Havasupai Medicine Woman Heals More Than Tribe

February 01, 2013

Havasu Canyon

Photo by Laurel Morales
Dianna Baby Sue White Dove Uqualla says she has had a hard time finding an apprentice to learn the tribe's traditions.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Despite the ups and downs of a precarious publishing business, Arizona Highways remains an iconic institution. The magazine's staff ventured down into the Grand Canyon to profile a Havasupai medicine woman for the March issue. And Fronteras tagged along.

There are three ways to get to Supai Village -- by foot, by helicopter or by mule. We chose to walk the trail on a cold but sunny November morning.

A dozen mules made their way out of the canyon as we hoofed it down the switchbacks. We felt a bit like mules ourselves with our 30-pound backpacks. Visitors learn quickly to listen for the herd’s thundering hooves and get out of its way pronto. Nothing stops a mule train.

It’s a 10-mile hike to the majestic waterfalls for which Havasu Canyon is known. Before you reach the falls visitors must walk through Supai Village, where about 400 tribal members live. Just beyond the helicopter landing Diana Baby Sue White Dove Uqualla waited for us at her home.

"This whole canyon is sacred so I honor each and every one of you for walking and touching my ancestors," Uqualla said.

The medicine woman stood out like a rare desert flower. She was the only one we saw in a traditional satin dress. Most were in T-shirts and jeans like the tourists they rely on. Uqualla wore turquoise and beaded jewelry and an eagle feather in her hair. She painted dark red lines from her eyes to her chin. She said they represent the tears she cries for all human suffering.

As the ceremony began she asked Arizona Highways Managing Editor Kelly Kramer to face the sun.

Kramer had asked for a blessing. Baby Sue, as she’s known, burned sage to cleanse anything heavy on Kramer’s heart. The medicine woman waved eagle and condor feathers across her body.

"I asked Spirit to give you the strength in both your mind and heart, that you can be able to see things that aren’t just level but in the way of looking from the sky onto the earth to understand the values and the hope we bring as the human people," Uqualla said.

Photographer Dawn Kish stood on a bench, then squatted, then laid down on the dirt to work the best angle. The afternoon light made Baby Sue’s face glow gold and picked up the tears her eyelashes captured. The ceremony was so powerful that all of us were crying.

Baby Sue said she discovered she had this healing gift when she left the canyon for high school. She had visions that came true. It wasn’t until a friend of the family told her that her grandfather was a medicine man that she embraced the calling.

Baby Sue ended the ceremony with an astonishing cry to the heavens, which she called “the spirit of the warrior.”

It’s this type of stunning scene that Arizona Highways Editor-In-Chief Robert Stieve tries to capture for his readers. We spoke recently at his Phoenix office.

His staff had just sent an issue off to the printer, so they were letting off steam playing ping pong.

"When there are two story ideas we’re fighting over, winner gets his or her story published," Stieve joked.

The state Department of Transportation started Arizona Highways 88 years ago. Stieve said at that point, it was just a trade journal about road construction. In the 1930s Editor Raymond Carlson came on board to promote Arizona tourism.

"For a long time the magazine was what I describe as cowboys and cactuses, and that resonated," Stieve said. "We have subscribers in 120 countries around the world and all 50 states."

Stieve called these out-of-state subscribers “armchair travelers.” They loved learning about the Old West and they appreciated the National Geographic-quality photos.

Photo by Laurel Morales
Havasupai means "people of the blue-green waters." This is Navajo Falls, one of several stunning waterfalls for which Havasu Canyon is known.

"(But) the magazine wasn’t really addressing the needs of people who live in Arizona," Stieve said. "So when I came on board we made a philosophical shift to put the people who live here first."

Since the shift, Stieve said newsstand sales have jumped 30 percent. A revenue hike they needed, since the state has made a habit of sweeping the magazine’s reserves.

"When times are tough the state looks under every rock they can and looks for money that can help balance the budget," Stieve said. "I think in the last 10 years it’s been approximately 12 million dollars swept out of our funds. And that’s a tough hit for us."

But Stieve still invests in stories that he said are critical to the magazine’s mission. That’s why he sent a small team to visit Baby Sue deep in Havasu Canyon.

Havasupai means “people of the blue-green waters.” For 800 years the tribe spent summers in the canyon tending to crops and orchards. Then Baby Sue says in the winter months her ancestors would hike out to hunt and care for livestock on the rim.

"My people were the ones protecting that area for many many years until we were asked to move," Uqualla said.

In 1880, the tribe’s fight with the federal government began when the Havasupai were confined to the 500 acres at the bottom of the canyon. Then, nearly a century later, in 1971, Tribal Chairman Lee Marshall declared to Congress: “I am the Grand Canyon.” His testimony led to the reinstatement of tribal land on the rim.

"We are the Grand Canyon," Uqualla said. "We watch her. And we are blessed by her. We take care of her."

Uqualla hoped the article in Arizona Highways would show the Havasupai youth that people outside the tribe admire their home and traditions, and that it’s OK to embrace who they are.

"I’m crossing that bridge from my ancestors to teach the children of today, instead of just saying 'you need to wear your headdress' and 'you need to wear your feathers,'" Uqualla said.

That evening our group set up camp on the edge of Havasu Creek. And Kramer finally had a moment to reflect on Uqualla’s blessing.

Hear More

Listen to a longer interview with Dianna Baby Sue White Dove Uqualla.

"I felt calmer than I’ve felt in a very long time," Kramer said. "I couldn’t understand what she was saying, she translated it for me, I didn’t know what she was saying but it still resonated. It was probably one of the most powerful experiences of my life."

The next day before we strap our backpacks onto our sore bodies, we each throw a stone into the creek. Uqualla asks that we leave a blessing of our own so that our children and our grandchildren will be able to experience Havasu Canyon as well.