Monday, September 21, 2009

The missing Havasupai reservation of 1881

The Havasupai Reservation mystery is simply put: Why were the Havasupai given such an inappropriate reservation, tiny and confined to part of the bottom of Havasu (also in part called Cataract) Canyon?

The picture of Havasupai life before 1880 from Havasupai testimony, archeologists, anthropologists, and visitors is lovingly drawn in Stephen Hirst's books. Here, the main point is their use and occupancy of the eastern half of the south side of the Canyon, down off the rim toward the river, and south over the Coconino plateau. The Havasupai, perhaps more remote or warier, never got the reputation of fighters, and did not suffer the kind of removal that the Hualapai and Navajo did. Indeed the contacts with them were so ephemeral or unrecorded that there appears in the record none of the usual drama of conquest. Which makes what happened to them a tragedy of incomprehension or a mystery, unclarified as to whether it is one of perversity or inertia, corruption or simply lack of enough interest to register knowledge and translate it into action.

An 1875 newspaper reports prospectors talking about mineral in Cataract Canyon. A claim for silver-bearing ore was staked in December 1879. So, being in and around Cataract and vicinity for four years, the prospectors would have been blind not to have known of Havasupai use of both canyon and plateau, and their movement back and forth.  
Meanwhile, the army was thinking about a satisfactory reservation to deal with Hualapai restiveness. One suggestion in early 1877 was to put them near Cataract Creek “where they could be united with the Supais, who have never been under control”. So the military too had encountered the Havasupai, perhaps knew about their being on the uplands, and  thought them somehow related to the Hualapai.

Just three months after the claim-staking,  John C. Fremont, Arizona Territory governor, kindly wrote to the Interior Department, commending the Havasupai and warning of prospecting activity in their area. His solution was a reservation with a 2-mile-by-12-mile straight-line boundary running along Cataract. Another three months later, June 1880, the Indian Office went further, recommending 5 by 12 miles. The starting point of both was 2 miles downstream (north) of the lowest of three waterfalls. Neither however came up onto the plateau, suggesting the limited purpose of protection for the Havasuapi from prospecting intrusion or, mirror-like, protection for others to lay claim to Havasupai land. An executive order based on this recommendation was issued with an error in direction, and was revoked by a corrected order of November 23, 1880. Fast work, though all on paper so far. Not fast enough; already in August the prospectors had complained, wanting to “reap the fruits of their toil”. The Indian Office then asked the army to straighten things out since it was already working on a reservation for the Hualapai.

When Lt. C. R. Palfrey, Engineer, rode across a June-hot plateau and down into Cataract in 1881, he may already have thought setting down a geometric boundary in that canyon was an impossible task. He certainly knew about the prospecting activity and about the army plan for a Hualapai reservation. When he arrived, whom did he meet? He saw some Havasupai, but although summer was the time for Havasupai being resident along the blue of Havasu Creek, Palfrey mentions only two in his report. Also, he certainly met and spoke with (chats with, laughs with, eats with ?) the whitefolk prospectors who were convinced, as always, of the great riches that would come from their toil. And would these prospectors not have made their case to Palfrey that their claims (and future ones?) should not be encumbered by having land withdrawn for the Havasupai? And surely they argued that nothing should interfere with access so that equipment could come into the canyon and mineral out. Yet Palfrey’s report made no mention of such considerations for shrinking the rectilinear 5x12-mile reservation down to a wiggly strip of less than a square mile along the creek. All he wrote was that marking the boundary as proclaimed would present great difficulties. His mention of the mining was dismissive; indeed, the prospectors were giving up three claims. Was he really that na├»ve?

The mystery is only deepened by the arrival of Lt. Col. W. R. Price in July. He had just come from a conference with the Hualapai in which they had agreed to a million-acre reservation running, again on straight lines, from the railroad up to the Colorado River. No funny business here; the Hualapai needed, Price knew or was told, plateau and canyons to provide for their extensive way of life, which was more or less the same as the Havasupai’s, hunting and gathering using the plateaus, with some gardening, either at springs up above or down in canyons. So, fresh from this triumph, Price rode over the plateau and down into Cataract. in his report, he also opined that the miners would give up, due to the difficulties. He did not write down the obvious conclusion that therefore there was no impediment to an appropriate, Hualapai-like reservation for the Havasupai. He did know the true situation, since he wrote that the Havasupai occupy lands abandoned by prehistoric Hopi (he calls them Moqui), going up in the fall to the eastern plateau to hunt and then make buckskins, which they use in trade to the east and west.  Yet, having this accurate picture of an extensive life similar to that of the Hualapai, he did not disturb Palfrey’s arrangements, accepting the lieutenant’s limited notion of difficult boundaries. Price is careful to dismiss the miners as misguided about their prospects while “gratified” at the contracted boundary. Yet he could have recommended Hualapai-like lines, so the topography would not have been an impediment. He could have used what he knew to conclude he had better recommend a reservation that suits them. What stopped him?

A few days after Price and Palfrey left, Frank Cushing (who wrote of this adventure in "The Nation of the Willows") arrived. In writing of what happened, he spoke much of Ko-hot' (the officers called him "Navajo"), describing him as a wonderful character, with an unrelenting will for the good of his people; a figure or gravity and dignity, about 50. Ko-hot' told him he was asked by the officers to determine boundaries. The officers called a council (Price counted over 200 Havasupai), and told Ko-hot' it was for him to decide how large their country should be. He replied: “ We live by country and river; they are small. Let your lines but include the river and the little plain we live on; why should we wish for a great country? Others, Americans perhaps, would take a large and indivisible country away from us. We have lived without boundaries; that is an American idea." So, Cushing reported, Ko-hot' would not permit a boundary above the originating spring or below the falls. He did not insist on what the soldiers were willing to offer. He didn’t want to excite envy and be exiled as the Apaches had been. Later Ko-hot' tells Cushing he is never in the crowds or councils; they are too foolish. When something is needed, they come to him. Cushing makes Ko-hot' sound determined, forceful, wary, and shrewd about whitefolks’ greed.

Yet accurate though that assessment was, Ko-hot' made a tragic error in not comprehending that the American idea about boundaries would now be the controlling one. Perhaps Price should have tried harder to convince him; the officers certainly knew that without the admittedly often flimsy protection of the American legal-political system, Americans would use that system to intrude on the Havasupai. And it would only be 90 years later, when the Havasupai skillfully and successfully worked that system to their advantage, that the tragic reluctance of Ko-hot' to accept that "American idea" would be triumphantly overcome.


I am tantalized by the thought of what the soldiers might have recommended as appropriate, had they drawn the obvious conclusion that the Havasupai needed something very like the Hualapai. A line east from the eastern Hualapai boundary would have gone across Cataract, including important springs, and at some point turned north – surely so as to include Pasture Wash, but what about Indian Gardens?-- and run down “to the Colorado River and along the river” to the Hualapai eastern boundary. Would such a Havasupai reservation – and note that the Havasupai would have been in actual possession and use, unlike the Hualapai who had been driven way off the land they ended up with – have protected their established way of life, alternating canyon and plateau through the year?  As with the Hualapai, there would have been pressures from cattlemen over water and land. The prospectors might have acted up more vigorously. Eventually, there would have been trouble over deer hunting, too, and perhaps squabbling over places to homestead. 

Most importantly, would an appropriate Havasupai reservation have avoided a fight with Park officials and advocates entirely? Or would the latter have been so entranced by the wonders of the Havasu Canyon area that they would have attempted a land grab, both above the rim and below it, even including some of the waterfalls? And no matter what the final Park-Reservation boundary would have been, how differently would relations with the NPS have developed, especially in employment, tourist facilities, and education? Would an eastward instead of a west-side tilt have developed in Havasupai travel and administration? Is it conceivable that over the decades the parties would have come to an accommodation that combined sovereignty and visitation with advantage for all? With no century-long effort to gain some of their land back, would the Havasupai have developed along their own or the Hualapai template, have maintained a way of life attuned to the land and its resources, have resolved conflicts with their neighbors in a creative or deadening way, have worked out a way of life now inconceivable?

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