The Huala-who? The Hualapai, meaning people of the tall pines, are native people of the Southwest of the USA. Once a proud people, nowadays there are only few of them left. Their ‘capital’ is in Peach Springs, a small settlement on the famous route 66. The Hualapai tribe only counts 2100 people nowadays. They live in a vast reservation of about one million acres, on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon that was created in 1883. After decades of economic and social hardship, the Hualapai decided to enter the tourist trade in 1988.
Since the opening of Grand Canyon West (this is how the Hualapai call the ‘park’ they operate), tourism has boomed. It’s a long, very long drive that includes miles of driving on gravelly and dusty, dirt roads lined by Joshua Trees.
Tens of thousands of visitors brave the desert heat annually (though mostly by comfortable coach from Las Vegas.) For those who don`t feel like driving the more than three hours from Las Vegas, there’s an airstrip for small planes right next to the entrance. They can hop right into the waiting helicopters for an aerial tour of the Canyon.
The main reason for coming to here, in the middle of nowhere, is the spectacular ‘Skywalk’, a U-shaped glass bridge that balances precariously on a 1300m Canyon cliff. Visitors have an amazing view through the glass bottom of the Colorado River below them on the bottom of the Grand Canyon. While tourists who just spent a whopping 70 Dollars entrance fee are awed by the incredible dephts of the Grand Canyon, Charlie Hyaha, a 53-year old Hualapai guard, observes them from a rock overlooking the skywalk. `It`s good that we receive so many visitors, although their numbers have decreased because of the economic crisis’, he says. ‘Tourists bring money in and create employment.’
Many Hualapai left their native land in search of a better life elsewhere, just as Hyaha did twenty years ago. ‘I worked in a casino in Arizona’, he recounts. ‘But I prefer to be back here on my own land.’ Many Native Americans fell victim to alcoholism or got addicted to gambling, but not Hyaha: ‘I don’t like drinking. And I need to concentrate on the visitors.’
And not without reason; some of the tourists seem to have a death wish: close to the place where Hyaha sits, visitors walk all the way up to the edge of the Canyon. There is no protective fence separating the tourists from the 1300 metre drop. ‘Recently a sudden strong gust of wind almost pulled a visitor off the edge’.
‘For us, the canyon is sacred’, says Hyaha. ‘The Colorado River at the bottom is our lifeline. In the past, we used to go down all the time to go hunting and fishing.’ He hopes that his tribe will be able to survive. `We are very few. But at least at Peach Springs, our children are learning our language in primary school again. This is very important in order to preserve our culture.’
By: Jeroen Kuiper, photos: Ronald de Hommel