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Arizona Experience Store

American Indian Tribes and Communities in Arizona

Tribal lands of Arizona.Twenty-two sovereign American Indian communities currently inhabit Arizona, representing a wealth of cultural diversity. Total reservation land covers over a quarter of the state. Some tribes are descended from Arizona’s very first inhabitants. Others appeared just a few centuries before Spanish explorers trekked into the area. Today an estimated 5 to 6% of Arizona’s total population is of American Indian ancestry. In fact, the state has the second largest American Indian population in the entire U.S.

Information from the Heard Museum and the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona.

A Brief History of Arizona’s American Indian Reservations

Montezuma Castle National MonumentIt is postulated that the tribes of Arizona are descended from at least seven linguistic groups. From each linguistic group, several distinct cultures emerged, each developing their own language, customs, clothing, and way of life. Some, like the Cocopah and Quechan tribes which share Yuman linguistic heritage, retained relatively close geographic and cultural ties to each other. Others, like the Navajo (Dine) and the Apache, embraced separate lands and lifestyles though they share common Athabascan linguistic ancestry. For centuries, these individual groups farmed, hunted, built, and lived as their ancestors had. Some built cities sheltered in cliffs, and some engineered some of the most advanced canals in the ancient world. Life was not always peaceful, and food was not always abundant. In fact, geographic evidence points to several periods of drought that correspond with human migration patterns. But these cultures and their forebears existed in relative stasis for centuries, a time frame that many Americans, as newcomers to a very young nation, cannot fully grasp.

Around 1528, Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca became the first known European to explore the land of the American Southwest. Just a few years later, members of the Coronado expedition encountered the Cocopah Indians as they made their way up the Colorado River. In the next two centuries, explorers, miners, and missionaries entered the land that is now Arizona, many of them showing hostility and hubris toward the original inhabitants of the land they invaded. Tribes were forced to change their behavior to adjust to these newcomers.

Apache women and children gathered together, flanked by soldiers or frontiersmen.

By the mid-1800s, American settlers were pouring into the land. As they searched for wealth, they, too, paid little respect to the people who had lived in a balance with the land for hundreds of years. Many new settlers were openly hostile, declaring war, poisoning, or shooting native people. Military units from the U.S. government relocated Indian families, forcing children and elders to march the tough terrain until many died of exposure or exhaustion.

Thousands of American Indians in Arizona were murdered over the next century. Tribal lands that ranged across the state were shrunk to reservations of just a few thousand acres, a tiny fraction of what they once were. Beginning in the 1860s, these tribes were placed on these reservations, sometimes forced to share the space with other, separate tribes. Today’s Indian communities reflect this forced commingling of culture.

In 1887, the Dawes Act, also known as the General Allotment Act, authorized the U.S. President to survey tribal land and divide it into allotments for individual Indians. The purported purpose was to assimilate American Indians toward developing American cultural values of individual property ownership and sedentary lifestyles. It was thought that private lands would give one the ability to farm. However, no instruction or start up monies were offered, and many individuals had trouble making the transition to this type of lifestyle. Many tribe members sold their land to speculators who offered them very low values for their acreage. In many ways the Act contributed to the further unraveling of the tribes’ traditional ways of life.

In 1934, the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, also known as the Wheeler Howard Act, restored a tribe’s rights to manage their own lands and form government. Tribes sharing reservation land grew together to form sovereign nations under one government. Though tribes living on some reservations in Arizona retain different ancestry, culture, and language, they became one nation. The Gila River Indian Community, where Pima (Akimel O’odham) and Maricopa Indians live together, is an example of one government comprised of more than one original tribe.

Visitors are allowed on many of these reservations, though they must adhere to tribal rules and regulations. Some tribes share their culture through museums and ceremonies that are open to the public. Individuals sell art or handmade crafts such as jewelry, woven linen or baskets. Many nations get income from agriculture, industrial mineral mining, or leasing land for industrial parks.

Many also receive revenue from casinos. Several tribes in Arizona opened casinos in accordance with the provisions of the federal 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Now visitors to most reservations in Arizona can enjoy some form of gaming.

Some of Arizona’s most spectacular land formations and historic sites are located on reservation land. The Havasupai Tribe is the guardian of Havasu Canyon (also known as Cataract Canyon), a side canyon of the Grand Canyon with four waterfalls and vivid blue-green pools of mineralized water. Across Arizona, on the Mogollon Rim, the Colorado Plateau, or the low desert of Arizona’s basin and range area, many tribal governments are creating preserves and developing sustainable tourism.

Inter Tribal Council of Arizona

The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona was established in 1952 to provide a united voice for tribal governments located in the State of Arizona. On July 9, 1975, the council established a private, non-profit corporation, Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc.(ITCA), to promote Indian self-reliance through public policy development. The members of ITCA are the highest elected tribal officials: tribal chairpersons, presidents and governors. ITCA operates more than 30 projects and employs a staff of 70 to provide on-going technical assistance and training to tribal governments in program planning and development, research and data collection, resource development, management and evaluation. ITCA projects include community development strategies for infrastructure developments within the reservations, as well as health programs to assist tribes in creating healthy communities through capacity building and technical assistance. Focus areas are health policy, program development and training in areas that include behavioral health issues, diabetes and other chronic diseases, oral health, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. ITCA also helps tribes negotiate rights for water, implement support services to senior citizens, promote environmental quality and land stewardship, and many other health, human, and family services.