SUPAI — Not yet noon, and already class was out at Havasupai Elementary. There was no bell. No line of buses waited outside. Nothing announced the day’s end but a rush of students through the gate and a small stream of teachers following close behind, carrying suitcases toward a helicopter that would take them out of the Grand Canyon and away from the school that has failed generations of Havasupai children.
“Do you have your homework?” a teacher asked as students sprinted past him.
“I don’t have any real homework!” one boy yelled back, starting down the mud-covered path home. Most students left with nothing for the weekend, no books to read, no worksheets to complete. Only a handful wore backpacks.
There is only one school in Supai, a tiny village hidden in the folds of the Grand Canyon and tucked away from the trails that lead outsiders to the glories of Havasupai Falls. The tribe is small and poverty touches everything, but families have lived in Supai for generations, rooted to the canyon floor by centuries of tradition. So they stay, and they send their children to school here, and their children learn almost nothing.
Havasupai Elementary stands out as the worst school in a U.S. Bureau of Indian Education system that has long let down Native American students. The school teaches only English and math, but ranks last among all BIE schools in both subjects. There is no school library. There are no extracurricular activities. Students with disabilities are often just sent home after police from the Bureau of Indian Affairs handle routine misbehavior. There’s been a rotation of principals and a regular teacher shortage that has caused the school to close for weeks at a time.
Year after year the tribe asked the government for something, anything, to teach its children. No help came. So in January, nine students and their families sued the United States government, demanding change, pleading for the next generation.
For so long the Havasupai had used the canyon to hide from the outside world. Now their only hope was to let that world in to see how they’d been left behind.
On a recent Friday, the students were restless after a morning spent watching the animated movie “Ice Age,” and the teachers were ready to leave Supai for the weekend. So as they did on many Fridays, the teachers closed the school at 11:53 a.m. and sent the kids home.
Into the rain the children scattered, ignoring teachers they barely knew and BIA officers who paced around the village. Sneakers slipped on the rust-colored mud. One student climbed on his bike, but the tires spun in the sand. He walked instead. The smallest students waited for the tractor that served as a school bus.
As the children waited, the teachers’ helicopter rose from the center of town and disappeared over the rim of the canyon. Nobody stopped to watch as it left them behind. The students weaved their way home and the rain turned everything to brown. A small square of color remained, a bright blue poster, handmade and misspelled.
We can stop all this that is coming to us in the world, it read. Nothing is never to late to stop what is happening.
In a remote corner of the Grand Canyon, Havasupai parents are suing the federal government for failing to educate their children.
Eight centuries ago, most versions of Havasupai legend say, the jagged walls of Havasu Canyon opened and closed on their own. All who tried to enter were crushed. Many died. The people tried and failed to hold them open until a man — or two young boys — found a thick juniper tree, carried it to the canyon and jammed the log between the rocks. The walls held open, and the tribe followed him into what is now Supai.
The village is America’s most remote community, surrounded by towering rock walls that keep the world out and the Havasupai way of life in. Fewer than half of the tribe’s 639 members live in Supai, where all the homes are a short walk from each other. There’s no need for cars. People walk slowly along the dirt paths, calling to each other in their native Havasupai, still the first language taught to children at home.
“We’re not the real world out there,” said Havasupai Tribe Chairman Don E. Watahomigie, and his people tried to keep that world out, even as they welcomed tourists in. The past two centuries had been a pattern of broken promises to return what they had lost: hundreds of thousands of acres of land, a traditional culture, hundreds of children taken to boarding schools.
So many times the world had slipped into Supai, each encounter more painful than the one before. If the children couldn’t learn, people in Supai worried, how would they keep the outside world from taking what they had left? Who would run the government, the businesses, the tribe’s traditions? How long before nobody knew their own culture? Education was the only way.
Since 1895, the Havasupai and the federal government have traded control of the school in Supai. Tribal parents who asked to send their children to schools above the rim were denied, and by the 1950s the BIA closed the school and forced all Havasupai children to attend far-off boarding schools. The tiny school reopened a decade later, and spent the rest of the century in a cycle of openings and shutdowns, until the tribe gave control back to the government in 2002.
Students at BIE schools lag behind other kids their age, stuck in aging buildings that replaced the boarding-school system. And at Havasupai Elementary School, a generation has fallen hopelessly behind.
All of Supai’s paths circle around to Havasupai School, a one-story building next to the village’s health clinic and general store. Everything is surrounded by a 6-foot-tall metal fence. No outsiders are allowed through the double doors without an FBI background check. Teachers and the school principal refused to talk about conditions inside, and the BIE declined to discuss the lawsuit.
When the school actually opens, classes cover only English and math, and still most students struggle to read or solve simple problems. Among BIE schools, Havasupai School students test in the 1st percentile in reading and the 3rd percentile in math. Both scores are the worst in the country.
The school year started with around 70 students and just two teachers, and a chain of temporary staff couldn’t cover the gaps. To compensate, the school pushed multiple grades into the same classrooms. The school secretary and janitor filled in for a few days.
The teacher shortage has sometimes forced the school to close altogether. In 2015, summer break lasted three extra weeks because there weren’t enough teachers. When the school finally opened, most classrooms were led by teachers on two-week assignments.
“You could just sit there and not do nothing,” said one of the students, who goes by Levi R. in the lawsuit. He and the other students and parents who filed the suit use pseudonyms, shielding their identities from both the outside world and the rest of their tribe.
“We watched movies a lot,” added his brother Leo.
“Just draw,” Levi said. “Just walk around the classroom.”
None of the school’s teachers are native Havasupai, and there’s no curriculum for the tribe’s history or language. Stacks of Havasupai-to-English dictionaries and translated storybooks were taken out of the storage room and piled outside, where they rotted in the weather. The school has no library, and is always short of textbooks.
Because the school has no system for special education, students with learning disabilities fall even further behind. After being diagnosed with ADHD in the third grade, Levi was allowed to attend school for just three hours a week. Another student, identified in the lawsuit as Stephen C., is sent home early almost every day. He’s now in sixth grade, and can barely read or write.
The few students who graduate to schools off the reservation often find themselves immediately behind their new classmates. Tribal Councilwoman Carletta Tilousi, who was one of the brightest students in Supai before moving to a boarding school, spent the first day of ninth grade trying to learn what fractions were. The teacher called her to the board, and Tilousi could do nothing but stare at the numbers.
“It was humiliating,” she said. She worked through it and became part of the 20 percent of Havasupai School students who graduate from high school.
The U.S. government restricted the Havasupai to this 518-acre patch of land with one executive order. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur claimed all tribal lands on the plateau above Supai, leaving only the floor of the canyon for the tribe.
The canyon walls keep everything quiet in Supai, and isolation has become its most treasured resource. Signs posted throughout the village remind outsiders they don’t belong. Residents confront people carrying cameras, demanding they delete any photos showing faces. A village of cautious eyes follows visitors’ every step.
A helicopter drops in every 20 minutes to drop off people and cargo. The only other way into Supai is an eight-mile trail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. A mailman makes the hike every day, headed to the only Post Office still served by mules. Most people take the helicopter.
Around a bend in the canyon, hundreds of outsiders spend their days at Havasupai Falls, posing for Instagram photos as horses carry their tents and cases of beer down the trail. The tribe survives on tourism and fees for permits to the falls, which lie outside Grand Canyon National Park, and many jobs exist only in the summer tourist season. The tribal government is Supai’s largest employer.
Thirty-seven percent of the Havasupai live in poverty, almost three times the national rate.
A century after its land was taken, the tribe sued and won most of it back. Supai remained the center of the reservation, where the government’s promises of welfare, health care and education are supposed to be fulfilled. But the people in Supai stayed out of sight.
“They probably don’t even know we’re down here,” Watahomigie said.
His friends were wet and chasing him around the school, so Levi burst into a classroom and hid behind a cabinet. Water dripped from the ball pump he had used as a squirt gun. He was in fifth grade and read at a second-grade level. He said there had been nothing to do at school that day.
After his friends passed by, Levi slid from behind the cabinet and into the center of the classroom, where a teacher stood waiting. She pulled his arms behind his back and dropped him to the floor. As Levi tried to shake her off, she sat on his back and waited for the police.
“Get off me!” Levi remembered yelling. “I can’t breathe.”
He said they waited on the floor for 10 minutes, teacher on top of squirming student, until police officers latched handcuffs around Levi’s wrists. They led him to the principal’s office and expelled him from Havasupai School.
Laila R., Levi and Leo’s mother, appealed the decision and wrote dozens of letters demanding her son be allowed back in school. A psychologist diagnosed Levi with ADHD, and the school allowed him to come back for three hours a week. His mother Laila wrote more letters. She won a seat on the school board and protested at meetings, but the board had no power. The BIE ran the school and made the decisions. The tribe couldn’t control its own school.
“It all started with that incident,” Laila said. Five years had passed, and her hands still shook with anger as she recounted what happened to her son. “But once you put your foot inside, you see all this stuff that’s happening internally.”
Laila grew up above the canyon. Her parents sent her to a school on the rim, keeping her out of the BIE system that has been broken for decades: understaffed, underrepresented and underperforming.
“A national tragedy and a national disgrace,” a Senate report called the government’s failure to teach Native American children in 1969, and little progress has been documented since.
The federal government spends more than $20,000 a year on each student in the BIE system, over $8,000 more than the average public school student, and still the students fall behind. Students at BIE schools test significantly below Native American students in public schools: 14 points lower in math, 22 points in reading. Just 69 percent of Native students graduate from high school, a rate well below the national average. In BIE schools, it’s 53 percent.
For four years Laila and other parents in Supai begged for the government’s attention. Laila addressed her letters progressively higher up the bureaucracy at BIE, faxing her complaints to Washington. Nothing changed. The BIE sent officials into the canyon, and still nothing happened when they left. Two members of the Tribal Council flew to Washington to ask for help in person. Still, the school failed.
Every day the tribe lost part of its next generation. Every day felt like another broken promise.
A panicked thought took root in Supai. Maybe, Laila feared, the government didn’t want their people to learn. Maybe it was the next step in some hidden plan: Take the land, hide the people in the canyon, keep them quiet.
Nobody wanted to help, so Laila decided to do it herself. She found an email address for the Native American Disability Law Center and asked a question:
“How do we file a lawsuit against BIE?”
Most people in Supai spend their entire lives in the canyon. Those who move their kids to a public school district must rip up generations of roots and leave the only home they know. Those old enough to remember boarding schools often refuse to send their children away. So when a small group of lawyers flew in to prepare a lawsuit, some of Supai’s parents brought their children and their stories. Five families joined the suit, desperate to prove their claims.
After Jasmine A.’s three children spent six years at Havasupai School, she sent them to a boarding school in Oklahoma. The boarding school was 990 miles away and its students performed below average in math and reading, but at least every classroom had a teacher.
Anna D. wanted to join a basketball team and learn her tribal culture. The only activity the school offered, she says in the suit, was picking up trash for Earth Day.
Frank and Sarah C. raised their grandson, Stephen, who at 11 years old struggled to read and write. Since kindergarten, Stephen had trouble sitting at his desk and paying attention, but the school had no resources to manage his ADHD. “They just can’t seem to control him,” Frank said in an interview. Stephen spent most school days at home.
Billie P. had two children at the school. Her 6-year-old daughter, Taylor, had been choked and assaulted on the playground. Her son Durell spent three years missing most of his classes, sparking a never-ending argument with the school that still sent mother and son into tears.
Every day, Durell tried again. The school had moved him from third grade to fifth, tossing him into class with older students who pounced on him. He started acting out. The teachers sent him home.
At 8 o’clock every morning Durell walked into school. Almost every day, he was back home in 15 minutes. “They didn’t want to deal with him,” his mother Billie said. Durell missed 79 percent of the school days in third grade.
At home, Billie took over his education. She searched online for projects and worksheets, pushing him to do a couple of problems a day while she worked full-time. His progress stalled.
“He is allowed a right to his education,” she insisted. But the principal wouldn’t let Durell back into full-day school. By fifth grade Billie settled on a plan: Durell would continue to learn from home, but was allowed to spend four hours a week in reading classes at school.
Back through the gates he went, into a class that had been combined with the oldest students in school. Again they turned their bored energies to Durell. Soon an older boy was jamming a pencil into his side.
“You better go push the teacher,” the boy told Durell, “or else I’m going to keep stabbing you.”
So a few minutes after class started for the day, Durell walked to the front of the class and shoved his English teacher. She called the police, who arrested Durell, filed assault charges and sent him home.
Durell was allowed to spend the next three days in school. Nobody sent him home. But on the fourth day, he didn’t make it through the gate. A police officer waiting outside blocked Durell’s path and arrested him again.
The officers gave Billie a police report and scheduled Durell’s hearing at 11 a.m., the same time as the first flight out of Supai. As she stepped onto the helicopter, a judge sent her son to the Colorado River Indian Tribes prison in Parker, a four-hour drive from the canyon.
Durell spent a week in prison. When he returned to Supai, he refused to go near the tall gates.
“Why should I even go?” he asked Billie. “They don’t want me there.”
Somehow, Durell still has a chance.
Classes at Havasupai School stop after eighth grade, so Durell will have to leave the canyon for a public high school, if he can get in. Those schools check a student’s transcript and test scores, filtering many Supai students out of education before high school. But in Durell’s latest round of tests, he scored above his age group in every subject except math. His tutor called him exceptional, one of Supai’s brightest students, even after four years of missed school.
Last fall, Havasupai School gave Billie a choice. She could send Durell to Utah and enroll him in a boarding school with a specialized program, or he could spend three hours a day with a teacher at the local Head Start preschool. She chose the Head Start, and now 13-year-old Durell sits in a tiny desk at a tiny table and tries to make up for the classes he’d been kept from.
Around Durell, the tribe-run classroom is fully stocked. Each subject has its own nook, with a handmade sign hanging from the ceiling: Math and Manipulatives, Science and Discovery, Stories and Language Arts, Creative Art. Books in English and Havasupai fill the shelves. There’s a fish tank in the corner and a plaque on the wall for the Head Start’s “Progressing Star” award.
When the helipads are empty, Durell can look through the window and see Havasupai School. From the playground out back, he can see one of two stone pillars that rise from the rim of the canyon. The Havasupai call them Wigleeva, the two guardian spirits who keep watch over the people and their home.
If those pillars fall, the legend says, the canyon will shudder to life again. The walls will break through the juniper trees and trap the Havasupai people inside for eternity.
Forced to choose between her home and her children, Laila moved her family out of the canyon in September. Her sons enrolled in public school: Leo a sophomore in high school, Levi in the eighth grade, both just trying to catch up.
“I do all my work,” Levi said. School has a lot of rules now: No talking, no cellphones, no killing time with homemade squirt guns. And there’s so much he didn’t know he’d missed. He takes a full day of classes: English, math, art, music. In history, they’re learning about World War I. He didn’t know that happened. But science, that’s the worst. “It’s just, like, I have to read a lot,” he said.
“You think science is hard?” Leo said. “Wait until you get to high school.”
“High school?” Levi said, because he hadn’t thought that far ahead.
“High school,” Leo said. “Especially with my basic knowledge.”
Levi is 14 years old. Leo is 15, still too young to think about anything after high school. Except for college, Leo said. He definitely doesn’t want to go to college. High school is hard enough.
When their homework is finished they stay at home all night, listening to music while Leo plays his guitar. Sometimes they go outside and play, always just the two of them. Nothing feels comfortable in their new home away from the towering canyon walls, without the giant pillars that had always pierced the sky above them. Supai feels farther and farther away. Since leaving they haven’t heard from any of their friends back home, where Fridays end early and the canyon keeps everything quiet.