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New friendship fostered by disaster

HIGHLAND, Calif. – The Havasupai people of the Grand Canyon say a “long time ago” they used to walk west and cut through the mountain ranges across Southern California to trade beads, buckskins and acquire opalescent seashells from California tribes.

Today, they make the journey to gather with their new friends, the Serrano people living on the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The two tribes’ economic bases vastly differ. The Havasupai (also known as Supai) people depend on tourism, while the Serranos ride high on casino revenue. But it was that very difference that recently brought these two tribes to friendship.

A donation of $1 million from the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians in October has essentially saved the Supai from economic collapse after a flood destroyed their acclaimed campgrounds and hiking trails in the midst of the peak tourist season last summer.

They gathered March 21 to remember the flood, but mainly to look forward and celebrate friendship during a visit the tribes intend to preserve as a new tradition.

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About a dozen members of the Havasupai Tribe traveled to the sunny crests of the San Manuel Reservation to join other tribes and invited guests at the Serrano annual spring celebration Yaamava’ (spring in the Serrano Language). The day was filled with food, bird singing and dance. San Manuel Chairman James Ramos watched the Supai perform Bighorn Sheep songs and danced with guests.

“We are thankful and very happy because by that, I know now we will never die or be wiped out from this Earth,” said Alvin “Red Dust” Putesoy, a Supai donning Bighorn Sheep dance regalia.

The donation came after San Manuel staff visited the Supai Reservation and assessed the damage. The damage was of such severity that the Arizona governor proclaimed recovery was beyond the capabilities of the tribe in a letter to then-President George W. Bush for aid. The San Manuel donation has put many of the tribe’s 650 members back to work readying and repairing campsites, trails and compost toilets. The donation will also pay for an early warning system to evacuate and take precautionary measures against future floods.

The Havasupai Reservation is located at the base of the Grand Canyon where a system of picturesque waterfalls and trails keeps visitors coming. The Supai intend to invite their California friends.

“We would like to invite them down here (and) take them around sightseeing,” Havasupai Chairman Matthew Putesoy said.