The village of Supai, Arizona, is a place of contradiction. Located inside the Grand Canyon, the capital of the Havasupai Tribe is the most remote community in the contiguous United States. The nearest paved road is eight difficult miles away, and Supai is accessible only by helicopter, horseback or foot.
The village is the only place in the country where the U.S. Postal Service still delivers mail by mule, yet its 200 residents are far from alone. Supai’s central feature is a pair of concrete pads where, on busy days, helicopters land every 15 minutes to deliver sightseers and supplies to the isolated community—and serve as a lifeline to the outside world.
Every day during tourism season, the population of Supai doubles as hikers, backpackers and campers trek down from the canyon rim and wander through the village on their way to Havasu Falls. In recent years, the blue-green falls have become a major tourist destination, attracting as many as 300 visitors per day.
The activity serves as a constant reminder that the Havasupai homeland is now a tourist attraction, a living paradox, a place that serves the privileged but does without some basic necessities—including adequate schools for the 70 children and teens who live there. Supai is, at once, a vacation destination and the personification of broken promises.
Havasupai children, their families and the Native American Disability Law Center in January filed a landmark civil rights lawsuit alleging that the Bureau of Indian Education “knowingly failed to provide basic general education” to students at the tribe’s only school, “resulting in indefensible deficits in academic achievement and educational attainment.” The 101-page complaint, filed in federal court in Arizona on behalf of nine Havasupai students, accuses federal agencies of “longstanding educational deprivations that have for years denied Havasupai children meaningful and equitable educational opportunity.”
The tribe invited journalists to the village February 17 to meet plaintiffs in the case, who point to generations of Havasupai children deprived of basic elementary and secondary academic needs at a school where only English, reading and math are taught. The school offers no instruction in science, history, social studies, arts, physical education or foreign languages.
Staffing shortages cause the school to shut down for weeks at a time, plaintiffs said. Other times, people without teaching certificates, like janitors or secretaries, fill teacher vacancies.
Havasupai Elementary School, which serves grades kindergarten through 8, also has failed for 50 years to meet the unique cultural needs of Havasupai children or provide adequate programs for students with disabilities—which account for nearly 50 percent of the student population. In fact, the complaint alleges, students with disabilities often face excessive discipline and abuse from law enforcement officials who criminalize behavior that is directly linked to the disabilities.
“None of the kids are getting what they need,” said Frank C., grandfather of the lead plaintiff, a teen with a documented disability. “We’re always forgotten down here.”
Frank, himself a graduate of Havasupai Elementary, continued his education at a boarding school “on the outside,” he said. After completing eighth grade, students have only one option if they want to go to high school: they must leave the village.
But even students who attend public high schools or relocate to boarding schools away from the village are at risk of failure. During the 2012-13 school year, Havasupai Elementary students placed last among all BIE schools in both reading and math, and only 20 percent of them graduate from high school.
Frank’s grandson, known by the pseudonym Stephen in the complaint, is not getting the special education services he needs. His grandparents sought help from the Native American Disability Law Center because, unless something changes, Stephen likely will not complete the eighth grade or continue to high school.
“I would like him to be educated enough to get a job on the outside,” Frank said of his grandson. “I’d like for him to be able to find a job and support himself.”
All seven members of the Havasupai Tribal Council either attended the elementary school or have family members who did. During the media tour February 17, council members spoke emotionally about the lack of adequate education in the canyon—either for themselves or their Havasupai children.
“We’re looking at over 50 years of people not getting an education,” said Councilwoman Coleen Kaska, who attended Havasupai Elementary through fourth grade and then transferred to a public school in Phoenix, where she was mistreated.
“I was made fun of,” she said. “I didn’t know how to read or write.”
Councilwoman Carletta Tilousi graduated from eighth grade in the canyon but was poorly prepared for high school. “I didn’t know fractions, and I had to get special tutors to catch up,” she said. “It was humiliating. Our kids don’t know they’re not being provided the proper level of education until after they leave.”
But the real tragedy comes when the rising generation loses its culture and connections to the ancestral homeland, Tilousi said.
“I chose not to send my kids to school here,” she said. “That’s unfortunate because we want them to be part of this community.”
Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss also sent her children away from the village to go to school.
“Education is important,” she said. “We live in a canyon, but we also live in the bigger world. Our children deserve the same chance to learn and earn the same education as anyone else.”
All of this adds up to a “systemic failure” on behalf of an entire village, said Therese Yanan, executive director of the Native American Disability Law Center. “The BIE has the responsibility to make sure all kids have an education and all the services they need, and we’re talking about more than reading and math.”
The Native American Disability Law Center, along with Public Counsel and the law firms Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP and Sacks Tierney P.A. are handling the case pro bono. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico also is participating.
“The BIE is violating civil rights by failing its responsibilities to children and the community,” Yanan said. “The BIE isn’t leaving them a lot of choices, and the choices that exist, they’re all bad. Families and students really aren’t given any options.”
Named as defendants in the case are the BIE; former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell; former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Lawrence Roberts; BIE Director Tony Dearman; and Havasupai Elementary School Principal Jeff Williamson. Plaintiffs are not seeking a monetary settlement. Instead, they are asking the court to order defendants to correct their course and meet their responsibilities to provide an adequate education for Havasupai children.
Although the Tribal Council is not a plaintiff in the case, members approved a resolution supporting the lawsuit and the families involved. It also is encouraging other parents or Havasupai children to come forward.
“Despite all the beauty around us, our children are being deprived of an education,” Vice Chairman Edmond Tilousi said. “What happens when an entire generation of students is denied an education? Our children cannot afford to wait. We simply ask the BIE for what our children are rightfully entitled.”
Neither the BIE or the Bureau of Indian Affairs is commenting on the lawsuit. According to Yanan, plaintiffs are waiting for an initial response from the BIE before moving forward.