Rex Tilousi, former president and activist of the Havasupai tribe, dies

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Former Havasupai Tribe President Rex Tilousi, who defended his rights and those of other Southwestern tribes and led efforts to protect the sacred tribal lands of northern Arizona, died June 19 in Flagstaff. He was 73 years old.

Tilousi was instrumental in reclaiming approximately 185,000 acres of land that had been illegally taken from the 650-member tribe in the 19th century. He was also a longtime opponent of uranium mining in the Grand Canyon and worked to block the use of wastewater collected from snow machines on the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.

He served on the Havasupai Tribal Council for over 30 years, including as president and vice president. Tilousi has also served as a cultural interpreter at Grand Canyon National Park for more than two decades.

“Rex saw the importance of putting the Indian back in the Grand Canyon,” said Roger Clark, recently retired as Grand Canyon manager at the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff.

Although Tilousi fought to reclaim ancestral lands from the National Park Service, Clark said the agency has come to respect Chief Havasupai.

“He has garnered the support of many disparate groups to bring passion and eloquence to helping people like me appreciate all of the nature of the Grand Canyon as the spirit of a living people,” said Clark.

Tilousi was born August 15, 1947. He attended residential schools on the Fort Apache reservation and graduated from Phoenix Indian High School in 1967.

He attended Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, but returned to Supai, the Havasu Canyon community on Havasupai tribal lands, to care for his aging mother.

In a statement, the tribal leaders said Tilousi was known as a peaceful and caring man who had a warm and welcoming spirit and respect for everyone. He “spent his days tending to the land, hunting, horseback riding and sharing the stories and culture of the Havasupai people.”

Although he served on the tribal council for over three decades, Tilousi was also a cultural leader. He was a traditional dance and gourd singer who worked to preserve Havasupai songs, the way of life, and the Grand Canyon.

This love for his community and history has led him to be a leader in the effort to reclaim the Havasupai lands, despite opposition from the National Park Service and the Sierra Club, Clark said.

Tilousi was at the forefront of opposition to uranium mining and processing around the world. He successfully helped defeat a uranium dump in the Swiss Alps and testified at the 1992 World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg, Austria.

He has often appeared before state and national agencies and elected bodies to testify on matters of great importance to the tribe and the Indian country, according to the tribe’s statement.

He helped lead the effort alongside the Grand Canyon Trust and other tribes and environmental groups to ban new uranium mining claims on approximately 1 million acres of public land surrounding the canyon while the US Geological Survey was studying the effects of uranium mining on water and land in the Region.

Earlier this year, the US House of Representatives passed legislation that would make this ban permanent.

Neither the bill nor the administrative withdrawal affects current claims, including the Pinyon Plain mine, formerly known as the Canyon Mine, which is near Tusayan south of the Grand Canyon. It is also just 10 km from Red Butte, the heart of Havasupai culture. This mine has long been opposed by Havasupai and environmentalists.

Uranium concerns: Environmentalists fear more mining near the Grand Canyon

In May 2020, the tribe and two environmental groups lost an offer in U.S. District Court to stop the mine.

Despite this loss, Tilousi’s legacy still resonates in the southwest. Clark noted that Tilousi stood with neighboring tribes to oppose wastewater collected to make artificial snow in the peaks of San Francisco. He also helped the Navajo and Hopi families stop the Escalade, a beach resort and streetcar project at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers, considered a sacred site to a number of Southwestern tribes.

Tilousi is survived by her daughters, Rochelle and Nettie, and four grandchildren. His wife, Rosella, died in 2020.

A public service for Tilousi will be held Saturday from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. at the Shrine of Ages, 20 South Entrance Road in Grand Canyon Village, with a sunrise funeral service at the Grand Canyon Heritage Cemetery.

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