|Carrying the Mail to Supai
BY JAMES M. CHEMI, editor, The American Philatelist
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DEBS METZONG
|Living in the valley of Havasu Canyon, nearly
3,000 feet below the land above, the Havasupai Indians have for more than
800 years remained peaceful and content in their Shangri-La, far removed
from the cares of a troubled world with its myriad of problems arising
from the harnessing of the atom to the penetration of outer space in
When James Hilton wrote his famed novel "Lost Horizon" and the wonders of eternal youth to be found in his fabled city of Shangri-La in mountainous Tibet, he probably never heard of the Havasupai, one of the nationís smallest Indian tribes. But these quiet people have tended their crops and livestock in their Arizona Shangri-La for centuries before the white man set foot in the New World.
Probably one of the main reasons why the Havasupai, now numbering a scant 271 souls according to a headcount made in 1958, have survived down through the centuries of time is because these Indians chose an inaccessible valley at the edge of mammoth Grand Canyon in which to dwell.
Only a narrow, rock-strewn trail, winding down the canyon, leads to the village of Supai, the tribeís capital. When, centuries ago, fierce marauding tribes roamed the plateau country of what is now Arizona, a few braves, hidden in strategic spots along the treacherous trail, could easily repulse attack from above. The Havasupai were never warlike.
While these canyon walls provided protection for the ancient Havasupais, the need for communication with the outside world of the 20th century has created numerous problems.
The biggest headache - at the governmental level - confronted the U. S. Post Office Department when it became necessary to establish regular mail service for the tribe.
The post office at Supai was opened in 1912 - the same year that Arizona achieved statehood.
To bring mail in and out of this Canyon Shangri-La, the department decided to establish a star route, with the mail transported by packhorse train.
Today, the run to Supai is the last of its type still operating in the entire U. S. postal system.
A father and son team provides the unique mail service. Guy Marshall shuttles the mail by packhorses from the canyonís valley up the eight-mile trail to Hualapai Hilltop, which is on the plateau of the Hualapai Indian Reservation.
Foster Marshall, Guyís father, waits at the hilltop for his sonís packhorse mail train to arrive. The mail is then placed on a small pickup truck to continue the 62-mile run to the Peach Springs post office. From that point the mail is dispatched to its destinations.
The pack-mail run is made twice weekly --- every Tuesday and Friday. Star route carrier Guy Marshall leaves the 518-acre reservation at 7 a.m. and the mail, with the truck assist, reaches Peach Springs at 3:30 p.m.
Guy rides a horse on which a sack of first-class mail matter is usually tied to the saddle. One or two packhorses are used to carry the parcel post packages and second-class matter. He returns to the Havasupai capital the same day with a load of mail destined for the Supai post office.
Without this vital packhorse mail link, the valley dwellers would be faced with an acute food shortage, for many perishable items, such as bread, flour and fresh fruits and vegetables, are sent by parcel post from the outside.
Of this unique postal service, artist John Hampton adds as follows:
During the early days of his Indian postal service riders made a continuous round trip with "no sleep much" and "no pay" if late. All the tough times, however, were not during the old days of the long trail. Foster Marshall, also bronc-riding champion for the years of 1939-40 at the Flagstaff Pow Wow, and one who has proven he can "take it," tells of the rough days of the "big snow" of 1949.
He relates, "Big snow, thirty days straight, three or four feet high. Travel on them big mules on fourteen mile trail up river." (This was before the present eight-mile trail to the top.) "Rider leave Supai early packing snow shovel and bring mail to my ranch on top and I take it to Grand Canyon. Trip of fifty-two miles take two days."
Before Foster Marshall other early day riders were Capt. Jim, George Sumatha, Big Jim, also a policeman, Panameta, Mexican Jack, Spoonhead, Dean Sinyella and Wallin Burro. Come rain or fair weather, the mail always gets to Supai.