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HomeIndigenous NewsHavasupai pack animals still in peril, say activists

Havasupai pack animals still in peril, say activists

Dana Gentry
Nevada Current

When Californian Diane Phillips returned home from her trip to the Grand Canyon last year, her first impulse was to put up billboards notifying others of what she witnessed.

“I just thought if we let everybody see what is really going on, we could stop the abuse of these animals,” she said of the pack mules and horses used by the Havasupai Tribe to transport tourist’s belongings, provisions, and other cargo in and out of Havasupai Village in the Grand Canyon.

Instead of costly billboards, Phillips phoned and wrote to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, but heard nothing back. The Department of Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, did not respond to the Current’s requests for comment.

The abuse and neglect of the Havasupai pack animals is not new.

“They starve them, they whip them, and force them to run up an eight-mile, very steep, very rocky trail. They’re tied together so tight, they can’t even put their heads down to see where they’re putting their feet,” says Susan Ash, founder of SAVE Havasupai Horses, an organization dedicated to helping the horses and mules. “And when they get up there, even when it’s cold, they’re dripping in sweat, and they get no water. This has gone on for 50 years, and everybody is turning a blind eye.”

The tribe declined to provide information about animal welfare policies.

“The Havasupai Tribe is a sovereign nation, with its animal welfare code and enforcement policies,” Abbie Fink, a public relations person hired by the tribe, told the Current. “The tribe will not be providing a copy of the animal welfare ordinance.”

Ash, like Phillips, believes that without federal protection and isolated by tribal sovereignty, the pack animals are the collateral damage of a nation reluctant to further interfere in Indigenous culture.

Most Americans acknowledge the U.S. government has historically treated Native Americans unfairly, and disagree with its decisions regarding Native tribes, according to a new YouGov Poll.

The Havasupai people began farming and hunting in the Grand Canyon more than 1,000 years ago, according to historians, mostly unfettered by explorers until around 1880, when the U.S. forced the tribe to turn over almost all of its land, except for several hundred acres of almost inaccessible land at the bottom of the canyon.

The tribe fought to regain its territory in court for much of the next century. In the 1970s the passage of the Grand Canyon National Park Endangerment Act returned some 185,000 acres to the tribe. Since then, the Havasupai people have turned to tourism for economic survival – charging an estimated 30,000 visitors a year to camp, visit its famed waterfalls, and be transported in and out of Havasu Village.

Today, some 600 tribe members work primarily in tourism, “packing and working for tribal enterprises,” says the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona.

The Arizona Office of Tourism says in 2019 some 6 million tourists spent $536 per travel party at the Grand Canyon. Following their excursion, about 13 percent of the Grand Canyon’s tourists visited Las Vegas, more than any other destination.

In fiscal year 2023, some 21 Grand Canyon concessions operated by tribes grossed just over $200 million, and paid about $19 million to the National Park Service in fees.

‘Trail of blood’ 

The Havasupai “draw their strength from the land, which is sacred,” says a website for the Inter Tribal Council. “Visitors are asked to preserve the magnificence of the Havasupai homeland and respect their natural resources which contribute to their spiritual direction.”

But the horses and mules who carry as much as 200 pounds up and down the steep trail often get little in the way of food or water, much less respect.

Phillips says she was horrified by the “trail of blood,” the crimson stream left in the sand by horse hooves that are no match for the rocky trail in and out of the canyon. “In the village there was a corral with horses – skin and bones – just standing there. No food. No water.”

Packers equate the horses to work trucks, according to animal experts who help care for them. With 300 transports a day, there’s little time for rest. 

“The tribe does not enforce any animal welfare laws of their own,” says Annoula Wylderich of Animal Protection Affiliates. “They have an animal control agency, but officers have come and gone through the revolving doors. It is alleged that those who try to enforce laws are intimidated by the pack animal owners.”

Jurisdictional issues complicate efforts by federal authorities to police the treatment of pack animals.

The Major Crimes Act, enacted in 1885 during the administration of Pres. Grover Cleveland, provides federal criminal jurisdiction over certain crimes if the defendant is Native American. The federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over murder, assault resulting in serious bodily injury, and most sexual offenses on tribal land.

Ash and other activists want the law amended to include animal abuse, which they say would make enforcement of abuse and neglect laws easier. But given congressional paralysis, they have little hope.

A staffer of Rep. Eli Crane, a Republican from Arizona whose district includes the reservation, told the Current she personally witnessed the abuse of pack animals on the trail. “It was a bit concerning,” said Julie Schreiner. Schreiner, a staffer in Crane’s local office, told the Current she forwarded the concerns of Ash and other activists to legislative staff in Washington, D.C.

Congressional representatives appear to be less than eager to get involved. Members of Nevada’s delegation either declined to discuss the issue or failed to respond to requests for comment.

In 2016, the federal government successfully prosecuted one case of animal cruelty on the Havasupai reservation against wrangler and tribal member Leland Joe.

The government charged Joe with four felony counts of animal cruelty and knowingly failing to provide care after an FBI Special Agent visited Joe’s property and found no food or vegetation for five horses. One horse appeared “extremely thin, malnourished and had open sores and wounds,” according to news reports.

Joe was sentenced to probation and prohibited from owning horses.

“It made the tribes so angry that by the end of that same year, they formed their own tribal court,” says Ash. “Now, if the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) brings charges, they have to go to tribal court.”

In 2017, a Havasupai packer charged with animal abuse in both federal and tribal court was offered a plea deal by the tribal court, which eliminated the federal government’s jurisdiction.

The defendant received six months probation and the ability to reclaim his horses.

“We are working diligently to identify those few tribal members who engage in this type of behavior and allow our tribal court system to prosecute such individuals,” former Tribal Chairman Don Watahomigie told the Associated Press in 2018.

Three subsequent cases have ended in convictions, but Ash says the consequences are minimal. Ash and other activists want Congress to put pressure on Haaland.

“If the BIA and some members of Congress would say to the tribal council ‘Enough is enough. You’re going to come to the table,’ that could achieve results a lot faster than changing the law,” she says, adding the animals don’t have time to wait. “Their lives are just so horrific.”

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