Gila River Indian Community: The People of the River

BRENT MURPHREE

June 10, 2011 - 4:56 pm
The dig site at Snaketown on the Gila River south of the community of Baptule. Photo courtesy of Maricopa Historical Society.

Through much of northwestern Pinal County and north into Maricopa County lives a community of people who have used the resources of the river for centuries. 

As the non-Native American population in central Arizona grows at a dramatic rate, the Gila River Indian Community also is playing a key role in the rush to develop south of the Phoenix Metro area.

As early as 300 B.C., ancestors of the tribe, called the Hu Hu Kam, farmed the area of the Gila River between Florence and the Estrella Mountains. It is believed they are the ones who built the Casa Grande Ruins near Coolidge.

While initially being migratory hunters and gatherers because of the reliable water of the river, the tribe soon developed extensive irrigation systems for crops such as corn, cotton, beans and squash. They supplemented their farming with the natural resources of the area.Venison and small game were abundant in the area. Cactus fruit, prickly pear pads and agave hearts were gathered at the right times of the year.

Marshy areas along the river provided the cattail grasses for basket weaving, and silty areas of the river basin provided the clay for pottery. The water, brought into the desert by the river, was the life-blood. Migratory peoples moved among the river tribes, trading furs, shells and other commodities in return for the agricultural products produced here along the river. Trade became an important part of Gila River tribal life. 

In the early 1500s, the peaceful tribes welcomed the Spanish into the area, and Father Keno moved through the area establishing missions. Juan Bautista de Anza camped among the tribes in 1774. They called the place “Las Lagunas del Hospital.”

In the 18th century, the Akimel O'odham (Pima) welcomed the exiled Pee Posh (Maricopa).  Increased hostilities on the Colorado River had pushed the Pee Posh up the Gila. They formed an early bond with the tribes already established along the Gila, and as the Europeans increased in numbers they formed an alliance that would lead to their partnership in a single tribal council that continues today.

The partnership officially began in 1859 when the community of villages was established by executive order in Washington, D.C.  In 1939 the community was incorporated as the largest reservation in the Phoenix metropolitan area.

 

It covers 600 square miles and today borders the communities of Phoenix, Laveen, Goodyear, Chandler and Gilbert on its northern boundaries and Maricopa, Casa Grande and Coolidge at the southern boundary.

 

Maintaining its agricultural roots, the community has been instrumental in the development of Pima cotton — the finest quality American cotton on the market.  It has also reached back to establish and maintain native varieties of beans and squash. 

In 1968 the tribal council modified traditional garden plots into an organized farm and established Gila River Farms. Today it is a 15,000-acre farm with a diverse selection of crops that provide year-round income and jobs for tribal members.

However, farming is not the community's only economic venture.  Lone Butte Industrial Park along I-10, adjacent to Chandler has been nationally acclaimed as one of the nation's most successful Native American industrial parks. Further, the sport-racing venue at Firebird Lake draws race fans throughout the year. It is also the home to Bondurant School of High Performance Driving.

The community's current economic boon is its three casino properties. The 1993 agreement with the state has helped the tribe to great economic gains. The enterprise provides nearly 2,000 jobs, 60 percent of which are held by tribal members. 

The gaming enterprises have led to partnerships with several other non-tribal groups for management of the Whirlwind Golf Club and the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa, a 500-rom hotel complex.

With a diverse economic foundation the community is set to thrive. However, their biggest advantage is yet to come. With the increased demand for housing south of the community and increased use of water for developing urban communities, the Gila River Community finds itself holding the most valuable resource in the desert — water.

Only with water can the land south of the Gila River continue to support increased growth. Continued agreements with surrounding communities for water and for transportation can only help our neighbors along the Gila River.

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