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United efforts improve housing for Havasupai

By Kelly Ettenborough
From the The Arizona Republic
Dec. 20, 2000

SUPAI - Debbie and Dushane Uqualla and their seven children saw the Grand Canyon's starry night through gaps in their roof.

Floods through their village had destroyed the home's foundation, causing the floor to slant precariously and creating large holes.

Repairs were out of reach. Supai is accessible only by helicopter or by an eight-mile hiking trail. Bringing materials into the village that is 60 miles off Route 66 and 2,000 feet below the rim of the Grand Canyon can exceed the home's cost.

But this week, the foundation of the family's new home is drying. Through a complicated collaboration of federal government agencies, the Marines, the Havasupai Tribe and church volunteers, the Uquallas and three other families are getting new homes. Two other homes will be renovated.

In the next week or so, the floor joists will be built and the four-bedroom, 1,300-square-foot houses will be framed. By the middle of February, the Uquallas and other families will have hot showers and warm rooms, nice kitchens and roofs that do not leak. "I've no way to explain it," Dushane Uqualla said. "I just appreciate all the help."

Dushane Uqualla is a packer and tourist guide, a job that slows in the winter when the hikers who visit Havasu Falls become rare. His wife is a teacher's aide. Though their jobs are good by Canyon standards, a new home was only a dream until the Mutual Self-Help Housing program.

More than a year ago, the non-profit Rural Community Assistance Corporation sought applications to bring this cooperative housing program into the Canyon.

The residents provide volunteer labor and learn construction skills from church volunteers. Materials are bought with $135,000 in grants from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Marines, who flew into the Canyon last week for their annual Christmas Toys for Tots program, spent two extra days flying in the 200,000 pounds of construction material.

When the program was first proposed, Dushane Uqualla was skeptical because other promises to the tribe have been empty.

But on Dec.13, the Marines came in CH46 helicopters big enough to hold 30 paratroopers, carrying in more than 100 loads of construction material. Church volunteers arrived, and the pounding of nails, the scraping of a shovel mixing cement and the whirring of a saw all echoed off the sheer, red cliffs.

After days of digging holes and mixing cement for the footings, Dushane, sore and tired, had become a believer and says the project will have a dramatic impact if it continues. "That's what it's for, everybody to help one another," Uqualla said, as his older children worked with him. "When all of these guys leave, it's up to us to start helping one another."

A new beginning

Of the Havasupai Tribe's approximate 650 members, 450 live in the Canyon.

Historically, the Havasupai people roamed northern Arizona, staying in the Canyon in the summer and moving for the winter to places where food and firewood were more abundant, said Augustine Hanna, the tribal chairman.

As the White settlers moved north, the Havasupai were pushed into the Canyon permanently, and today tourism provides their main income.

Roughly half of the village's 100 houses need to be replaced or repaired, said Sylvia Corona, a rural development specialist with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation and a Chandler resident. The corporation provides technical assistance to tribes in 12 Western states and works with the government and volunteers to build houses.

The program also provides some jobs, which is welcomed this time of year in Supai. In Arizona, 200 other houses have been built through the Mutual Self-Help Housing program, but Supai presented special difficulties.

"This tribe is one of the most deprived tribes in the country, living with such a distance to the outside of the world," Corona said. "This is the only way to get things done, with the cooperation of everybody."

Despite the difficulties, many tribal members prefer life in the Canyon. "It's home," said Byron Manakaja, who also is getting a new home. "You leave the Canyon for so long, but at some point you'll always return. That's how powerful this place is. I don't think I'll ever leave again."

No Home Depot

Early into the project, the phrase "I'll just run out to Home Depot" was still funny whenever the workers discovered that something had been forgotten. The commuter helicopter usually runs three days a week, and it's just not a quick trip to hike or to ride a horse in and out.

The Marines lost one day of flying because of bad weather, and Corona is negotiating to get the remaining supplies. The construction project will be especially welcomed by families, Hanna said.

"A lot of these are young families that are coming up and raising their families," Hanna said. "They really don't have standard homes. A lot of the families down here share one house and it's overcrowded. It's hard on them."

That's why Carrie Goldbaum, president of the project's volunteer committee, and Dean Sinyella chose a run-down, one-room house rather than a small room in a nicer home with members of their extended family. Their house was torn down, and a new one is being built. "I finally will have my own space and a kitchen that's not my bedroom . . . It's a perfect Christmas present," Goldbaum said.

Ida's house

None of this would have happened, tribal members say, if a group of church volunteers had not built a house for 78-year-old Ida Iditicava last December. Iditicava was a founding member of the Havasupai Bible Church in the village.

"If Ida's house didn't happen last year, they wouldn't have believed it could happen," Goldbaum said, noting other residents were amazed the house was built so well and so quickly, she said. The last time houses were built in the Canyon, in the mid-1980s, the homes took months to complete.

After hearing about Iditicava's need last year, Jerry Ferguson had organized volunteers and raised money for the construction materials. He is a member of Echo Mountain Baptist Church in Phoenix, but most of the volunteers came from Valley churches of different denominations.

The men are friends of Ferguson's who have expertise in all phases of construction. The volunteers will come down to help with different parts of the construction as they are needed.

Ferguson approached the Marines about flying in the equipment. The project was so successful that Corona contacted Ferguson and asked for his help this year.

"People are telling me they want a house as good as Ida's," said Ferguson, a Phoenix resident and owner of a software design company. "For me, it's very emotional. I think about the lives that are being touched."

This year, many of those same volunteers will be returning along with new friends, including Bennett Johnson, a retired shop teacher from Kansas.

Vern Southworth, a retired railroad supervisor and a Phoenix resident, helped with Ida's house. He had to come back for this project, he said. "If you're a Christian, you believe what the Lord says about helping others. This has probably been one of the most productive ways to do it," said Southworth, a member of North Valley Community Church in Phoenix.

The next homes

After this project, the volunteer committee will put together a five-year plan. The first homeowners will teach the next ones.

Manakaja said he will work as hard on the other homes as he is working on his own. "It's worth it in the end," Manakaja said. "In order for this to be a successful project, everyone needs to be involved."

So far, mostly relatives of the new homeowners are helping, mainly because many villagers remain skeptical about the future of the entire project, said Fydel Jones, whose home is being repaired.

A few are even jealous, he said. But Jones believes that as more homes are built and renovated, those feelings will change. "It's going to be bring people together again," he said. "We're going to build houses for our children. . . . I'm committed to helping my brother, although they are not my relatives, they are my brothers in life."

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