When American Indians talk about the land, they use words like “tenderness,” “spirituality” and “memory.”
They are not words usually associated with soil and rocks and brush — at least not in the modern world, where development is almost always about one thing: money.
If it were just about money on the Gila River Indian Community, the tribes would be poised to make a lot more of it. With 372,000 acres, the reservation holds the largest undeveloped land mass at the heart of the one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas.
Chandler, Tempe and Phoenix press against it, clamoring for space, traffic lanes and business opportunities.
Certainly, the reservation — perhaps more than any other in Arizona — has benefited economically from its location and size.
The community -- comprised of the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Pee Posh (Maricopa) tribes -- has built three casinos over the past nine years and opened a resort and spa, four industrial parks, a theme park and a golf course, catering to the throngs of outsiders who cluster along the reservation’s boundaries.
By all accounts, those developments are transforming the reservation and the lives of its members.
But development is mainly on the outskirts of the reservation – the parts closest to the outside world. Inside, the reservation remains largely a place of unmarked two-lane roads, of dust devils dancing over wide-open spaces littered with scrub brush and rock.
For the most part, tribal members would like to keep it that way. While they welcome economic development and the rising standard of living it brings, they say they do not want economic development at any cost.
Other things are more important, they say – things like history and honor and the sustenance of future generations.
“Not everybody does things for money,” said Peterson Zah, the former president of the Navajo Nation and a special adviser on American Indian Affairs at Arizona State University. “You don’t put a dollar value on your culture.”
Location, location, location
Just two decades ago, the Gila River reservation was an isolated place.
It was miles from the main business centers in the Valley, and it was the rare non-tribal members who ventured onto its land.
Then came the Valley’s boom.
Over the past two decades, Maricopa County was the fourth fastest-growing county in the nation, expanding from just over 2 million residents in 1990 to 3.6 million in 2005 -- a 71.9 percent increase, according to the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. Phoenix itself grew 47.7 percent between 1990 and 2005, becoming the sixth largest city in the U.S.
When legalized gambling came to Arizona in the early 1990s, no one was better situated than the Gila River and Salt River Pima-Maricopa tribes. Located just a few miles from the heart of the growth, the Gila River community built one, then two, then three casinos in quick succession.
They were followed by a variety of other business ventures – industrial parks and a western theme park and a billboard company.
“Location is the key,” said Laura Mier, a real estate professional and associate faculty member at ASU. “The development has come to them because of the population growth around.”
A similar story can be told about development on the Salt-River Pima-Maricopa reservation because of its close proximity to booming Scottsdale, Mesa and Tempe, Mier said.
Jacob Moore, a partner with the Generation Seven Strategic Partners, said Gila River is approached by developers almost every day. Most of the offers are either for office or retail development.
Some get built. Three big commercial projects have been developed along the Loop 101 on the edge of the Salt River reservation and claimed about 700 acres of tribal land, Moore said.
They include the Riverwalk Arizona project with 187 acres of office and retail space and the Arizona Design Center, a collection of the region’s leading home design showrooms, as well as Pima Center, a 3.5-million-square foot business park that is being expanded to include retail outlets.
Across the street from Pima Center is Opus Calendar Stick, another 24-acre office park that broke ground in June 2004.
While these projects were accepted by the tribes, many more projects have been turned down, Moore said.
Home-building proposals, for example, have consistently been rejected by Salt-River tribal leaders, because the tribe is not interested in residential development for non-members, Moore said.
Most non-Indian communities just “see the development opportunities,” he said. “The tribes see deeper than that; it’s where their grandparents lived.”
Tribal leaders are often slow to embrace development because they are conscious of making decisions for future generations, added Janet Apkaw-Williams, former economic development director for the Gila River community.
“It’s really important what we do with land and economic development now and in the future,” Apkaw-Williams said. “We are here to stay for generations.”
View of the land
The main reason economic development happens differently on the reservation has to do with the Native American’s relationship to the land.
Traditionally, land was not something to be owned. Land was perceived as a sustainer of life, crucial to survival, and it was the role of those living on the land to care for it, much as they would care for a family member.
“On the reservation, land means everything,” Zah said. “It touches religious beliefs and spiritual reality.”
Navajos, for example, name sacred places in their prayers. One of them is San Francisco Peaks, part of the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff, which Navajos believe have spiritual powers. The peaks are also sacred to 12 other tribes.
Just as important, land is a limited resource for Native American tribes. There is only so much tribal land recognized in agreements with the U.S. government, and there is unlikely to ever be more.
“Outsiders can pick up and leave, but we have nowhere else to go,” Apkaw-Wiliams pointed out.
These are all reasons why reservations develop slowly, at least in relative terms, said real estate professional Mier.
“Commercial developers only go for the big bucks,” she said. “Indian developers have tenderness toward land.”
Growing up in California, Mier watched as people built up the California coast, despite mudslides and other natural disasters. “Land has a fingerprint and a memory,” she said. “But developers don’t care about that.”
Another brake on development is the simple fact that acquiring land on a reservation is so difficult.
Federal law prohibits the sale or mortgage of reservation land because it is held in federal trust for each tribe. The tribal council can enter into long-term lease agreements with members or outsiders to allow them use of the land, but the tribe retains legal title.
Non-members can lease land only if Gila River officials and the U.S. Bureau of
Indian Affairs approve it. So far, no non-members have been granted leases for commercial purposes; all commercial businesses on the reservation are community-owned enterprises, Apkaw-Williams said.
In some cases, families own allotments, or parcels of land that have been passed down through the generations since the early 1900s. The land is owned in common by the family members rather than by individuals – another factor that makes it hard for an outsider to acquire land.
Family allotments are usually limited to tribal members. A non-member has a claim on land only if his or her spouse – a tribal member – dies. Even then, he or she can’t transfer use of the land unless the tribal government agrees.
Members are free to lease their property to other members, but developments are subject to Gila River Indian Community zoning and other regulations.
All of this is a way to keep tribal lands intact, Apkaw-Williams said. Otherwise, individuals could sell off parcels until the reservation had little land left. The system also keeps the land in the hands of tribal members.
A case in point
Will Graven has a big idea.
The Ahwatukee resident and owner of North American Building and Development Co. and Arizona Building Systems, wants to develop 11,000 acres of industry, offices and shops on the Gila River reservation southwest of Chandler.
He has told reporters that his project, which he proposed last year, could generate more money in a year for Gila River community members than its gambling casinos do.
The proposed development would include retail, industrial and office buildings and possibly housing for community members. It would stretch from the Santan Freeway south to Riggs Road and from Price to Maricopa Roads, excluding the Firebird Lake area.
Graven has said he’s ready to put up about $2 billion to finance the project.
He may be enthusiastic, but the odds are against him.
Graven is a non-tribal member. And the land he wants to develop is mostly owned by an estimated 4,500 individuals, all of whom hold family allotments and many of whom live off the reservation.
The developer also has to deal with the Gila River Indian Community’s Economic Development Department, which would have to rezone the land and approve buildings, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has to approve all leases.
The process could go on for years.
At least one tribal resident, Weldon Salkey, vice president and a founding member of the Gila River Business Owners Association, has spoken out against the proposed development.
“I remember when there was no electricity and running water and when people promised us all kinds of things and never realized anything,” said Salkey, who was born and raised on the reservation.
He has little patience for promises of future prosperity.
“Land is forever; money is not going to last,” he said.
Preserving the middle
If Graven’s development ever becomes a reality, it will join other enterprises along the perimeter of the Gila River reservation.
Unlike surrounding communities, economic development on the Gila River reservation has occurred almost entirely along the borders. The interior of the reservation is preserved as a place to live and practice culture relatively undisturbed.
“The center is the heart of the structure. It’s where the ceremonies are,” Moore said.
This is different from the way most communities develop, said Mier. “Traditional growth of cities was population driven,” she said, with the population moving outward from a central business core.
But in Gila River’s case, the main enterprises -- the casinos and industrial parks -- are lined up along Interstate 10 on the reservation’s perimeter. Homes, government services and small shops and businesses that cater primarily to tribal members are located deep inside the reservation, where non-members rarely go.
One example: To reach the Gila River government center in Sacaton from the Wild Horse Pass Casino just off I-10 south of Phoenix, you drive almost 19 miles through mostly deserted landscape.
The geographic arrangement helps the community preserve its culture, Apkaw-Wiliams said -- something that is a significant challenge for tribes in metropolitan areas.
The closer the tribes are to cities, the better economic development opportunities they have, but the harder it is to maintain native languages and traditional ways of life.
“We have a lot of traditional ways that are sacred and need to be preserved from the outside,” Apkaw-Williams said.
Some of those traditions include religious practices such as burying ceremonies and certain prayers that are closed to non-members.
“There are so many prejudices about us from the outside communities,” said Lucius Kyyitan, deputy director of Gila River’s Office of Water Rights. “People say that what we do is voodoo and strange, (but) we just want to practice our traditions and be left alone.”