arizona’s broken arrow
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Arizona’s Broken Arrow
November, 2008, Page 134
Havasupai Dennie and Claudina Wescogame were shocked to learn what had happened to their blood samples. Dennie had helped collect blood because he thought he was helping his people.
But even given the mountain of evidence and admissions of guilt, this case hasn’t been settled; it’s being fought in court. For the past five years, ASU, the Arizona Board of Regents and the Attorney General’s Office have been embroiled in lawsuits with the Havasupai Tribe and individual members over what happened with the blood project.
The case already has been through five courts – both state and federal – although the merits of the actual case have never been argued. The only issue before these courts has been the assertion by the state agencies that the Havasupai Tribe shouldn’t be allowed to sue because it didn’t follow Arizona’s notice-of-claim law.
This law is intended to prevent lawsuits by promoting mediation and negotiation; the “notice” tells the state what it would take to settle the case. The law requires notice within 180 days of learning of the injury and says a dollar amount must be specified. The state contends the tribe filed its claim “years too late” and originally cited no amount.
Tribal lawyers strongly contest those claims and have taken their arguments all the way to the Arizona Court of Appeals, where the case currently sits.
“They don’t dare face us on the merits of the case,” says attorney Lyttle, “so they’re trying to beat us on technicalities.”
David Abney of the Arizona Trial Lawyers Association, which has joined the case as a “friend” of the tribe, agrees. He recently told the Appeals Court, “There’s no doubt that anyone hearing the facts in this case would have anything but utter contempt for what the government did.”
That’s not the point, argues the state Attorney General’s Office. It told the court: “It may indeed be sad when claimants lose the chance to have their case heard on the merits because their attorneys failed to file a proper notice of claim. But any sympathy is misplaced….” It says the law is the law, and that’s the end of it.
The Havasupai Tribe may never get its day in court. ASU and individual professors may walk away unscathed. Or someday, a jury may hear all the evidence in this case. But for the Havasupai, whatever happens in the future won’t change what happened in the past. As longtime Tribal Council member Agnes Chamberlain says, “This chapter of the tribe’s history is written in blood, and it will never go away.”
IT ALL STARTED
at a picnic in Supai, the Indian village of 670 people that sits on one of the most beautiful spots on earth. The housing and public buildings aren’t much to brag about, but the setting is: The stark red walls of the Grand Canyon form the backdrop of the Havasupai Tribe’s capital.
Many tribal members have lived in this village their entire lives and can trace their ancestry back generations – to the first moment in time, actually, when their story of creation tells them they emerged from the earth of the Grand Canyon as the Havasupai people.
So they see it as particularly disturbing to attack their religious beliefs by suggesting they are a migrating people who came to this continent over the Bering Strait centuries ago. It also raises a new fear: “They can tell us, ‘You don’t belong here, you’re not a native here,’” says Tribal Chairman Watahomigie.
Long before there ever was a Grand Canyon National Park, these people lived here among its beauty, spending the fall and winter on the plateau, hunting and gathering, then moving into the canyon for the spring and summer to plant their gardens.
“When the reservation was created in 1882, the federal government confined us to the 518 acres at the bottom of the canyon, and we lost almost 90 percent of our aboriginal lands,” the tribe’s Web site states. The economic loss was devastating. Their hunting grounds were gone and many were forced to leave the canyon to become wage laborers – going “up top” they called it. In 1975, Congress reallocated 185,000 acres of the original hunting grounds back to the tribe. Today, tourism is its No. 1 industry.
This is a society where the possession of alcohol, drugs and firearms is illegal. They even discourage machetes on their campgrounds. The people receive no government stipends, “and we pay income taxes just like all Americans,” the site notes.
The village today has a 24-room lodge, a small café, a post office, a school, a church, a clinic, a police station and a general store. Visitors can get there by hiking in, riding a horse or taking the helicopter that runs a few hours four days a week. And that goes for all supplies, too, including groceries and all fresh fruits and vegetables.
It was here that a young anthropology student named John Martin decided to stake his professional career more than 30 years ago. He lived in Supai in the 1960s, studied the tribe, got to know all the elders, mapped their complete lineage and earned his doctorate with a thesis on the tribe for the University of Chicago. “He was our friend,” many still say. “We trusted him.”
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