Founding Father Forgotten


Wally Davis Sr. feels like a Native American without a tribe.

Even though he is the Tonto Apache Reservation's only living founding father.

Even though he has lived on "the rez" since its creation in 1972 and was vice chairman of its very first three-man tribal council.

Even though, without his hard work, determination and faith in God, neither the council nor the reservation would likely exist today.

Despite Davis' accomplishments, and because he was born into the White River Apache Tribe 63 years ago, and stayed only for the first 11 years of his life, he says he has been turned down for membership in the Tonto Apache Tribe and therefore gets none of its membership benefits.

For example, if Polly Davis, Wally's tribe-member wife, were to die, the couple have been told Wally would have to move out of their home on the Tonto Apache Reservation. And whenever profits from the Mazatzal Casino are mailed out to members, Polly gets a check. Wally does not.

"It makes no sense to us," Polly said. "We applied last year for his membership, and they told us they'd let us know. But they never answered back because of something to do with (Wally's White River Apache) blood."

Roger Martin, pastor of the reservation's only place of worship, the Full Gospel Family Church, is equally perplexed.

"Wally doesn't have to prove himself, because he already has" said Martin, one of many reservation residents hoping to petition the council for Davis' tribal membership. "Don't get me wrong; this community has been very well-managed, and has grown beyond anyone's imagination. There's a new, very aggressive council, and they're very busy. Perhaps this was just an oversight. But before Wally and the other founding fathers got together, there was no council, no reservation, no spokesman, no casino.

"There was nothing until the founding fathers declared themselves a tribe. None of them got a dime for all their work. And Wally is the only one of them that's still alive, still here for everyone on the reservation to thank."

Davis himself isn't feeling confused so much as inexplicably rejected.

"It makes me sad that they didn't accept me as a member, it does," he said. "After working for (the Tonto Apaches) all these years, they turned me down."

Vivian Burdette, chairman of the Tonto Apache Tribal Council, said she could not confirm the rejection of Davis' tribal membership application.

"Those go to the enrollment committee, so I am not aware of (Davis) applying for membership," she said. "But the enrollment committee would know."

A call to that committee resulted only in this brief comment from Belinda Guerra: "I am not at liberty to talk about it, because enrollment is confidential."

Burdette did say that, "As far as I know, there has been a provision made on (Davis') behalf." But she didn't state what it might be, and the Davises don't have a guess between them.

Asked if Wally Davis would indeed have to leave his home and the reservation if his wife were to die, Burdette answered, "Not at this time," but did not elaborate.

Vanishing history

What bothers the Davises and Martin beyond the tribe membership issue, however, is their belief that the history of the Tonto Apache Reservation is being lost forever.

"You'd think they would, but even some of the council members probably don't know the beginnings of the tribe," Martin said. "They were younger or they weren't there. They all remember 'Chief' Melton Campbell (another of the three founding fathers), but that's all.

"They don't know about Wally's contribution. If he and the others had ever said, 'Forget about it,' there would be no tribe today. Instead, they showed up, they learned, they donated their time, they had no budget or money, and there is a reservation today because they did not give up."

Many who live on the reservation "really don't understand the hard things that we went through," Polly said. "They really don't know how so many of us grew up, because right now they're living in a nice, big home.

"The kids today think that the way it is now is the way it's always been. They all want CDs, a big TV; in the old days, we played with rocks.

"Some of our (15) grandchildren don't even know that their grandfather was a tribal vice-chairman at one time," she said. "They don't know we were both on the council; I ran against my husband in the early '70s, and I won by one vote. But the next election, my son Kenny beat me."

Not only that, the Davis' daughter Louise Lopez (the first Tonto Apache to graduate from Payson High School) once served as council chairman. Today, their youngest daughter, Tina, is on the council.

"I'm proud of my kids," Wally said. "Every one of them went in."

All but one. The couple adopted 5-year-old Michael, the son of Vinnie Campbell, who died in 1977. Michael was only two weeks away from his 16th birthday when he died of a heart attack in 1990.

The last living founding father

Born in Cibecue, a tiny Arizona town lodged in the White Mountains between Show Low and Globe, Wally Davis was 12 years old when he left his family to work in a Christopher Creek sawmill. In 1950, though, he suddenly found himself unemployed when the sawmill shut down due to consistently poor weather.

Davis traveled farther west to Payson, where he found a new job at the Owen Brothers Sawmill, as well as a makeshift home a cardboard shack, actually on top of "Indian Hill," in the vicinity of RimView and McLane, along with about five other Native American families.

"But one day, some people came and told us to move because they were going to sell the land," Davis recalled. "None of us knew what to do. We didn't have any place to go."

A Rim country resident named Alan Curtis came to the families' rescue.

"He went to the Forest Service to see if he could get us squatters' rights to move to where the rodeo ground is now," Davis said. "The Forest Service said OK, so we moved there and built some new cardboard shacks to live in.

"We stayed there I don't know how many years ... We eventually got road gravel, and electricity came in. But we never had running water. We had to haul water in five-gallon cans from the sawmill (where Sawmill Crossing is now being built). We had no real 'bathroom.' It was really bad."

In the late 1950s, Davis met and married his wife and they had four children. All of them lived together in the cardboard shack, through rain, sleet, snow and bitter cold.

Their lives began to change for the better in 1962, when they were visited by a local preacher, Jesse Orrin "J.O." Martin, the father of Roger Martin. "He told us that the Lord sent him to us," Davis said. "He started working with us. We all started going to church together.

"We told J.O. that because we didn't have any land of our own, we had been chased here and there. So he and Nan Pyle, who owned an art gallery right across from the Presbyterian church, helped us to get started in getting some land and told us we needed to form a tribe."

"We didn't know that a tribe had to have a chairman and a council," added Polly. "The only thing we knew was to respect the elders."

With the help of late Valley attorney Joe Sparks and a number of local Anglos, the families formed both a tribe and a council, for which 'Chief' Melton Campbell, who as a child was given the nickname 'Chief' by his white playmates, was chosen as chairman; Davis as vice chairman; his half-brother Justin Johnson as a council member; and Vinnie Campbell, Chief Campbell's sister, as secretary.

Using J.O. Martin's tiny, four-light-bulb church located where the Payson Event Center now stands as their council chambers, the foursome began traveling to Phoenix every Tuesday and Thursday to meet with attorney Sparks about obtaining grant money and how they should operate as a council.

"We stayed until about 2 a.m., then came back to work at the sawmill the next morning at 7. All of the costs came out of our own pockets," Davis said.

What the new tribe needed most, the three founding fathers and their secretary knew, was its own land. So they twice traveled again at their own expense to Washington, D.C.

"The first time the government said 'no.' A flat 'no.' They didn't want to give Indians any more land for reservations," Davis said. "But the second time, we got the land. Right where we are now, where the old dump used to be."

The Tonto Apache tribe was federally recognized in October 1972. President Richard Nixon signed into law an act of Congress giving the tribe which then had all of 42 members the option to choose 85 acres of forest land, which was finally selected and set aside in May 1974.

What changed all of those Washington minds?

"Prayer," Davis answered without pause. "We had prayed much. That's what got us this land."

What would have happened if those prayers had not been answered?

"We would have had to keep moving to new land, and keep getting kicked off and forced to move again," Wally said. "It was a blessing to get this land."

A house to build a dream on

In 1979, construction of houses funded by federal grant money through the Housing Improvement Program got under way. The first house was presented to Polly's mother, Ola Smith, still remembered as the "grandma" of the Tonto Apaches.

"When our house was built, we had a meeting with Chief (Campbell)," Davis said. "He gave us the keys and told us what to do and what not to do with the house. Like, we'd have to use toilet paper instead of a Sears-Roebuck catalog so the plumbing wouldn't get jammed up," he added with a rare grin.

"Things had really changed for us," Polly said. "We had a toilet and running water in the house. We had a real floor instead of just dirt. We had chairs and tables, so we could sit with our friends and have pie and coffee.

"I remember my mother would open all the windows because she felt like she was going to suffocate, because we weren't used to (being closed in). And we weren't used to not hearing the rain coming down on the roof. Where we had lived, there was water everywhere, even in the house. It was hard to find a place just to gather the kids and stay warm."

The change that was hardest to fathom, Polly said, was actually being the owners of a real home, on land from which they could not be removed by anyone.

"I couldn't believe it at first. I couldn't believe it was ours. I kept thinking that somebody was going to come around and tell us we needed to go someplace else. But it was a good feeling to throw away the milk can we'd used to haul water. For a long time, we still cooked outdoors. We didn't know how to use the (kitchen appliances).

"But we really enjoyed the house once we realized it was really ours."

"It felt good, it really felt good," her husband said. "When I first came (to Payson), I didn't know any of these people. But they took me in like I was one of them. They were the nicest people I ever met."

Some years after Wally stepped down as the council's vice chairman and completed an additional four-year term as a council member, he was offered membership.

"But he didn't take it then, because there were no benefits, and because there was no wood on this reservation," Polly said. "Wally had to keep going back to (his native White River Apache reservation) for wood for the families here. That's the only reason he ever went back."

"They didn't have gas heating on the reservation until just this year," Martin explained. "These homes depended on wood. Without wood, they wouldn't have survived. A Tonto Apache can't go on another reservation and take their wood. Without him keeping his White River membership, he wouldn't have been able to do that. "That's why he decided not to (become a member of the Tonto Apache Tribe) until later on."

"But later on, it was too late," Polly said. "They changed the rules."

That's not all that changed, she said.

"Our young people don't know the history of this reservation, or those who helped to create it," Wally said. "I think they should know."

"They really don't understand what we went through," lamented Polly. "No water, no electricity, having to use an outside bathroom even when it was snowy and rainy. They really don't know how so many of us grew up. The kids today don't want anything unless it's worth $300."

Whether or not the true history of the reservation ever becomes widely known and appreciated on the reservation, Wally Davis Sr. still has one other thing to hope for.

"I want to live here the rest of my life," he said.

Epilogue: the founding fathers

Vinnie Campbell died in 1976; Justin Johnson died in 1989; 'Chief" Melton Campbell died in 1992; Wally Davis Sr. is alive and well.

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