Inventing the Hualapai

A small Arizona tribe with a big business gets detailed admirably by Jeffrey Shepherd

Before the 1850s, Northwestern Arizona's small Hualapai (WALL-uh-pie) Tribe didn't really exist. It was the federal government's idea to join 13 autonomous bands of Yuman-speaking Pai Indians, who had lived on the high, dry plains near Grand Canyon's western reaches for eons, as the "People of the Tall Pines."

Before the colonial clampdown and the Hualapai Wars of the 1860s, the Pai bands were independent, though they "followed common rules for marriage and land use, spoke variations of one language, and shared social structures, kin networks, cultural practices, environmental niches and so on," according to Jeffrey Shepherd's We Are an Indian Nation: A History of the Hualapai People.

The U.S. Army nearly wiped out the bands during the land wars of the 1860s, and the internment of the survivors at La Paz almost finished the job. But the bands persisted, and in 1883, the government established the million-acre Hualapai Reservation, with its capital at Peach Springs.

Then it spent the next 100 years or so trying to take the land away for the benefit of white ranchers, the railroad and the National Park Service. These days, the Hualapai Nation, though still impoverished, is a worldwide brand—Grand Canyon West.

How did this happen?

The small, isolated tribe has always been willing to take economic risks, one of the many ways, Shepherd argues, that the Hualapai have twisted colonial objectives for their own survival. A few years ago, they partnered with Las Vegas entrepreneur David Jin and built the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a 70-foot-long glass walkway hanging from the Grand Canyon's western rim. Now you can't walk two steps along the Vegas strip without a tour guide offering to take you to one of the most isolated sections of Arizona.

Throughout their relatively short history as a nation proper, the Hualapai have consistently tried to make their windy and dry reservation economically viable, sometimes with the assistance of the government, but often in direct contradiction to the government's goals. For generations, they were cattle-ranchers, but they could never get enough water to make it pay. They successfully sued the Santa Fe Railroad over an important reservation spring in a landmark case for indigenous rights. For a time in the 1980s, they even hesitantly explored allowing uranium mining. Today, they have bet their future on tourism.

As explained by Shepherd, an associate professor of history at University of Texas at El Paso, the Hualapai have survived a sustained cultural assault by using the various familiar tropes of colonialism—like the reservation system, boarding schools and other assimilation techniques, racial politics and capitalism—to their own advantage.

"Hualapais and their history have remained a crucial part of the cultural landscape and Indigenous geographies of the American Southwest," Shepherd writes. "They reshaped traditional identities within a modern context and held on to a history that reflected band identities, national adaptations and dynamic interaction with settler communities colonizing their land. Considering the trauma that has befallen the community, it continues to persevere and flourish."

The latest in the University of Arizona Press' impressive First Peoples series, Shepherd's book offers a nuanced and complicated portrait of one of Arizona's lesser-known tribes. He writes in his conclusion that in 1999, he sought the permission of the Hualapai Tribal Council to write the book, and spent more than a decade getting to know its residents.

"This book has never been a solitary or dispassionate exercise," Shepherd writes, as he hastens to explain that he's aware he is following in a long line of colonial scholars who, while admiring their subjects, often did them more harm than good by portraying indigenous people as "savage, antimodern relics of the past."

Shepherd has avoided this pitfall admirably. Most of the "action" of his Hualapai history takes place not on the sweeping bunchgrass plains or at exotic religious ceremonies, but in courtrooms and boardrooms. Shepherd has given us a portrait of a very modern nation whose leaders, much to the annoyance of the colonial powers, learned how to file lawsuits, write grant proposals and set up exploratory committees.

This kind of post- and neo-colonial scholarship is the clear future of indigenous studies. And if more of it is as good as Shepherd's book than not, we can look forward to a new, more complex and intellectually satisfying phase in our understanding of what we have lost—and what yet remains.

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