SUPAI, Ariz. - Children on the Havasupai reservation don't associate Santa Claus with a sleigh and flying reindeer. They know he's coming when they hear the swooshing sounds of Marine helicopters overhead.
Three Marine helicopters meandered through canyons to make sure Santa and his helpers reached even the most remote of places Wednesday - a small roadless reservation that sits deep in a gorge off the Grand Canyon and the only place in the country where mail is delivered by mule train.
The helicopters landed on a small piece of land in the village of Supai. Tribal members emerged from their homes to greet Santa, and children stretched their hands through the schoolyard fence, asking for one of Santa's elves to fashion balloons into animals, hats, candy canes, and flowers.
The event in its 15th year has become a holiday tradition for a tribe that hasn't always been able to count on much. The Toys for Tots program, a Utah couple, and a local food bank work with the Marines to deliver donated baskets of goods to every family and toys to every child, with planning for the operation starting in April.
The gifts were especially welcome this year while the tribe known for its towering blue-green waterfalls recovers from flooding that shut out tourists who sustain the tribe's economy. Many of the tribal members work in the lodge and cafe or pack camping gear on the backs of mules.
The reservation west of Grand Canyon National Park is accessible only by foot, mule, or helicopter. While families do travel in and out of the canyon, it's usually limited to the weekends.
Field trips are a rarity because of the cost to get out of the canyon, organized sports don't exist, and community events are sporadic, school officials said.
Francine Manakaja's children had been talking about Santa for at least a month and woke up early Wednesday because they knew Santa was coming. "They're real excited about it," she said, surrounded by kitchen play sets, blankets, and learning games given to her five children.