The Havasupai Indian Reservation on the floor of the Grand Canyon looks like paradise to the visitor. But it's hell on Earth for some who live there. Federal agents assigned to monitor the reservation would rather quit than stay there. Some would rather be dead.
Six of the last seven Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) police officers assigned there have resigned their post at Havasupai. Three of them attempted suicide. One succeeded.
The statistics offer a glimpse into the nature of life on Indian reservations where alcoholism, unemployment and boredom are constant companions. The latest scourge reportedly is child sexual abuse, including allegations that have recently come to light at the elementary school on the Havasupai reservation.
Sources familiar with investigations into child abuse at Havasupai and elsewhere say it is no wonder the reservations have a problem. Havasupai is a steep eight-mile horse ride into the canyon from civilization or what the Indians simply call "the top." From the canyon rim to the nearest major highway is another 63 miles. The mail comes in by mule. The phones are unreliable. Almost no one polices the 575 members of the tribe who live there.
Despite reports as early as last November that a teacher at the elementary school may have been sexually abusing pupils, it took four months of vintage bureaucratic miscommunication before the FBI took over the investigation. The teacher will go on trial in October on 10 counts of sexual abuse.
Our associate Jim Lynch has learned the delay was caused by "confusion" between the FBI and the BIA over which agency should lead the investigation.
The FBI agent with jurisdiction over Havasupai reportedly doesn't have enough clerical help. Paper flow is at a standstill, and there is no formal communication between the FBI and the BIA.
Perhaps most disturbing about the investigation is that the tribe was the last to know about it. The community is now questioning the credibility of the Tribal Council. The council has asked for help on the child abuse problem, but the BIA has not responded to the council's satisfaction. The U.S. attorney isn't talking about the case. The parents of the alleged victims are confused.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) thinks the federal government has shirked its responsibilities to police and protect the reservations. The Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, of which McCain is a member, is holding hearings on child abuse.
At a Sept. 5 hearing in Phoenix, an official from the Hopi Special Child Sexual Abuse Project said the situation is getting worse. "We have seen 4-year-olds with sexually transmitted diseases," she told McCain's committee. She told of abused children who then molest others including a 13-year-old boy who raped five 7-year-old girls.
The problem is not confined to the desert Southwest. Indian officials in Michigan report as many as 20 percent of the youths in some tribal communities have been sexually abused.
McCain has introduced two bills that would improve abuse reporting procedures and create a support network for victims, but the BIA thinks those measures are unnecessary.