First there was the river and the land-the Gila River that wound westward across south-central Arizona and the surprisingly fertile Sonoran Desert. Some 6,000 years ago, various cultural groups collectively labeled the Archaic peoples, who lived by hunting and gathering along the river’s banks and adjoining up land terrain, wandered into this realm.
Circa 300 B.C., these early inhabitants were joined by peoples from central Mexico, transformed by concepts and technology introduced from the south. From this merger arose the Hohokam (or Huhukam) people-our ancestors-who conducted trade over great distances and became superb farmers. Fed by waters of the Gila River, they constructed some
500 miles of large canals (on average 10 feet deep and 30 feet wide!) linked to smaller ditches, so watering thousands of acres of farmland. Transforming the desert into gardens, the Hohokam grew cotton for clothing, rugs and other textile products, and crops of corn, melons, beans, fruits, tobacco and other foods. They supplemented these crops with game, mesquite beans, agave, cactus fruit and other foods gathered locally from the wilds or in trade, enabling them to settle into large population centers. Here their arts flourished, including production of fine pottery and jewelry, the latter worked with imported shell and other materials. During the Hohokam’s “Classic Period” (circaA.D.1150-1450), this lifestyle apparently supported between 50,000 and 60,000 people, with some villages holding several thousand residents and containing large public buildings (formed largely of adobe), religious centers and sunken clay courts where an exciting, ritualistic ball game was played. But around A.D.1450, for unknown reasons, the urban centers were abandoned. Perhaps there was an extended drought, or pressures brought by the arrival of new Native peoples to the region -foremost the fierce, nomadic Apache-or a loss of public faith in leadership. At any rate, the Ho-Hokam culture dispersed.
The missionaries converted many of our people to the Roman Catholic faith, and introduced new crops, cattle, horses, sheep and goats, and new technologies – which were quick to adapt to our own uses. But we were largely ignored, and life largely went on little changed, during the Spanish era and in the period following Mexico’s break from Spain 1821.The situation, however, took a radical turn in the next historical phase.
19th and 20th centuries
In 1846, southern Arizona fell under the influence of the United States following the Mexican-American War. In 1848, gold was discovered in California and tens of thousands of ill prepared men streamed across America heading toward dreams of riches. One of the primary routes was across southern Arizona. Between 1849 and 1851, an estimated 60,000 travelers arrived among our peaceful people, many starving or near death from dehydration and/or wounds inflicted in battle by the warring Apache to the east and the Yuman tribes to the west of our lands. Here the travelers rested and ate well, enjoying our bounty of wheat, corn, beans, pumpkins, watermelon, squash, peas and other foods. Indeed, one grateful member of the Mormon Battalion wrote in his journal in I846, en route from New Mexico to California to secure that state during the Mexican American War, “They are a noble race.” And wrote Lt. Sylvester Mowry in 1857, “Their stores of wheat and corn have supplied many a starved emigrant, and restored his broken down animals.”
We were also hospitable to other tribes as well. In the 1840s (though some sources suggest this occurred as early as the mid 1700s), the Akimel O’odham offered refuge to the Maricopa tribe, a Yuman tribal people who had been driven eastward from the lower Colorado River area by other Yuman tribes. The Maricopa, who called themselves the “Pee Posh,” settled in with the Akimel O’odham, and to this day we share the space and resources of the Gila River lands. In I854, the Gadsden Purchase officially made southern Arizona part of a United States Territory. In appreciation for the important role the Akimel O’odham played in America’s westward expansion, in 1859 Congress established the first reservation in Arizona, encompassing 372,000 acres along the Gila River. In 1862, putting our agricultural skills to work, our people grew more than one million pounds of wheat, most of which we sold. Our prospects looked good.
However, our lifeblood -Gila River water - was cut off in the 1870s and 1880s by construction of upstream diversion structures and dams by non-Native farmers, and our farming was largely wiped out. From 1880 to 1920 or so, we faced mass famine and starvation. The federal government stepped in and doled out canned and processed food by the ton. The change in diet proved disastrous, leading to extremely high rates of obesity and diabetes-a condition we still face today. With almost no jobs available on the reservation, and the loss of our cash crops, our people faced widespread poverty as well. Alcoholism raised its ugly head, and our people experienced the loss of certain cultural and artistic traditions and rituals. It was the darkest moment in our long history.
But, we proved resilient and eked out a marginal existence for several precarious decades. Conditions finally began to improve in the 1930s, when the U.S. government completed Coolidge Dam on the upper Gila River, creating the San Carlos Reservoir. The project included a canal and pipe system to deliver some of this lake water to our reservation, restoring a portion of our farming practices. This was the beginning of a long climb out of the economic trenches. Men began to find work off the reservation following World War I and World War II as the introduction of cars made travel to booming Phoenix possible. Eventually, small businesses began to appear on the reservation as well, launched both by the community and individual tribal members. Schools, health centers and new housing appeared. Income levels slowly grew and famine was erased. These trends continue today as the Gila River Indian Community looks toward a promising future.