eat while traveling home across the plateau from Seligman. It’s disputed whether or not the calf was Waluthma’s. A posse of cattlemen arrested Waluthma and jailed him in the San Francisco Peaks area. By the time a group of Havasupai came for him several days later, Waluthma was dead. He had been castrated and buried with chicken feathers on his head and red zigzag lines on his face.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Although restricted from residing on the plateau lands, the Havasupai did have grazing leases on Forest Service and National Park Service land on the plateau. As the decades passed, the Havasupai gradually became more secretive and secluded when they went to their winter homes on the plateau. As more people wintered in the chill, dark canyon, they adapted by doing such things as cultivating cottonwood trees along the creek in order to have fuel for fires in the winter.

The lie that the Havasupai had always lived only in Havasu Canyon and hence that the canyon should comprise their entire world was emphasized in the twentieth century most emphatically by the National Park Service administration at Grand Canyon National Park. Ironically, Havasupais living in the National Park showed just how mythological this viewpoint was. Famously, Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim to the Colorado River passes through Indian Garden, a plateau of bench land beneath Grand Canyon Village, before making the final descent to the river. Indian Garden is named that because it was farmed by a lingering Havasupai couple until the Park Service removed them in 1928. Later, in the 1940s, the Park Service proposed building a mock Havasupai encampment at the site.

One of the more important Havasupai encampments on the plateau was Spruce Trees, situated on the canyon rim southwest of Havasu Canyon. Spruce Trees is now visited by six million people a year under its new name, Grand Canyon Village, the visitation hub of Grand Canyon National Park. In 1934, the Park Service built ten cabins for the Havasupai who lived at Spruce Trees and then burned down their traditional homes, transforming them into tenants of the Park and denying them inholding ownership claims to their encampment.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Some of us walked around the retaining pool and explored the grotto-like walls and little caves to the west of the waterfall.

Image: Rick Olson

The lush hanging gardens next to the main flow of the falls were lovely.

Throughout the first six decades of the twentieth century, the Havasupai’s world diminished in scope as miners, National Park Rangers, and visitors traipsed through their narrow canyon home. On the plateau, the agencies that controlled the patchwork that had been their land shifted in their policies with administrations, local agency heads, or political winds. In 1971, the National Park Service, in close cooperation with the Sierra Club released a master plan for Grand Canyon National Park that literally erased the Havasupai from the map, not even including their tiny reservation on a map for a proposed expansion of the Park.

Although likely an oversight in 1971, just such a result—the incorporation of Havasu Canyon in full into the Park—had long been the ultimate goal of at least a contingent within the Park Service. A 1942 NPS report co-authored by none other than Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., co-founder of the Wilderness Society and founder of the National Parks Conservation Association, argued against transferring any land to the Havasupai. The report referred to the Havasupai as a doomed race and was confident that eventually their land would become part of the Park.

Thirty years later, in the early 1970s, the national mood had shifted even if the Park Service’s attitude had not. The Eisenhower administration’s policy of termination, which attempted to forcibly assimilate Native Americans into white society by disbanding tribes and reducing reservations, had seen forcible backlash as the Indian Rights Movement joined other social justice movements of the 1960s and swayed public opinion.

Havasupai leaders including chairman Lee Marshall and elder Ethel Jack were able to win Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to the cause of restoring plateau lands to them. This was crucial because not only was all this happening in Goldwater’s state, but he was the senator introducing the bill to expand Grand Canyon National Park. The bill with an expanded reservation passed the Senate in 1973.

In the House, the bill was introduced by Representative Morris Udall of Arizona, the brother of long-serving Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, who served under both Kennedy and Johnson. Here the bill saw opposition, particularly the expansion of the Havasupai Reservation.

Some prominent conservation organizations strenuously opposed the expansion of the Havasupai Reservation. The National Parks Conservation Association echoed its founder and worried that the restoration of plateau lands that were already part of the National Park would create a dangerous precedent for removing lands from National Park status. It pushed for a status quo resolution that would allow the Havasupai to continue with their grazing rights on the plateau, but not transfer land.

Friends of the Earth and and the Sierra Club were overtly racist in their opposition. In the Sierra Club’s case, the question of the Havasupai Reservation caused a rift within the organization that foreshadowed racist controversies to come for the organization in the 1990s and 2000s. The national office of the Sierra Club opposed the Havasupai transfer with a vicious campaign that portrayed the Havasupai as greedy and ignorant dupes of big business, inherently unqualified to steward their land, and just out for a quick buck. This ugly stance ignored the Club’s state office in Arizona and its Indian Affairs office, both of which supported the expansion of the reservation. The campaign against the Havasupai involved some of the same figures who, twenty years later, would push the Sierra Club to oppose immigrant and refugee rights in the United States, arguing that the fewer people there were in the country, the more space there would be fore nature. At the house hearings, lobbyists were stationed at the doors of the chamber distributing pamphlets that slandered the Havasupai.

Not only did the Sierra Club’s tactics fail, but they earned sharp rebuttals from Udall and other members of Congress usually allied to the conservation-focused aims of Club as the bill moved out of committee. Against the tumultuous backdrop of Gerald Ford’s assuming the presidency and the 1974 mid-term elections, the bill passed, and Ford signed the Grand Canyon expansion in early 1975.

The new law expanded the Havasupai reservation by over 188,000 acres (added to the 518 acres that had been the extent of Havasupai land). It restored huge swaths of plateau land and extended the reservation within Havasu Canyon to include all the major waterfalls. While the reservation land did not extend all the way to the southern bank of the Colorado River, the areas of the Park between the reservation and the river were designated for unencumbered Havasupai use in perpetuity.

It was a major victory for Native American land rights and part of a reconceptualization of what was possible for land preservation and land access for Native Americans that would see its greatest achievement at decades end in Alaska and the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act.

In the forty-five years since the Havasupai’s triumph, the racist tactics of the Sierra Club look all the worse, since it has more often been Big Green organizations, and not Native American tribes, that have gotten into bed with big corporations in pursuit of corporate cash.

Image: Rick Olson

In addition to providing the creek with its ethereal color, the lime present in the water causes the creek bed to form little pools, mini cataracts, and terraces.

Pico Pajaro

Video: Sean M. Santos

Although the air was cool, Josh and Rick decided to try swimming and exploring the pools formed by the rock terraces.

Image: Sean M. Santos

The rest of us stayed out of the water, at least for the time being. Sean felt rough. His cold was worse, and he kept asking me if I thought he had a fever. Plus his hip was sore from an old running injury.

Video: Sean M. Santos

After the boys had had their fill of swimming, we decided to head up the trail above the falls in search of sunshine and a snack.

Prickly Pear

Up above, we ordered fry bread from a little stand. We sat in the sunshine while we waited for our orders. After ten minutes, our fry bread, deep fried flat discs of dough with various sweet or savory toppings, came out. Sean and I got beans and cheese on ours, and we quickly devoured them.

Barrel Cactus

Afterward, we wandered over to check out the top of the falls.

Rick peered over the edge to snap the photos below.

Image: Rick Olson

Image: Rick Olson

The cascades immediately upstream from the plunge were lovely.

Fuck you, Gavin and mom.

Shadows were rising up the canyon’s eastern walls, and we decided to head back to our campsite.

On the way back down we peered into a little cave, but it didn’t go anywhere.

It was only 4pm when we arrived back at our campsite on the little island. That said, we’d been up for twelve hours.

The boys went exploring while Sean and I hung back and rested. I had brought John Wesley Powell’s account of his descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon as my reading for the trip. So I put my feet up in my hammock and cracked it open.

The boys returned an hour or so later with tales of waterfalls, chains, and other campsites.

We decided that the next morning we’d explore down canyon, aiming if possible for the confluence of Havasu Creek and the Colorado River. We figured that of our two fulls days in the canyon, it would be better to do the long hike on Monday so that we could rest up on Tuesday before the hike out on Wednesday.

After a supper of dehydrated backpack meals, we began to get ready for bed.

In our tent, I tried to write up some notes about the day, but instead fell quickly to sleep and was unconscious by a quarter after eight.


The history summarized here leans heavily on Stephen Hirst’s wonderful book about the Havasupai and their successful fight to regain their land, I Am the Grand Canyon. I recommend it to anyone interested in the intersection of land preservation policy and Native American rights.

Hirst, Stephen. I Am the Grand Canyon, The Story of the Havasupai People. Grand Canyon Association, 2006.

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