“We used to climb a little hill at the end of the day, all the work done, and look out over the land and just feel good to be alive.”
Lemuel Paya, quoted in Life in a Narrow Place.
The swirling cloud of fine, red, volcanic desert dust rose into the sky like an immense crimson tornado, obscuring the dangerous edge of the Grand Canyon mesa, which drops off two-thousand feet to the Colorado River below. The helicopter rotors slowed and finally stopped. The dust cloud dissipated, as my father exited with the Havasupai pilot.
September 1972. My father, Lyle Karelius, has arrived as a field engineer for Thomas Concrete Pumps, a Division of Royal Industries. Two weeks ago, he was in the high mountains of Bolivia, consulting on a silver mine. He will spend the next ten days working on a water project at the bottom of Havasu Canyon, in one of the most isolated Indian reservation in America.
Water is life for these First People who have lived in this area for almost a millennium. The Havasupai were not originally canyon dwellers. Their ancestral lands were on the plateau of the south rim of the Grand Canyon, extending as far as Flagstaff and Williams, Arizona. It is an old story: silver miners and railroad barons displaced the tribe and the US Government established a tiny reservation. As the Grand Canyon National Park developed, the National Park Service took more of the native plateau lands, hemming the tribe into the narrow canyon.
The tribe financially depends on the 20,000 visitors each year who hike a ten-mile trail to the famous blue-green waters of Havasupai Falls. The tourist destination has become so popular it is almost impossible to secure a reservation without going through a tour company.
“The canyon that summer visitors view as a landlocked Polynesia, the Havasupai viewed in winter as a prison. The lack of winter sunlight stops all agriculture from November to March, and the canyon turns from a lush oasis to a barren place of confinement.”
Life in a Narrow Place, p. 8
My father tells me that he peered over the edge of the Grand Canyon at Hualapai hilltop, looking for the village of Supai. The Indian pilot guided my father’s vision to a faint cluster of green. This is where they will go in the helicopter to inspect the construction site for concrete pipes and cistern.
For six hundred years the Havasupai had constructed ha ya gewa ditches which ran on both sides of the creek. They need the water to grow their crops of corn, squash and beans and irrigate clusters of fruit trees. This plan had worked for centuries, but by the early 1970s the dominant Anglo powers in the plateau above had created complicated rules about water storage that made water less available to the tribe. Then drought years hit. My father’s work on the new water project would help conserve water. The concrete encased pipes and cistern would be less vulnerable to the powerful flash floods that violently thunder through the narrow canyon.
For the next two weeks, lines of concrete bearing trucks drove down Route 66, then on to the dusty desert Bureau of Indian Affairs Roads 18 to Hualapai hilltop. Two helicopters carried buckets of mixed concrete suspended on long cables in rotation, back and forth from the Grand Canyon plateau to the Supai village three-thousand feed below. I remember a photo of my father from this time, his bald head and face streaked with wet grey concrete. He was smiling. He was alive living in his element. The Indians workers bantered in their native Havasupai-Hualapai. Bottles of Coca-Cola glistened in ice packed metal tubs next to a cluster of cold watermelon: enticing gifts from the helicopters.
My father remembers the day of completion. A Havasupai Shaman blessed the new pipe system with burning sage bundles and tobacco. A signal fire was lit in the village and workers on the plateau above opened the control valve. The water flowed with a creaking, thunderous roar through cast iron pipes from above to the cistern and pipes below.
My father shared this memory with me in 2013, when he was 95. Although his short-term memory is a challenge of him, his recall of these events forty years ago was vivid and highly detailed. As he described his experience, his eyes were wide open and hands gesturing energetically. His face filled with delight.
The battle for water rights continues. In 2017, an intense court battle negated a Havasupai lawsuit over commercial pumping of groundwater reserves.
Over thirty books have been written on this isolated tribe of Native Americans. I was surprised to find another personal connection to them when I discovered that my Episcopal Church has had a mission to this tribe since 1923. As you read this, you may think that this was from the same old Anglo script: conversion to Christianity meant suppression of the old religious traditions and culture. This was not the case. The Episcopal mission built relationships of friendship and trust. Some of this involved bringing assistance for education and nutrition. Because the Episcopal Church has been deeply involved in social justice and advocacy for civil rights, this body was a key advocate for the tribe in the early 1970s for the return of 93,000 acres from the US Government. The return of that land happened in 1975.
I found an old copy of Life Magazine, July 15, 1946. Bishop Arthur B. Kinsolving, Episcopal Bishop of Arizona, rides horseback down a dangerous, rocky trail into Cataract Canyon of the Havasupai. It was the bishop’s annual visitation for baptism and confirmation. His old friend Chief Big Jim would be confirmed at the age of 100. The old Havasupai religious traditions coexisted alongside of the Episcopal spirituality. Chief Big Jim saw in an image of Jesus a similarity to the Indian God Bagaviova.
In the shadows of the landmark El Tovar Hotel, at the very edge of the Grand Canyon, clusters of pinon pine form verdant greenbelts around the parking lots. Jan, I, and our son Erik walk within the cool shade of the trees toward our GMC Sierra truck. After a couple of hours hiking along the rim and caught breathless by vast beauty, we are fatigued. As we settle into our seats in the truck, I pause to see a large, fleshy woman, wearing an oversized Northern Arizona University sweatshirt. She is bent over, walking beneath the trees in front of us. Has she lost something? She is carefully searching. Then I know what it is. The month is October. Here are pinon trees. She is a Native American looking for pinon seeds that have fallen from the tree.
I get out of the car and walk carefully toward her. Jan joins me. “Are you looking for pinon seeds?”, I ask. The woman stands up straight, looks at me and with a smile of shared knowledge, she says, “Yes.” She holds up a half-filled Ziploc plastic sandwich bag filled with pinon. We come closer. “How do you know where the seeds are?” Jan asks. “It takes a while for your eyes to adjust. See, here is one.” Jan gets on her knees beside the woman and they quietly go about the search for pinon. Jan is getting pretty good at this, as she has a handful in fifteen minutes and gives the seeds to our new friend. I join the women are my knees. Searching for pinon was like looking for dark pearls among dense pine needles.
I asked the woman if she lived near here. She said yes. “My people are the Havasupai. We live in the Cataract Canyon in the Grand Canyon. But it is too cold down there for me in the winter, so my family lives up here.”
I remembered my father telling me a story about working for the Havasupai many years ago. He worked on the concrete project that built a new reservoir and irrigation system. All the concrete was brought down into Cataract Canyon from the rim high above in helicopters carrying big metal buckets. The woman said she was a little girl at that time and she remembered this. It was the first time she had seen a helicopter. They were like noisy, mechanical birds.
I was remembering the chapter on pinon pine that I wrote in The Spirit of the Desert: how the pinon was a primary food source for the Owens Valley Paiute.
“The little tree produced the fuel, building materials, food, and medicines that enabled prehistoric Indians to establish their cultures on the Colorado Plateau—and to survive into the present as Hopi, Zuni, Pueblo and Navajo. It was the pinon that made the Great Basin the coarse-grained Eden of the pine-nut eaters who picked their winter sustenance from the treetops.” Ronald Lanner, The Pinon Pine.
I asked our friend, “Do you still pull down the green pine cones and roast them and shake out the nuts into a blanket?” She said that was what she had done all her life, but her children and grandchildren have drifted away from these traditions. So here she is, seeking pinon nuts in the median strip surrounded by hundreds of tourist cars. Mother Earth continues to feed her. As we helped to quickly fill her plastic bag of seeds, she would break the shell of a seed in her teeth, and eat. “They taste better when they are roasted.” But the look on her face was one of holy pleasure. For this woman, these seeds are manna, holy sustenance and communion with her ancestors.
As we drove back to our RV trailer in Williams, Arizona, I thought about this woman gathering pinon. Manna. Bread of heaven. My mind drifted to the vast, frightening wilderness of Sinai 3200 years ago. The Hebrew people had been freed from slavery but wandered for years in a wilderness. They were totally dependent on God’s care to find water and food. One of the desert foods that miraculous appeared was manna.
The Book of Exodus describes manna as having the color of white coriander seeds. It would appear as dew in the morning and had to be collected before it melted in the sun. The Book of Numbers tells us how manna was baked into cakes. It tasted like wafers made with honey. The manna could not be collected and saved, as it spoiled quickly. Therefore, each day the Hebrews were dependent on the grace of God to get through another day of life. I read somewhere that manna could have been a secretion from tamarisk trees, sweet and aromatic.
The Holy Quran mentions manna three times. In the Hadith, the collection of commentary and sayings of Mohammad, it is said, “Truffles are part of the ‘manna’ which Allah sent to the people of Israel through Moses, and its juice is a medicine for the eyes.”
Because we humans are forgetful of blessings, the Torah of God commands the Hebrew people to remember what happened in the Sinai wilderness by a commemorative meal called the Seder. This Passover Meal was to be celebrated every year to recall the story of the Passover of the angel of death over the Hebrew homes in Egypt and their liberation from slavery. The Haggadah is used today in Jewish homes as a ritual retelling of the sacred story. Most of the time, the Hebrew verbs are in past tense, remembering. At one point, the verbs become present tense, as those who participate today in the Passover Seder are transported in time and space to share in the exact event of the Exodus.
On Holy Thursday Jesus gathered his disciples together to celebrate this sacred meal. As he knew that his suffering and death were near, he took the unleavened bread and the wine into his hands and told them, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” He said that whenever they gathered in his name to share this meal, he would be present with them. After the physical resurrection of Jesus on Easter, the community of disciples was galvanized by the fulfillment of Jesus promises. He would always be with them.
Since the earliest days of the Christian community, followers of Jesus have gathered to celebrate this Eucharist and in these earliest days, as expressed in the Seder meal, they experienced in the present tense the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine.
I write this blog after attending Sunday evening mass at St. Timothy’s Roman Catholic Church in Laguna Niguel, California. I have been an Episcopal priest for 42 years and retired one year ago after thirty years as pastor at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana. I really missed that richly textured multicultural congregation and I have not been able to translate all of that to another Episcopal congregation nearby. When I am not filling in for a priest on vacation, Janice, our disabled son Erik and I attend the Sunday evening youth mass at St. Timothy’s. It is only three blocks from my home.
In the past, when I visited a parish, it was easy to evaluate how the priest celebrated the liturgy or compare the programs with what we had in Santa Ana. However, for a solid year, Janice, I, and Erik have been regular participants at St. Timothy’s. Because we are not Roman Catholics, I do not press the priest, who is a dear friend of mine, to give me communion. However, I must share this with you. At the time of communion, I am almost always overwhelmed with a powerful embrace of the Holy Spirit that squeezes me so tight I have to work really hard to hold back the tears of joy.
I realized that as a follower of Jesus, I hunger for this Eucharistic manna to stay alive. Even when I do not actually receive the sacrament, I am being nourished by this daily manna to keep me and my family alive in the desert of our lives.
In chapter six of the Gospel of John, Jesus says: “Unless you eat the bread of life, you will not have life within you.” John links this bread of heaven, the body of Christ, to the daily feeding that the Hebrew people received from God in their desert years. I am told that when this manna was eaten with food that the Hebrew people brought out of Egypt, it tasted bitter. But if they took the manna as their only food that day, it tasted sweet.
There is a tradition among Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics and some Anglicans of daily Eucharist. This spiritual discipline is allowing ourselves to receive God’s daily physical embrace. The ritual of the scripture readings, prayers and communion is a life-giving ritual, a daily gathering around the Word of God and the sacrament of bread and wine. This transforms us, I believe, so that we go out into the world as manna ourselves.
Almost every night my wife Janice, our son Erik and I come together for dinner in our home. Frequently our daughter Katie comes over to join us. We begin the meal with grace, thanksgivings for the day and petitions for those in need. We share our simple meal and talk about how the day went. These rhythms and rituals of coming together, praying, eating, sharing are part of what makes us family. Just as the Church offers us this daily manna, we need the daily manna of presence to each other.
“Eucharist as New Manna,” Ron Rolheiser, March 3, 2011.
The Pinon Pine, by Ronald Lanner.
Life Magazine, July 15, 1946, pp. 64-66.
Life in a Narrow Place, Stephen Hirst (New York: David McKay Company, 1976).
People of the Blue Water: A Record of Life Among the Walapai and Havasupai Indians, Flora Gregg Iliff, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985).
Havasupai Legends: Religion and Mythology of the Havasupai Indians of the Grand Canyon, Carma Lee Smithson and Robert C. Euler, (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994).
Havasupai Habitat: A. F. Whiting’s Ethnology of a Traditional Indian Culture, Steven A. Weber and P. David Seaman, editors (Tucson: University of Arizona Press 1985).