It was 30 years ago this week that President Richard Nixon signed a bill allocating 85 acres of government land to be set aside for the newly recognized Tonto Apache Tribe. Unlike other reservations that had been established by executive order and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, this rightful step resulted from an act of Congress. But only after a campaign waged by newly educated Tonto leaders and a sympathetic white community in Payson.
One of those benefactors was Nathalie Smith Pyle. In their own rich language the Tontos called her "a woman who has a heart as big as she is." She was indeed a large woman.
She had come to Payson from the East and married pioneer rancher Lewis Pyle. Nan was a philanthropist, and soon became aware of the plight of the Tonto Apache families squatting on forest land south of town. They simply called it "The Camp." It had no electricity or running water and the families lived in shacks built from whatever material they could collect around town. It was the last of the once numerous Apache camps in northern Gila County.
Nan was appalled that the children were malnourished and shabbily dressed. Many of the adults had no employment, so on holidays she took out turkeys with all the trimmings and included the children in the Small Fry kindergarten that she had begun in town. During severe snows in the winters of 1967 and 1968 the Apaches became isolated at The Camp without heat or water. Nan Pyle rounded up food, blankets and Coleman heaters, and hired a truck to break through the drifts to deliver them.
Yet she and the other community leaders knew that continued charity was not the answer to the Tonto Apache's plight. They needed their own land, and an opportunity to become self-sufficient. Not being recognized by the U.S. government they were not eligible for the medical care and other assistance the government was committed to give other tribes.
Nan Pyle called a meeting at the Oxbow Inn for anyone interested in helping the situation. Ten people attended, and together they laid a plan to press the U.S. Congress for action. A delegation was assembled to go to Washington D.C. and plead the case. Included in that group was Chief Melton Campbell, spokesperson for the tribe.
"Chief," as he had been nicknamed while attending school in Payson, had succeeded his father George Campbell as the unofficial chairman of the tribe.
In Washington contact was made with senators Paul Fannin and Carl Hayden as well as House of Representatives member Sam Steiger.
Television stations in Washington picked up the story of what they called "the lost tribe." Chief Campbell appeared on television talk shows, and met with President Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew, explaining that his people were asking for an 85-acre reservation. Chief subtly suggested that such an action would preclude his people from suing the government for millions of dollars in damages, as other tribes had successfully down.
Soon the Doris Duke Foundation gave a grant to a University of Arizona research team to document the historic claim of the Tontos.
Oral histories of Tonto elders and White settlers were taken by graduate student Nicholas P. Houser. Attorney Joe Sparks of Phoenix was hired to assemble a document on the history of the tribe. It had to be proven that these people were separate and distinct from other Apache groups already recognized by the government.
With unusual dispatch the Congress voted in favor of the new reservation, recognizing the tribe on October 6, 1972. A member of the Forest Service was directed to wait on Chief Campbell with this message, "You may choose any land you wish in Gila County that is under the U.S. Forest Service jurisdiction and it will be yours."
The Tontos selected a tract of hilly land across from their old camp. It would be an easy walk to town for work and to shop.
As Nan Pyle's friendship continued with the Apache people, and with the help of the Save The Children Foundation, she encouraged the Apaches to produce handcrafts for sale at the Art Center she sponsored on Main Street.
Tribal member Polly Davis was an outstanding bead maker, and with others in the village produced several print designs that were sold to Burlington Mills. With those designs the milling company produced a line of bed sheets, towels and blankets.
Substantial royalties from that venture enabled the community to plan for the construction of their new homes.
Chief Campbell himself was self-taught in designing and sewing clothing. He created attractive shirts, leisure suits and dresses, and proclaimed, "We want to make our own prints and use the best quality textiles. We intend to use the old art forms for new fashions, and are studying the traditional design motifs on baskets, leather and beadwork."
One outside commentator suggested the day would come when Scottsdale, New York and Los Angeles would feature "Tonto Apache Originals."
Instead, times changed and the tribe's business prowess was channeled in other directions.
The laws permitting casinos on reservations became their opportunity to be self-reliant.
Both Native Americans and whites marked the irony of all this.
It took 101 years from the time the first reservations were established in Arizona to acknowledge the existence of a people after whom the National Forest itself had been named back in 1905. They who had roamed this entire region at will for hundreds of years now had been returned a little more than an acre for each member of the tribe.