For the Gila River Indian Community, economic development is about a lot more than building for the future.
It’s a chance to preserve the past.
The community has invested some of its newfound wealth in reinvigorating traditional practices in farming, arts and crafts and language.
Tim Moore, Gila Crossing Community School’s agriculture teacher, picks ripe eggplants from the school’s two-acre garden.
Some will end up at the community’s five-star Kai restaurant at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort; others will be served up at the trendy Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix.
Bur Moore said the real purpose of the garden is not to supply restaurants, but to teach youngsters about agriculture — and in the process, teach them something about their past.
The ancestors of the present community, the Akimel O’odham, People of the River, and Pee Posh, the People, were farmers. Both tribes settled on the banks of Gila and Salt River basins, transforming patches of desert into gardens. For centuries they grew cotton for clothing and rugs and crops of corn, melons, beans and fruits, Moore said.
In the late 19th century, non-Indian settlers arrived and diverted the Gila River water for their crops. Indian farms dried up, and years of famine followed, Moore said.
“After the famine, Gila River members were fed with beef, lard, cheese and canned goods by the federal government,” Moore said. “They developed diabetes by living that lifestyle.”
In 1930 when the U.S. government completed Coolidge Dam on the upper Gila River, things finally started looking up for the River People. The San Carlos Reservoir project included a canal and a pipe system that delivered some of the water to the reservation and the tribes started farming again.
Today, the Gila River community has about 16,000 acres in production, said Robert Stone, general manager of Gila River Farms. Many more acres will be cultivated in years to come as a result of Arizona Water Settlements Act, which gives the Gila River Indian Community control over a large portion of the state’s water. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is building a $400 million distribution system to deliver the water to farms on the reservation.
But first, Moore wants to teach the children.
His program is one of several that teach agriculture to children in pre-school through middle school. The children learn about the rituals of harvesting and the meaning of land as a circle of life, Moore said.
“Kids are re-learning culture and history,” he said. “We’re creating a vision. With the garden, we’re also looking into dietary issues and how to eat right.”
Students work in the school’s garden, caring for what the Akimel O’odham call three sisters: corn, bean and squash. When the vegetables are ripe, they take some home to their families to eat.
“This garden changed kids’ relationship with fruits and vegetables,” Moore said.
Although he has no trouble getting children in pre-school and elementary school excited about digging in the dirt, it’s hard to keep junior high students interested, he said.
“It’s an uphill battle for all the teachers dealing with junior high kids,” he said. “I measure success in small steps.”
The gardening program at Gila River Crossing School goes hand-in-hand with efforts to preserve another aspect of the community’s culture: its language.
When elderly tribal members come to the school to talk about the different crops, they speak in their native tongues.
Traditionally, the tribes of Gila River spoke the Maricopa and Pima language in four dialects, said Lucius Kyyitan, deputy director of Gila River’s Office of Water Rights.
Kyyitan, 58, who speaks all four dialects, is part of a small group working closely with the Gila River Education Department to develop a general language curriculum for Gila River schools.
There are 11 elementary, one high school and one alternative school spread out across the community’s seven districts, Kyyitan said. Only the seventh district teaches the Maricopa language, he said. The rest teach Pima.
“Schools have cultural programs, but they don’t necessarily teach all four dialects,” said Kyyitan, who also speaks Spanish, Hopi and Apache. “They usually teach the dialect used in that area.”
Kyyitan came up with the idea of integrating all four dialects into the schools’ curriculum after spending a year teaching Pima to elementary school children at Casa Blanca Community School in 2003.
For him, there is no more important work because without it, the native languages and dialects will die.
In the early 1900s, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs forced American Indians across the country to send their children to off-reservation boarding schools, such as the Phoenix Indian School, where they were forbidden to speak their native languages.
Kyyitan said he has spoken to many elderly members of the tribe who spent their youths in boarding schools and never learned their native languages.
When the schools began teaching the language again in earnest a few years ago, the elder tribal members urged them to offer night classes so that everyone — not just the children — could learn the Pima and Maricopa languages.
Kyyitan said he supported the idea, in part because he didn’t learn Pima himself until he was an adult.
“If I can do it, everyone can do it,” he said.
Three years ago, the Gila River community spent $10 million on one grand gesture to preserve its culture and built the HuHuGam Heritage Center.
Located on the reservation one mile west of Interstate 10 at the junction of Maricopa Road and Queen Creek Road, the center is a place for families to gather and learn about the art, history and culture of their tribes.
The name for the center comes from the prehistoric HuHuGam, or Hohokam, who farmed the Gila River Valley from 300 B.C to 1450 A.D. They dug hundreds of miles of canals to supply water to their fields.
The center is surrounded by an earth berm, reminiscent of the rim of an olla — a large jar for hauling and storing water, according to the center’s Web site. The inside of the berm is stepped like HuHuGam agricultural terraces.
Inside, the center has a cultural learning center, a gallery of contemporary art by tribal members, a museum displaying historic artifacts, cultural materials and vital records and a gathering place for tribal members and visitors.
Moore, who is a member of the neighboring Salt-River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, said few Indian communities have the resources to build a place to preserve their artifacts and records.
“For many tribes, their cultural remainings are in museums such as the Smithsonian (because) they don’t have the resources to store and maintain it,” he said.
Amil Pedro, a Gila River community artist who created two murals for the center, is a regular guest, along with his wife Anne Powers-Pedro.
Pedro, 64, spends all of his time on his art — and teaching children about art.
His signature black arrow can be spotted on the art design for the bed covers, various paintings and decorative gourds throughout the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort. He spends all of the royalties from the resort on art workshops for tribal children.
The workshops are sponsored by the Gila River Arts and Crafts Center,
A tribal-sponsored entrepreneurship program Pedro joined a year ago that allows him to do what he has always wanted: pass on his knowledge to others.
“Before (my membership at) the entrepreneurship program, it was about how much (art) I have sold,” he said. “But when I joined, it was about educating people and teaching about Gila River traditions.”