Saving Grand Canyon’s ‘sacred water’

Water supply for Havasupai Native American tribe under threat as commercial developments expand in iconic park.

You can’t talk about water issues around the Grand Canyon, an iconic geological formation in the US state of Arizona, without talking to the Havasupai Native American tribe.

They are the original inhabitants of the Grand Canyon, and live in the bottom of it, in the village called Supai.

We were visiting the village to cover a story about how proposed commercial developments outside the Grand Canyon National Park could threaten the water supply not just in the park, but in the whole canyon.

While most places in the continental United States are accessible by road, you can’t get to the Havasupai nation easily.

The village of Supai is only accessible by a 13km path one can hike or travel to by mule. You can also take a five-minute helicopter ride operated by a service that runs four days a week into their canyon.


‘Very sacred place’


Our crew opted for the helicopter ride, given our time limitations and the TV equipment we were carrying into Supai. From a hilltop landing more than 100km from the nearest town, we piled into a helicopter and swooped through a dry canyon before landing in a patch of verdant green dotted with houses.

The Havasupai have lived in the Grand Canyon for more than 800 years. When the Grand Canyon National Park was established in 1919, the US government moved them to a remote part of the Canyon, outside the park.

Today some 600 Havasupai live in Supai. The Tribal Chairman, Rex Tilousi, tells us: “I was born here in the canyon. I’ve lived here all my life and I have seen many changes come to the people, to the area where we live. We regard it as a very sacred place that we were told by our elders that we are the people responsible for this area.”

Their main industry in Supai is tourism the attraction is the scenery.

Thousands of people visit the Havasupai nation yearly to camp in the red-streaked canyon or visit the spectacular turquoise waterfalls that are reflected in the tribe’s name, which means “the people of the blue-green waters”.

Composting toilets

There’s one lodge in the town it was full. So we camped in the canyon, a little over 3km outside Supai.

The campsite winds along a little stream, and has a tap where we filled up bottles with water from one of the springs in the area.

There are composting toilets near the ranger station. In this part of the canyon, there are no lights and as night falls, the sky turns inky black and small frogs hop around the campsite.

We slept in tents to the sounds of water flowing in the stream, mosquitos buzzing overhead, and unknown animals wandering around our campsite.

The next morning, we headed back to the village to do more filming.

Most of the Havasupai speak their native language as we were guided around the village the next morning, we heard tribal members speaking to each other in Havasupai and then turning to us and speaking in English.

Water-availability concerns

We ask them about the water supply. They worried about the availability of the water given the increased water usage in the area.

To the Havasupai, the water is sacred. Standing by one of the streams that runs through the village, Tilousi says: “To us it flows through the people that live here. These waters are what we were created from. Every drip, every seep, every spring that we have here, this little drip created the Havasupai. This water, we are this water.”

The Havasupai know there are threats to the water that flows through their village and to the people who live there. Developments elsewhere in the Canyon could harm their water supply, and they are working to try to prevent that.

We left Supai the same way we came in, by helicopter.

People usually mill around as tourists and Havasupai come and go.

When our turn came, we once again piled into the helicopter and watched as the village receded into the distance, a spot of green surrounded by canyon a remote and beautiful place to most visitors, a sacred one to the Havasupai.

This is the first of a two-part series. Watch the second part here: Fears over Grand Canyon’s water supply