Since coming home, I have continued to process our experience, both the beautiful falls, the camaraderie of wonderful women and the plight of the Havasu people. Amy mentioned on her Instagram site that she will never eat Indian Fry Bread again, because what it has done to the health of the Havasupai, specifically, but Native Americans in general. The Pima tribe in Arizona has the highest diabetes rate in the world related to obesity–61 to 78% of 20-64 year old men are obese; women’s statistics are even worse, 81 to 87% are obese.
While I don’t know what the actual statistics are for the Havasu people, we all were shocked at how obese the people were, especially the women. From what I saw, the children started showing trends toward being overweight by the age of ten or so. By the time they are young adults, they are quite overweight. We didn’t see too many teenagers, because the high school children go to boarding schools sponsored by the federal government somewhere else. There is only an elementary school in Supai.
The Bureau of Statistics show that 5.2 million people are classified as “Native Americans” and 22% live on reservations. Reservations are remote, often on land that is not very conducive to agriculture, where the wild game has been depleted, making it impossible for the people to practice their traditional ways of being hunters and gatherers. The remote locations, coupled with the inability to access and store fresh food like fruits, vegetables and dairy products, lead to a diet based on staples that have a long shelf life, such as white flour, sugar, lard, chips and other highly processed foods. We saw both children and adults walking or riding with bags of chips in their hands. While we thoroughly enjoyed our Indian Fry Bread, a regular diet of that is devastating for living a healthy life.
A Supai tacos on Fry Bread; enough for two people!
An article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition addresses other factors that impact the health of Native Americans:
- An inactive life style
- Genetic factors: the “Thrifty Gene” hypothesis, which scientists are still exploring, that suggests that some people have a greater ability to store energy efficiently which evolved during the times of feast and famine cycles. So during lean times, the body stores energy in fat cells which are then used during the famine times. It served the Native American population well during the time as hunters and gatherers, but today with the ready access to food and the less active life style, that genetic trait has a very negative impact.
- Access to good medical and dental care is also an issue for people living on the reservation. At Supai, for example, there is a small clinic, but the literature for tourists warned us that there is not a doctor available, and in cases of emergency, the nearest hospital is a long distance from the village and the top of the trail.
- Poverty–a very high unemployment rate and the median income for Native Americans is the lowest of all ethnic groups in the US.
The song that has run through my head since the beginning of the trip has been Paul Revere and the Raiders “Indian Reservation:”
They took the whole Cherokee nation
Put us on this reservation
Took away our ways of Life
The tomahawk and the bow and knife
They took the whole Indian nation
Locked us on this reservation
Though I wear a shirt and tie
I’m still a Red Man deep inside
We really didn’t have much chance to interact with the villagers. They are a “shy and private people” as Iliff described them in her memoir “People of the Blue Water.” Mostly they just went about their business and ignored us. We did have a brief conversation with a Havasupai Ranger who was checking to make sure we had our permits for going to the Falls. I asked him if he had lived there all his life and he said “yes, there is nothing up there for me.” His children, too, came back to live in the village when they finished school on the outside.
I had read some reviews on Trip Advisor of people complaining about this or that being broken, the café running out of food, etc. They obviously didn’t think about the difficulty of running a tourist operation where everything has to be either brought in and out by helicopter or horse. For example, the ice machine broke down in the café, and we asked when it would be fixed. The young woman behind the counter told us it is hard to tell, since a repairman (or woman) has to be flown down, the parts have to be ordered, all of which is expensive and time delayed. Nothing is easy or quickly resolved. The ice machine in the general store was also broken and there was a sign dated July 16 that said: “The Ice Machine is broken and there are no plans to fix it.”
We saw quite a few houses that had some of their windows boarded up and we wondered if that was for privacy or if they were broken windows that are too expensive to fix
While we were very respectful and tried not be intrusive, and our presence in Supai helps support their only economy, to me it still felt like I was trespassing on their sacred land.
Mail being delivered by Pony Express!
Looking at Mooney Falls after safely navigating the chain and ladder descent