Tomomi Hanamure had a deep, insatiable love of American landscapes.
Hanamure made several trips from Japan to the U.S., trekking across the Grand Canyon, visiting Wounded Knee, and learning the painstaking art of Navajo basket weaving. But it was Hanamure’s deep connection to American landscapes and Native American history that ultimately lead to her tragic murder in May of 2006.
It was Hanamure’s 34th birthday and she was treating herself to a solo trip in Havasu Falls, Arizona. Her adventure ended when 18-year-old Havasupai tribe member Randy Redtail Wescogame stabbed her 29 times. Hanamure’s murder would go down in history as the most brutal murder ever in the Grand Canyon. Journalist Annette McGivney covered the murder extensively for Backpacker Magazine, where she currently serves as Southwest editor. But even after her 8,600-word article was published in 2007, the story felt somehow unfinished.
McGivney shared Hanamure’s love of nature, the vast open space of the Southwest, and the Grand Canyon in particular. After finishing the article, McGivney would spend a decade writing about what happened for her book Pure Land, which came out last year. The book chronicles the murder, as well as the stories behind it that McGivney wasn’t able to include in her original article. But the book also includes a twist, with McGivney including threads of her own history—which made the project not only more personal, but also more challenging.
“I thought I was just diligently researching, and next thing I know I’m in a mental health facility,” says McGivney, who will be talking about her book at the Santa Cruz Downtown Public Library on Sunday, July 22. “It took at least a year from that time that I started to feel like I could write about my own experience at all.”
From the start, she had felt a connection to Hanamure’s passion and determination. She notes that she might very well have passed Hanamure on a trail one day, since they frequented the same places and loved the same landscapes. As McGivney delved further in, she found herself also identifying with Wescogame, the 18-year-old killer, who had endured a harrowing childhood. McGivney experienced flashbacks to her own long-repressed memories of abuse at the hands of her father.
Wescogame was a drug addict who came from a broken and abusive home on the Havasupai Indian Reservation. McGivney understood Wescogame in a way others didn’t, since she, too, came from a dysfunctional and psychotic home (her mother, for instance, would drop McGivney and her two sisters off at school while wearing a gas mask). She sympathized with him when she read notes from his school teachers explaining what a problem he was.
“I felt a connection to him and felt a desire to stand up for the child that he was in an effort to show people that if he was in an environment where he could have gotten help, Tomomi would still be alive,” McGivney says. “When we take people and say ‘He’s a sociopath and we have nothing in common with him,’ that doesn’t do anything to help stop the cycle of violence that causes people to keep killing other people.”
Up until she wrote the book, McGivney’s life had been one of endurance and repression. An avid hiker and backpacker, a teacher and mother, she explains that she was always the shoulder others cried on, the self-proclaimed robotic journalist who does everything to get the story right.
“There was a lot of reluctance to make myself part of the story, because not only am I a journalist, but I am a journalism teacher, and I give people bad grades for putting first person in their stories,” laughs McGivney, a teacher at Northern Arizona University. “I was kicking and screaming the whole way, putting myself in the story. It was a gradual process.”
McGivney attributes her lifelong sense of independence to her freedom as a young child.
“I am so glad that I wasn’t a girl growing up in a home where I was being bossed around all the time, especially by men, and made to feel like I wasn’t capable of making my own decisions. Or that if I didn’t allow the men in my life to take care of me, I would be unsafe,” McGivney says. “As a woman, it gives you a sense of ‘I don’t need you to tell me what to do, I can handle this myself.’”
It was a similar independence and security that gave Hanamure the freedom to explore nature, especially coming from a culture where women often weren’t independent, McGivney adds. She remembers that when she was reporting on the story, law enforcement rationalized Hanamure’s murder as something that “happens when women hike alone.”
“For me, that was so repulsive. I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Women should be able to hike alone in the same way that men hike alone,” McGivney says. “The problem is that we are living in a world where women are being assaulted in the wild. We have to keep pushing back against this culture that preys on women.”
Pure Land was first and foremost a promise to Hanamure’s family. McGivney promised Hanamure’s father, Tetsushi, that she would write it to tell Hanamure’s story and preserve her memory. Unfortunately, Tetsushi, who lives in Yokohama with Hanamure’s beloved dog, cannot read the book because he doesn’t speak English. McGivney had a chapter translated for him, and says that, because he is reeling over his daughter’s murder, reading about her life in America made him “very, very sad.”
“They don’t have the resources to translate the book,” McGivney says. “I’d love to have a dialogue about it—there is so much about Tomomi that they didn’t know, about her life in the United States.”
McGivney has created the nonprofit the Healing Lands Project to help youth who have experienced domestic abuse or violence. In partnership with Grand Canyon Youth and Northern Arizona University’s Arizona Child and Adolescent Survivor Initiative, she most recently took a group of eight on a transformative river trip in San Juan.
“It’s boots on the ground that restores this connection that’s at the center of who we are as a species,” McGivney says. “It’s only within the last couple hundred years that we have become so disconnected from nature, and that might be the root of so many problems, this disconnect from the natural world.”
McGivney will be talking about Pure Land on at the Santa Cruz Downtown Public Library. 1:30- 3 p.m. Sunday, July 22. 224 Church Street Santa Cruz. Free.