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What is the Gila River Indian Community?

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  • Written By: Angela B.
  • Edited By: Lucy Oppenheimer
  • Last Modified Date: 01 December 2016
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The Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) just south of Phoenix, Arizona, is a 372,000-acre American Indian reservation for members of the Pima and Maricopa tribes. The reservation was established in 1859 by an act of the U.S. Congress and was officially incorporated in 1939. It is governed by a tribal council that includes a governor, lieutenant governor, secretary, treasurer and representatives from each of the reservation’s seven districts. Sacaton, Arizona, is the reservation’s capital.

The GRIC’s people have a history in the region dating back to the prehistoric Hohokam Indians, who farmed the Gila River Basin as early as 300 B.C. They built canals to provide water from the Gila River to crops planted in the desert and prospered with a bounty of cotton, tobacco and assorted fruits and vegetables. These Native Americans developed a strong arts culture highlighted both by jewelry and by pottery made from the region’s famous red clay.

The Pima tribe that arose from the Hohokam was a peaceful tribe whose members welcomed visitors to their land, feeding and caring for weary travelers as they passed through on their way west to California’s gold rush. The Pima also extended a permanent welcome mat in the mid-1800s to members of the Yuman Maricopa tribe who had been driven from their land by other Yuman tribes. The two tribes — Pima and Maricopa — continue to coexist in the Gila River Indian Community.

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The community began thriving again after a period in the late 1800s and early 1900s when upstream dams and water diversions led the tribes’ vital water source to dry up and their crops to wither. Famine took its toll on the tribes’ population, and the federal government stepped in to provide food assistance. The drastic change in diet from fresh foods to processed and canned staples took its own toll, and obesity and diabetes became tribal issues that persist today.

The Gila River Indian Community has a diversified economy designed to incorporate the tribes’ heritage while securing their future. Farming has made a comeback; industrial parks have sprung up; and tourism-supported efforts such as resorts and casinos are thriving. The Gila Indian Center on Interstate 10 includes a museum, a restaurant and a shop featuring tribal arts and crafts for sale. Various heritage-themed festivals dot the reservation’s calendar, including the St. John’s Indian Mission Festival in March and an annual tribal fair in February. An arts festival of both Pima and Maricopa artistry is celebrated in November.

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LisaLou
Post 6

I have lived close to the Gila River Indian Community for a long time. There have been a lot of major changes through the years.

I think adding the casinos has made a big difference for them. I am not a big gambler, but this seems to have brought more tourists and money than anything else.

Every so often I check out their event calendar as they have some interesting fairs and events scheduled throughout the year. When I attended my first arts festival there, I learned more about the history of these people than I had known before.

It's funny how you can live close to something for a long time, and yet not know that

much about it. After attending that first festival, I have gone to several others since then.

I have some friends who schedule their visits with us around some of the annual events that are planned at this reservation. Of course, they spend some of their money at the casinos too, but at least they are putting some money back into this community that could use some help.

Mykol
Post 5

My sister lives in Phoenix and once when I was visiting her we attended the arts festival they have every November.

There was such an abundance of handmade pottery, jewelry and household items. Many of them were quite elaborate and very well done.

Almost every time I entertain, I use some of the Indian baskets I bought at this festival. I also purchased some unique pieces of jewelry for myself and to give as gifts.

There is a rich culture here that I really learned a lot from. I would have bought some of the pottery, but I didn't have a good way of getting it home.

If I am ever in Phoenix in February, I plan to make it a point to check out their annual tribal fair. This time I will know a little bit more about what to expect and how much money I can spend!

bagley79
Post 4

@sunnySkys - I also found it very discouraging to read how these Indians had to survive on canned food when their water supply dried up.

They demonstrated a lot of ingenuity and creativity when they first built their canals and the waterway system that enabled them to have so many abundant crops.

How frustrating that must have been when they no longer had access to this fresh water. It is a very good example of how a poor diet can lead to so many health problems.

It was good to read that farming is a part of their daily lives again. What a difference this has to make not only for their health, but for their attitudes as well.

ceilingcat
Post 3

I have a friend who stopped at this community during a road trip, and she really enjoyed herself. She visited the two museums, and visited the arts and crafts center. She also bought several pieces of handmade Indian jewelry that she loves and wears all the time.

My friend didn't stay at a resort in the community, but she said she would definitely consider going back for a more extended stay in the future. Apparently the resorts are very nice.

strawCake
Post 2

@sunnySkys - I have a friend who lives in Arizona, and she tells me that tourism is really booming on the Gila River Indian Community. In addition to bringing in a lot of outside money, having a casino and resorts also results in a lot of Gila River Indian Community jobs for the residents.

Also, another interesting fact about the Gila River Indian Community: it was the birthplace of one of the men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II. Apparently this is a point of pride with the residents of this community.

sunnySkys
Post 1

I find it a little depressing that the residents of this community suffered because of upstream dams and water diversions. I'm imagining these dams were probably built by the Federal government.

Then, even though the Federal government stepped in to help feed them, they did them a disservice by providing less than adequate food. I'm sorry, but canned food is no substitute for a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Still, it's good to hear that the Gila River Indian Community has diversified its economy and preserved Indian art, despite setbacks in the early 1900s.

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