The many faces of the Pima tribe. In the center is Ira Hayes, the decorated Marine who was among the famed flag raisers on Iwo Jima during World War II.
Phoenix has the largest population of urban American Indians in the United States. It's also the only major metro area that is flanked by reservations: the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community east of Scottsdale, the Gila River Indian Community to the south and southwest, and farther to the east, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. With casinos and water rights, the tribes enjoy the greatest economic power in their modern history. This is a story that's only beginning. But of course it's a very old one, too.
The city's name comes from its location atop the ruins of the Hohokam civilization. Like the mythical Phoenix bird, it rose from its ashes (and it is by far the coolest city name in America, which makes it a shame that the suburban mandarins resist using it to describe the metro, as is commonplace in every other major city in America). When the first Anglo settlers came to the Salt River Valley after the Civil War, they cleaned out some of the Hohokam canals and resumed the region's oldest human activity: agriculture. The Hohokam were the most advanced hydrological civilization north of Mesoamerica. The sophisticated dam and canal structure built for today's Phoenix is simply an extension of the Hohokam's work.
Growing up in Phoenix, I was constantly aware of the Hohokam's ghosts -- but I was an odd child, enchanted by the place and its history. For most in the 1960s, American Indians were not a common sight there. The reservations were relatively far away then. The stereotype of the drunken Indian was on tragic display in the Deuce. Prejudice was common, even as we romanticized the tribes, particularly the Apache and Navajo. It had not even been a century since the Apache wars had ended. Phoenicians mostly came in contact with the tribes passing by the Phoenix Indian School, an institution now reviled by scholars for destroying native culture but one which may deserve a fresh revision someday. Today's phenomenon of an urban Indian population was very limited. We had a Navajo boy, John Rogers, in my class at Kenilworth School: he had been adopted by a Anglo family. Not to be blind to the challenges he faced, but in the crucible of cruel children he seemed to garner a special respect. After all, in playing cowboys and Indians, we all wanted to be the latter. And growing up in the center city, I drank in the magic of the Heard Museum.
My experience was a little wider. Working my way through college as an emergency medical technician and paramedic, I often responded to calls on the reservations, which at the time were very isolated and poor. We took patients to the Phoenix Indian Medical Center on 16th Street, and also the American Indian nursing home way down south on 83rd Avenue (in those days far from the city). The tribal police on the Salt River rez was highly competent — and its officers all very tall and big, no small advantage in dealing with the violence that came from drunkenness. Very poor houses would have surprising amulets inside: a picture of President Kennedy; a woven American flag; medals won in World War II.
A small detour: "Native American" strikes me as the cant of guilty white people. It's also imprecise: Anyone born here is a native American. And because "American" is an identity of the white invader and his deliberate or accidental genocide, it's potentially insulting to the Indians. (Although, just to show how complicated it all is, no prouder American exists than an American Indian veteran). All the American Indians I know who haven't been at Harvard call themselves "Indians." One of my partners on the ambulance, a full-blood Pima, had a bumper sticker on his car that read, "American Indian and Proud of It." Canada's "First Nations" is a more precise term. Even better are the specific names of the 500 nations that existed in 1491. The Pima also use the term Akimel O’otham, "the river people." For the purposes of this column, I'll risk being politically incorrect.
Arizona contains the largest land area set aside for reservations in the United States, and some of the most diverse tribal cultures and histories. They are separate nations with special treaty and governmental relations with the United States, often bypassing state laws. All have rich identities (the Navajos get the best press and the Code Talkers are hard to beat); many have age-old enmities (Navajo vs. Hopi being a big one). Many face crushing poverty. A few have built diversified economies despite their isolation. Casino gambling, which began in the 1990s, did little to help these tribes.
The reservations near Phoenix, however, are special. Virtually contiguous now with the metropolitan footprint, they have leveraged both population to fuel their casinos and the growth machine to gain revenue and development from one freeway (perhaps -- I hope not -- a second). Their casinos have grown into fairly lavish affairs, stoking the dreams of Phoenix's working poor. In the case of the Gila River tribe, they have added hotels and a resort. They are competitors for economic assets, such as stadiums. One small but meaningful sign of the tribes' power was their inclusion in T-Gen. The Salt River tribe has extensive office "park" development plans along the 101. All this has made these tribes much richer, although there was little-reported internecine conflict among families about who would profit from the sale of land for the 101, and much poverty and health problems persist. Another non-reported story: How tribal gambling revenues are invested and managed.
Off the rez, the urban Indian population in Phoenix faces special challenges: high poverty, economic marginalization, alcoholism and the widespread lack of economic and social mobility that face all the working poor in this vast, low-wage city. This is a diverse population, representing all the Arizona nations and many more, drawn to economic opportunities, such as they are, that in the city are still better than those available in rural areas. Although the Salt River community, especially, has reached out to its members in the city, these citizens lack advocates — and they certainly won't get it from the governing Kookocracy.
There's much wishful thinking among the Real Estate Industrial Complex that suburban sprawl can move out on the rez. At least that was the case in the mid-2000s, before the collapse. It's been a topic of intense debate inside tribal government, and some ideas were floated about offering long-term leases in subdivisions on Indian land. But most tribal members are against the entire enterprise. For one thing, they want better housing for themselves (as is often the case in tribal politics, members fight over what is an equitable division of resources and revenues). Also, unlike the perfidious white-eyes, the tribes genuinely hold to their roots in agriculture. This is especially the case with the Gila River nation.
Water, more than gambling and land, could be the major game changer for the state and region. To make a very long story short, approval of the Central Arizona Project and long litigation required a settlement of the rights to Gila River water belonging to the Pimas and Maricopas (and the Tohono O’odham, which we once called Papagos). For decades, the river had been diverted and dammed upstream, destroying the farming culture that went back centuries. Now the tribes control substantial water rights. Those rights will become ever more important as water resources become more scarce. Don't be fooled: the Colorado River is oversubscribed, and its allocations were made based on a historically high — and unsustainable — level of water flows. Moreover, despite this year's El Nino rains, the long-term outlook for snowpack (renewable water supplies) is bleak. Arizona has also done a dismal job of managing ground water, not to mention building a huge water-sucking nuclear station upwind of Phoenix. All this only increases the power of the tribes and the wild card of their water rights.
The Phoenix elites believe the tribes can be rolled to give up their water to sustain more sprawl. The tribes say they want to double their agriculture. I believe the Indians. And what they're doing is much more sustainable than 8 million people in central Arizona — or even 4 million.
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