Former teacher’s return to Havasupai a ‘trip’

Photo courtesy of Roy Lyons

During his April visit, Roy Lyons stopped to see his old friend, Toby Watahomigie, a member of the Havasupai tribe. Lyons is holding Watahomigie’s grandchild.

Supai, the scenic and oft-visited Native American village tucked in a narrow valley that leads to the Grand Canyon, was not as primitive 30 years later. Roy Lyons knew that’s how it would be, and wrestled to keep an open mind.

“I tried not to have expectations because I didn’t want to be disappointed,” Lyons said during a recent interview at his home, east of Ignacio. “I was going for the people. I was going to give back. I was going to share.

“So I tried not to compare, although you can’t help it.”

The Pennsylvania native came out West to serve as teacher and principal at the Havasupai Indian Reservation’s one school from 1977-80. He stayed out West, moving four years after that to Ignacio, where he’s lived ever since.

With major life changes under way – he turned 60 in January and he’s going through a divorce – Lyons figured it was prime time to return to a place that so greatly shaped his life and career. So a few months ago he called the Havasupai tourist office and offered to give a presentation, focusing on his late-’70s experiences in Supai.

He was directed to tribal Vice Chairman Matt Putesoy, who coincidentally was Lyons’ former pupil at the village’s 50-student school. Putesoy, a sixth-grader when he’d last seen Lyons, ran the proposal by the Tribal Council. Then he emailed Lyons: Just tell us when you want to come.

“I was interested in the photos he was to bring,” Putesoy said in a phone interview last week.

So in early April, armed with a Power Point presentation featuring pictures from the past, Lyons helicoptered down into Supai, 2,000-plus feet below the canyon rim.

There’s an 8-mile-long trail from the rim to the village, and back in the day, Lyons walked it regularly, taking off on road trips to Flagstaff about every other weekend. In fact, regular helicopter service didn’t begin until his last year at the school. Now, he says, there’s a helicopter making the trip every 8 minutes.

There have been lots of changes since 1980, the big ones involving technology: TV and radio came after Lyons left, as, of course, did cellphones and the Internet. Electricity came to Supai in the mid-1970s.

What hasn’t changed, Lyons said, is the grandeur of the place. By air or by ground, it’s spellbinding: The canyon valley, the waterfalls – and the iconic image of the two Wigleeva towers above Supai. The pair of red pillars, according to what Putesoy has been told, represent two brothers who came to the canyon. They wouldn’t leave, so they turned to stone.

There are differing legends.

The pillars are now guardians of the tribe of 640, about 400 of whom live in the canyon, Putesoy said.

“It’s all about the water. Water is life,” Lyons said. “The beauty has so much power. It can heal you. It’s amazing.”

From the time he reached the heliport to the time he left, he reforged old ties and created new ties.

“They’re simple people,” he said. “They love to laugh. They love to make fun of themselves, of you.”

When Lyons originally came to Supai, with his first wife, he was a pipe-smoking 25-year-old with big hair and bushy moustache – a style he jokingly refers to as the “Frank Zappa” look.

Although it was difficult to blend in and be accepted, he managed to make connections with the Havasupai men through a shared interest in hunting and music. His wife, who also came as a teacher, had a harder time. The two separated after their first year there. Lyons returned.

He stayed two more years, leaving when he was offered a graduate assistant position at Northern Arizona University.

Lyons arrived in Ignacio in 1984 as principal of the elementary school. He spent 22 years as an administrator in the Ignacio system, his final full-time job being junior high principal in 2004-05.

With the changes in his life, and perhaps a bit of nostalgia, Lyons thought it was time to pay his old friends in Supai a visit. Lyons wanted to take another look.

The changes couldn’t be ignored. Where there were agricultural fields, now there was housing. As on many Native American reservations of the Southwest, scourges such as obesity, diabetes and drug abuse are common. Use of the language of the Havasupai – people of the blue water – has decreased.

As well as gradual changes, the Havasupai area underwent a sudden change in 2008 when a flood reshaped the canyon, moving falls and washing out some of the travertine-lined pools that define the tiny reservation to visitors. To the Havasupai, the flood was a difficulty, but not a tragedy.

“The canyon has got its own spirit ... It has a mind of its own,” Putesoy said. “It changes when it has to change.”

But many aspects hadn’t changed. The beauty, the smiles, the reggae music that is basically their national anthem (they revere Bob Marley for his stand for indigenous people).

Lyons found plenty of Havasupai friends and former students. Many wanted his advice on how to run their school. He fed them burgers made from Colorado elk, shared stories and showed them the old photos.

First, he talked to a group of fourth- through eighth-graders. Then about 60 people came to the Community Building for his main presentation.

Putesoy said the photos brought laughter as they saw themselves three decades ago – “we’re a small community so everybody knows everybody” – and tears as they recalled those who are no longer around.

Old yearbooks Lyons brought for the “kids” to peruse were also a hit. Some former students signed them on his latest visit. For example, a woman named Stephanie wrote next to her photo, “Thank you for all the knowledge you gave to me.”

Lyons said his trip was “like walking through the looking glass. It was very trippy.”

He knows Supai shaped his life and continues to do so. “I can’t even begin to thank or tell them how much I gained and how much influence it had on my life.” John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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