By Alison Wearing
For most of us, water is available at the simple turn of a tap. It’s easy to lose our connection to its source, its significance, its spiritual essence. But there are people among us with a deep connection to water and its wisdom, Indigenous elders who hear the voices of the water and who act as its voice when needed.
Deep within the Grand Canyon, at the end of an arid 8-mile hike down switchbacks and dusty paths, lies the most remote village in the lower 48 states, the only place in the country to which mail is still delivered by pack mule.
The village of Supai is the home of the Havasupai, ‘the people of the blue-green water.’ The village of approximately 700 people is part of a stunning oasis, where turquoise, crystalline springs and waterfalls gush from deep-ochre cliffs, attracting thousands of tourists each year. As beautiful as these waterfalls and swimming holes are, they are far more than that to the Havasupai. They are the lifeblood of their people, their sole source of water. These waters flow through every member of the tribe. The song of the water is the song of the people, and vice versa.
One such ‘person of the blue-green water’ is Dianna WhiteDove Uqualla, who discovered she was a healer when she was just a child. Her mother had died and her father, unsure how to raise a daughter alone, sent Dianna WhiteDove to boarding school far from her home in the canyon. Alone and isolated, she began to have visions that became reality and hear songs she neither knew nor understood. The experiences frightened and troubled her until, through a chance encounter with her mother’s best friend, Dianna WhiteDove learned that her grandfather had been one of the last medicine men of her people. From that moment on, she began to embrace her gifts.
Today, Dianna WhiteDove is a practicing ceremonialist, conducting blessings, prayers, sweats and other sacred rituals for her people, in addition to being a third generation tribal leader and member of the Havasupai Tribal Council.
Dianna WhiteDove wears an eagle feather in her hair, a colorful turquoise dress, beaded jewelry, and red ochre lines drawn down from her eyes in streaks, symbolizing the tears of her people.
At first glance, the designation of the Grand Canyon as a National Park in 1919 might seems like something to celebrate universally. But for the Havasupai people, who had already been relegated to a small reservation, it only meant further loss of their homeland. To make way for the park and its tourists, the Havasupai were forced to retreat to a thin edge of their traditional land, an area 1/3000th its original size.
Today, the territory of the Havasupai includes another 185,000 acres, restored to them in 1975, and they derive the majority of their revenue from National Park visitors and campers. But the lifeblood of the people remains their sacred blue-green water and its survival, and the survival of the Havasupai people, has been gravely threatened.
In March 2018, Dianna WhiteDove sang a prayer for a group of runners were setting off from the village on a marathon to save their water. Carrying handwritten letters from the children of Havasupai Elementary School addressed to President Trump, the messengers ran more than 20 miles of Grand Canyon trails to deliver the children’s plea: asking the president to stop a uranium mine from opening near their canyon home.
Only 45 miles east and perched atop the same aquifer that feeds the community, Energy Fuels Inc. plans to drill for uranium ore. The Havasupai have been given reassurances that the company will extract the uranium safely, but any accidental contamination would end up in Havasu Creek, the sole source of water for the entire community.
Elders like Dianna WhiteDove are standing up and becoming the voice of the water. “We are very connected to our land from thousands of years ago. The water, the land and the ability to survive was why (our elders) picked here. And we raise our babies in this water.”
The aquifers breathe in rain and snow and breathe it out. The springs are the breathing holes. Humankind is a participant in water-life. Mankind’s thoughts influence whether the rain and snow comes.
— Hopi Elder Vernon Masayesva
Water has always been sacred to the Hopi, whose traditions, dances and spiritual practices have allowed them, for millennia, to create thriving gardens in extremely arid conditions with minimal rainfall.
“The Hopi believe that every raindrop has its own song,” says Hopi elder Vernon Masayesva, another important voice for water.
Masayesva grew up on the Hopi reservation in Northern Arizona, just over 100 miles east of the Grand Canyon. The Hopi are widely considered to be the oldest civilization in the United States, with villages settled as early as 900 A.D.
Like many of the Hopi, Masayesva believes the moral obligation of his people is to be protectors and good stewards of the land.
In 1970, the Peabody Coal Company began strip-mining coal on Black Mesa, which sits on Hopi and Diné (Navajo) reservations. They company began by dynamiting the mesa to access the coal, destroying hundreds of archaeological and burial sites in the process.
From there, the coal was ground up, mixed with pristine water from the reservations’ confined aquifer, and piped out of the state.
Between 1970 and 2005, more than 45 billion gallons of pristine water was pumped out of the aquifer. It was enough water to sustain his entire tribe of 10,000 for over 700 years, Masayesva believes. “They have taken water from our children.”
In 1999, he helped to found the Black Mesa Trust “to end the abuse of water.” After years of fighting the coal company unsuccessfully, Masayesva says that eventually, the water spoke to them. It told them to bring the fight to their own territory, to talk about water as their ancestors did, to talk about how it works.
“It works like a body,” he explains. “There is the underground water, there is the sea water, there are the river waters, and there are the cloud waters, the cosmic sea. They are one big body. They all work together to make life possible.”
At that point, elders began to share their traditional wisdom—Masayesva calls it “Hopi science”—and that is when Black Mesa Trust began to win the fight against Peabody.
“That’s how we won. We went to our ancient traditions and knowledge.”
Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, perhaps, the situation is more complex than a simple win. For while the Black Mesa mine is closed, three decades of groundwater pumping has weakened and drained the aquifers, causing many of the precious and life-giving springs and washes to dry up.
As the Black Mesa Trust motto states, “Paatuaqatsi: Water is Life.”
“What happens to water happens to all of us,” Masayesva shares. “We’re all connected through water. We all come from water. And when our journey ends here on earth, the water will leave our body as breath and join the cloud ancestors. There we will rest a bit and come back as rains to water the plants, insects and animals.”
Vernon Masayesva & Dianna WhiteDove will be the honoured guests at Voices of Wisdom, a special gathering where they will share stories and wisdom from their deep relationship with their land and the waters that flow through them. To learn more about this opportunity to connect to the sacredness of water, click here.