People of the Tall Pine and Blue Water

Havasu Creek. Photo by Robertbody on Wikimedia Commons

Written from the perspective of a schoolteacher in the early 20th century named Flora Gregg Iliff, People of the Blue Water gives a detailed look into both the Walapai and Havasupai people, living on reservations at the western end of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. Flora Gregg remembers what it was like for her to leave her home to become a schoolteacher for them. She also recalls many of her experiences and doesn’t shy away from talking about the struggles and difficulties that came with being a schoolteacher in the middle of a desert. While some of Flora Gregg’s values might seem jarring to a modern reader, Flora Gregg is still respectful in her interactions with the Walapai and Havasupai, to the point that she finds herself learning from them at times.

When Flora Gregg arrived in Pai territory in 1900, the tribe was in the middle of changing from their traditional cultural lifeways to adapting to the ways of the “white people.” Even so, there are many instances throughout her time spent with both the Walapai and the Havasupai that they very much continued to keep their culture alive. For example, it is noted in Native Peoples of the Southwest that “both the River and Upland Yumans have a long tradition as great orators” (Griffin-Pierce 282). This proved to be the case for the Walapai, from whom Flora Gregg learned many of their stories while she was living among them. Many of the older adults among the Walapai continued to tell many of the stories that were passed on to them by their ancestors. For example, a man named Sam told Flora Gregg about the first Indian man named Kathatkanave, who is somewhat like Adam from the Old Testament in the Bible. As Flora Gregg got to hear more stories, she noticed that sometimes the same legend would have different interpretations.

The Walapai also kept their culture alive through their mourning ceremony, the Nemitiawak (or “Meet to Cry”). Flora Gregg learned about how the Walapai view death after learning about the death of a little boy that had gone to her school. As she explains:

When the soul leaves the body, it lingers only a few feet above the earth, hesitating between its longing to remain with the people and the places it loves and the necessity of embarking on that long journey to the beautiful, ethereal land far to the northwest, a land of joy and abundance, its people forever young. To speak the name of the dead child would have the effect of calling him back, and since he had started, there must be no return (Iliff 77).

The little boy was buried with all of his possessions, which are burned so that his soul is not tied to the earth. The Nemitiawak itself involves three days of feasting with plenty of food to go around and is celebrated not just by the Walapai, but other tribes that they get along with. Plenty of dancing is involved, along with public tributes to their loved ones who have passed away.

Another tribe that Flora Gregg would get assigned to teach and live among, the Havasupai, also kept several of their traditions alive despite pressure for them to change. One lifeway that the Havasupai continued to maintain was their self-sufficiency with food. As Flora Gregg observed:

The Havasupai had devised their own garden tools … The Indians themselves restricted production by refusing to till inherited land until it had lain fallow for a year or more … Tending their crops and preserving their food was the main object in life for the people of this village. Always the crop was divided into portions: some for eating, some held for an emergency, but the best kept for seed (112).

As Trudy Griffin-Pierce pointed out in Native Peoples of the Southwest, autumn was a very important time for the Havasupai, for it was the time when they left their canyon homes and went to live in the plateau. So important was this seasonal change that the Havasupai considered it the beginning of their year. In the fall, the Havasupai “gathered the piñon crop … the nuts of the yellow pine, wild walnuts, and juniper berries. In the spring, women collected greens, such as amaranth, thistles, desert plume, wild rhubarb, watercress, and desert trumpet” (Griffin-Pierce 270). Families lived off these wild plant foods and whatever crops they had preserved for the winter. When the summertime came, the Havasupai would go to their summer homes, repair them, and prepare their fields for planting. The Havasupai preferred “dry, light foods that could be stored in a small space and transported long distances because they had to pack most of it out to the plateau” (Griffin-Pierce 271). By the time that Flora Gregg came to live among the Havasupai, they had continued to be able to manage their own food, unlike the Walapai, whom she notes had become dependent on government rations.

Even though the Havasupai seasonally changed homes, their main home lied in the canyons. The canyons are heavily tied to their origins, with the Havasupai considering Red Buttes to be one of their most sacred places. As it is explained in Native Peoples of the Southwest:

Very long ago, at the time when the great flood covered the earth, the people put a small girl in a cottonwood log and blocked the ends with a pitch to save her … and instructed her to look for San Francisco Peaks so that she could find her way. After the water drowned all the people, the girl emerged from the log at Red Buttes, the place “where our heart is,” the place where the Havasupai were born as a people (Griffin-Pierce 269).

Another sacred place for the Havasupai is Wii’gleva, where there are two pillars of stone that look down over the canyon and are seen as caretakers of the Havasupai. These pillars of stone are said to have arisen when after living for many generations in Havsuwa (or Havasu Creek), a large group of people decided to leave after their population grew too big to be sustained by the resources of the canyon. As Griffin-Pierce explains, “when a large group, led by Huug Mata (a Pueblo mudhead), left, one couple did not want to leave and looked back as they climbed. Turning to stone, they became Wii’gleva” (269). Even Flora Gregg noted how important the canyons were to them, even forming a part of their religious beliefs. As Flora Gregg explains, “The Indians’ well-being depended on these god-spirits, so they had refused to leave the canyon” (110). Even the government couldn’t convince them to leave and had to build the school near where they lived.

One of the most important events for the Havasupai was the Peach Dance, their annual harvest festival, which took place in the summer around late August or early September. As Flora Gregg explains:

The Peach Dance was one of those age-old ceremonies revealing the true culture of the Havasupai. For centuries men and women of friendly tribes had flocked to the canyon to take part in the festivities and to trade Navaho blankets, ponies, saddles and silver ornaments for garden-grown vegetables, fruits and buckskin (175).

This festival was not exclusive to the Havasupai as they would also invite “Hopis, Hualapais, and Navajos to visit, feast, and barter during the two to three days of the event” (Griffin-Pierce 273). This social and religious event has survived to the present, where it is celebrated before children go back to school to be reminded of the old ways.

Much of what Flora Gregg observed in People of the Blue Water also offered insight that did not reflect the typical tribal experience of the Walapai and Havasupai. For example, during Flora Gregg’s time among the Walapai, she learned that the Walapai held differing beliefs regarding names. One of the teachers at the school, Mr. Graham, taught her how to pronounce the children’s names correctly, explaining that “if you mispronounce it, the children will think it a joke and call the boy by the mispronounced name” (pg. 25). Flora Gregg elaborated even more, explaining that:

A name was not kept for a lifetime by a Walapai, so the tribe bestowed it with astonishing recklessness. Quite often a child would be named at until his personal appearance or some incident suggested one, frequently given in ridicule. And the name was his until another incident would cause it to be changed … An Indian never became too old to have his name changed, if his friends found another that tickled their fancy (25).

Flora Gregg would also learn that the Walapai had differing social values, such as ridiculing the deformed and disabled. On the other hand, they were kind and gentle to children and treated their elders with respect, that is, if they remained healthy.

As a schoolteacher, Flora Gregg also learned firsthand how the Walapai and Havasupai adjusted to life on the reservation. Regarding the Havasupai, Flora Gregg remarked:

Even before the beginning of this century, the tribe’s habits and customs were slowly yielding to the pressure of civilization. The clothes they wore, the food they ate, the language they spoke, their very thoughts were undergoing change. Instead of sitting at their grandfather’s knee learning the tribe’s history and the traditions that had molded the character of the people, their children were now bent over books in the classroom. At the Sunday services they were learning about a new and strange god (196).

While people from both tribes had their gripes and difficulties with adjusting to a new way of life, they resigned themselves to these changes because they knew that it was the only way for them to survive. Even so, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some resistance, as Flora Gregg would come to learn about. For example, one schoolteacher recounted to her how an orphaned Walapai girl had been sent to the Indian school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. When she returned to her people a few years later, she stirred up feelings of anger and ridicule for being cleaner and more elegant. With so much resistance against her, the girl “cut her hair Indian fashion, put on moccasins and the sutam, and married a tribesman … but, in the back of her mind she cherished the memory of those years at the school” (Iliff 38). When this very same schoolteacher came as a missionary to the girl’s homeland to open a school, she was the first to enroll her children. From this story, Flora Gregg understood that it was really the older generations that were more likely to resist giving up their traditional lifeways, while the younger generations were, for the most part, more willing to change.

While the early 1900s might share some similarities with the modern lifestyle of the 21st century, there are still major differences in the lifestyle described in People of the Blue Water that would have benefited from modern advances that are common in today’s society. For example, one thing that sticks out about the reservation where the Walapai and the Havasupai live is how isolated it was. Flora Gregg herself and other outsiders had to get there by train, and their only means of communication with the outside world was either through mail or the occasional travelers that passed through. Flora Gregg and both tribes would have benefited greatly from having phones to not be as isolated from the outside world and would have been useful during some of the emergencies that Flora Gregg described in the book. The same could be said about planes and automobiles as providing means of transportation, rather than relying solely on trains and horses (or mules).

The Walapai and the Havasupai might have also benefited greatly from basic access to healthcare, as shown when one of Flora Gregg’s students, named Jasper, fell ill and there was no doctor around to treat him. At the school were Flora Gregg taught, there was plenty of medicine, but she was not qualified to use them and couldn’t just hire a doctor because she lacked the authority to do so, along with not having money to pay for services. Even if there was someone who did know how to use the medicine, Flora Gregg knew that the Indians would be unwilling to use it, since “their suspicion of the white man’s drugs was greater than their doubt of their own medicine man’s skill” (Iliff 150). In the case of Jasper, his father Manakadja only asked Flora Gregg for medicine after they were unable to get the help of any of the shamans. Even then, it was never used and instead, Jasper got well because of a healing ceremony called toholwa (or sweat bath). After the healing ceremony, “Jasper was back in [Flora Gregg’s] classroom, a golden, red-cheeked boy, brimming with health” (Iliff 153). While Jasper was fortunate to have survived, it’s doubtful that a school today would get away with not having at least a nurse on-hand to provide medical aid. It truly puts into perspective how far the United States has come in being able to give people access to the most basic kinds of healthcare.

People of the Blue Water was a highly educational reading experience that gives excellent insight into what it was like for an outsider to step into Native American territory and live among them. This book becomes more remarkable after learning that Flora Gregg wrote it based on letters that she had written to her mother and from memories shared by people who were there with her. It was refreshing to learn that there were teachers like Flora Gregg that genuinely cared about the Walapai and Havasupai and tried to connect with them to understand their culture. Flora Gregg and others still display the mentality that Native Americans are “primitives” and need to be educated to become more “civilized,” but Flora Gregg should not be judged from a modern perspective and should instead be commended for doing her best under the circumstances she was thrown in.

Works Cited

Iliff, Flora Gregg. People of the Blue Water: A Record of Life among the Walapai and Havasupai Indians. University of Arizona Press, 1990, 1954.

Griffin-Pierce, Trudy. Native Peoples of the Southwest. University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

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I am an alumni of CSN and UNLV with a Bachelor’s degree in English.

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Jesse Perez

Jesse Perez

I am an alumni of CSN and UNLV with a Bachelor’s degree in English.

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