Celebrate Native American Heritage in Salt River

Last Updated on February 20, 2020 by Janet Frost

**Disclosure: I was hosted by the Salt River Tourism Board. All opinions and Learning are mine.**

November is Native American Heritage Month. The U.S. has celebrated Native American Heritage Month since 1990. So, what better time to share my recent experiences and newly acquired knowledge from the Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Community? The Salt River tourism Board graciously hosted me and guided me through a uniquely immersive visit to their community. I met local artists, tribal leaders, fancy shawl dancers and the calendar stick Keeper.

Let’s Go! Learn Things about the Native American Heritage of Arizona…

Native American Heritage Month

November is Native American Heritage Month

Native Americans, or First Peoples of the Americas, traditionally lived a simple lifestyle in rhythm with the fluctuations of their natural world. These lifestyles were misunderstood and tragically under-appreciated by the encroaching European settlers. Over the years, the indigenous ways were systematically squashed. Beyond their lands, their crafts, languages and oral stories were also lost. The very purpose of Native American Heritage Month is to honor and recapture these cultures.

Hohokam and/or Ancestral Sonoran-Desert Peoples

Native American Heritage O'odham symbol
Man in the Maze symbol of the Sonoran Desert People

Sonoran Desert

The state of Arizona is home to 22 Native American tribes. These tribes range from cliff-dwelling Puebleans, to raiding Apache and desert-dwelling O’odham. The Sonoran Desert covers 100,000 square miles in southwest Arizona, southeast California and northern Mexico. This unique desert is home to the iconic Saguaro cactus and a vast array of biodiversity. It was also home to several groups of Native Americans who settled along small rivers and washes.


Native American Heritage Huhugam Ki Museum in Salt River
HuHugam Ki (House of the Ancestors) on the Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Community

As you visit museums and ancient historic sites throughout the Sonoran Desert you read about the Hohokam culture and peoples. In an example of the white settler’s misunderstanding, early archaeologists encountered the word Huhugam among the tribes and took this to be a reference to the ancestral tribe’s name. As a result, the Native Americans in the Phoenix/Tucson areas, have been considered descendants of this Hohokam tribe for generations. Today, Native cultural researchers are trying to reverse this name. The tribal cultural leaders explain that the word Huhugam in the Maricopa language means Ancestors but not a specific tribe name.

Ancestral Sonoran Desert People

Sonoran Desert

Dr. Emily Early, Curator of Anthropology, at the Arizona Museum of Natural History explains that modern experts are now using the name ancestral Sonoran Desert People. Today in the U. S., there are several tribal reservations in the Sonoran Desert. The vast majority intertwine as part of the O’odham Culture. They are the Ak-Chin, San Xavier, Tohono O’odahm, Gila River and the Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Community. In Tucson, the Pascua Yacqui, from the Northern Mexico Ute-Aztecas tribe is a rare exception to the O’odham group.

Any genealogy exploration requires following some convoluted historical trails. Within the Native American communities this is even more complicated. Over the generations, the U.S. government has arbitrarily defined borders, allocated lands, dictated tribal affiliations and even assigned irrelevant surnames. As we said before, most Native American cultures moved freely with the rhythms of the land and these arbitrary designations were foreign to their ways.

Salt River Native Community

Thank you for reading through all that background. I have tried to sort it out and make it as accurate as possible. Since arriving in Arizona I have tried to respectfully piece together an accurate overview of the indigenous people that populated this glorious region first.

For this article, we are going to take a closer look at the Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Community, found right smack in the middle of the bustling Phoenix Metro area. This community is proud of its unique balance of urban tourist entertainment and simple traditional life. They have come out from behind their casino and opened their community and hearts to those seeking to appreciate their way of life.

Salt River

The Salt River is the major water source running out of the Superstitions Mountains down into the Phoenix area. As you can see on the map above, it joins up with the Gila River just southwest of Phoenix. Native Americans logically settled along both of these tributaries. Arizona has a desert climate that cycles between arid conditions with dried up river beds and monsoons that produce flash floods along these waterways. The tribes that lived along these rivers were truly civil engineers. They produced an extensive and complex system of canals that carried life-giving water to villages and agricultural fields. Many of today’s canals run over the original ancient waterways.

Native American Heritage Ancient canal system along the Salt River in Phoenix
Extensive ancient canal system along the Salt River and Gila River

Pima and/or Maricopa

Ancestors that lived along the Salt River were a shared community of two tribes. Despite distinctly different languages and skills the Pima and Maricopa tribes co-existed for generations. Sometimes they were on opposite river banks and sometimes they were intermingled. Eventually, these two groups were assigned land together on the Salt River reservation.

The Pima were basketmakers and the Maricopa potters. Today many of the residents have a mixed background of Pima and Maricopa. The community is committed to preserving the two languages and the two special skills of each group. Maintaining two ancient languages is especially challenging for the community. Both languages were originally oral. They needed to create a written form in order to teach the new generations.

Urban and/or Village

Salt River Indian Community owns 52,000 acres in a north-south corridor along the 101 Loop, a major highway artery in Metro Phoenix. Some land is community owned and kept vacant to honor nature. Other areas are owned by many individual tribal members, this often requires that the various members must meet and agree on any development plans. The Tribe is committed to a city plan of developing an entertainment corridor along the 101 Loop, while maintaining land to the east for homes and resources to serve the tribe.

Talking Stick Resort & Casino

Talking Stick Resort and Casino is a community-owned enterprise that funds tribal resources like schools, hospitals and senior services. This sparkling venue beckons locals and out-of-towners with luxurious rooms, elegant rooftop dining, top level entertainers, spas, pools, and of course a first rate casino.

Great Wolf Lodge

The Great Wolf Lodge is a brand new “enterprise partner” with the Salt River Community. They just opened their 18th facility on the entertainment strip along the 101 Loop. I am old enough to remember the very first Lodge in The Dells of central Wisconsin. The corporation is very responsive to guests’ desires and improves their design with each new facility. As we toured the vast playground it seemed that they had thought of everything for every member of the family. This is the perfect “family” alternative to the very “”adult Talking Stick Resort down the street. I definitely see a night for with my grandsons in my future!

Even More Entertainment

Salt River Indian Community is literally and figuratively in the shadow of the illustrious Scottsdale. The two communities border each other for over 10 miles. Many popular attractions are actually in Salt River but have a Scottsdale address. For instance:

  • Topgolf a rapidly growing fun way to experience group golfing,
  • OdySea Aquarium and Butterfly Wonderland offer a great oasis in the desert
  • Salt River Fields the spring training facility for the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies
  • Talking Stick Golf Club a beautiful public golf course next to the Talking Stick Resort

Learn More about visiting Scottsdale

Explore Native American Heritage in the Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Community

So, if you, like millions of tourists, are visiting Scottsdale, be sure to wander into Salt River to explore their Native American heritage. I absolutely love meeting local people when I travel. The Salt River Tourism Board is happy to help you deeply explore their community. Salt River residents are embracing their past, present and future and love sharing with guests.

Local Sculptor

Jeffrey Fulwilder is a steel sculptor with beautiful cultural pieces around the community. He spent an afternoon touring his sculptures and sharing the stories behind them. Although he refuses to call himself an “artist”, he certainly fits the bill. His pieces portray many of the elders’ songs and dances that are slipping away from the tribal memory.

Calendar Stick Keeper

Royce Manuel is the community Calendar Stick Keeper. Like Jeffrey he is an artist and storyteller. He is also a valuable historian and archivist. In the Salt River area the phrase Talking Stick has been adopted, but Calendar Stick is more traditionally correct. Royce was a fount of stories describing his childhood and the significant events for the tribe. The Smithsonian displays an 1880 Calendar Stick from the region. Royce has traveled to Washington to study and recreate this important artifact for the community.

Native Art Market

The Native Art Market is an annual market that runs from October – March at the Pavilions at Talking Stick shopping center.

HuHugam Ki Museum

Learn Native American Heritage at HuHugam Ki Museum in Salt River

 Huhugam Ki Museum is open Monday-Friday 9:30-4:30 with tribe members available to answer questions about the community history and displays. The building itself was built with the traditional natural resources used throughout the generations by the Salt River tribe. Saguaro ribs, Ocotillo stalks, mud from Red Mountain and Mesquite trunks were used. A mesquite pancake breakfast is offered 3 times a year in March/April, June and November. In addition, there are several celebrations throughout the year when vendors set up shop to display their artwork or share their food.

Learn More about Ancient Sonoran Desert ruins…

Red Mountain Eagle Pow Wow

A very special treat was experiencing the Red Mountain Eagle Pow Wow. The Red Mountain Eagle Pow Wow is an annual celebration, always held the first weekend in November, and everyone is welcome.   It is a celebration of Native American Heritage from across the Americas. There were dance contestants from a variety of tribes from California to Maine and into Canada. This was a cacophony of color and drums, cheering and celebration of friends and family.

I learned about the Fancy Shawl dancers, Grass dancers, and Jingle Dress dancers. What I also learned is that these are the public dances common to all tribes and regions. However, each tribe has their own private dances that are seen only at the individual tribal ceremonies.

Native American Heritage in Salt River

I want to leave you with this montage of Basket Dancers. It is a deeply reverent expression of gratitude for the harvest gifts of the land. The Salt River Pima/Maricopa Indian Community is paving a way between ancient traditions and modern interpretations. Plan your visit today with Salt River Tourism.

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One thought on “Celebrate Native American Heritage in Salt River”

  1. Great post – lots of good information on both the history and ways to connect with it. I’ve been curious about the Huhugam Ki Museum and had it on my list for this year’s visit to the Phoenix area. I didn’t know about the pow wow in November – Might have to make a fall trip for that some time!

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