Tonto Apaches: Another Piece Of The Mosaic


On the southern edge of Payson lies the 85-acre Tonto Apache Reservation, best known for the Mazatzal Casino which fronts the community.

Although the reservation is a sovereign nation, Tribal Chairperson Vivian Burdette says her people consider themselves part of Payson.


Chief Joe Tunno shows off one of the new additions to the fleet at the Tonto Apache Police Department.

"We are within the city limits, we vote and we shop in town," she said. I would like the town to consider us part of the town -- not a neighbor of the town. We are part of the whole family. It's high time that the people in this country begin to realize that we are all one people -- regardless of color or income. God put us here together for a purpose."

The Tonto Apaches are direct descendants of the Tontos who lived in the Payson vicinity long before the arrival of anglos.

Burdette spent most of her life in Payson and was a neighbor of Anna Mae Deming on Main Street on what was then referred to as Indian Hill.

"When we lived on Indian Hill, we lived next door to the weather bureau," Burdette said. "Pat Cline and Anna Mae Deming used to babysit me. They'd see my oldest brother picking on me and they'd take me and sit with me in the weather bureau."

"Our family left and when we got back, it was no longer Indian Hill," she said. "They took the Indians off Indian Hill."

In the 1970s, through the efforts of Chief Melton Campbell, the tribe acquired the 85 acres that now comprise the reservation.

Since that time, the reservation has developed and the tribe has engaged in prosperous economic enterprise, which now includes a brand new casino planned for the coming months.

According to Burdette, the major focus over the past year has been providing recreation and education to the tribe's youth.

Keeping traditions alive

As with many native cultures, preserving the language is a struggle.

"There's just a handful of us who speak the language fluently," Burdette said. "One of our major goals right now is trying to get the youth to understand and learn the language. (The language) only goes to a certain age and then stops -- we have just a few children who are grade school or middle school who do understand because their grandparents or parents speak to them. Speaking the language is not done very often in the homes anymore -- it used to be when we were growing up.

The Apache language is spoken among all four tribes, which includes the Tonto, Yavapai, White Mountain and San Carlos Apache. Burdette said there are different dialects.

"Camp Verde and Payson -- the Apache dialects are just slightly different," Burdette said. "And the elderly use some different words for things than the younger generations."

Burdette describes many of the traditional meals and methods of cooking used by her mother.

"Around the second week of August, we would pick the acorns," Burdette said. "We dried them and shelled them, and then you have to sift them. My aunt and my mom used something like a miner's pan to sift them. When you pick out the shells, you grind it and can use it like a spice.

"My mom used to make fry bread," Burdette said, "and what they did was dip the frybread into tea and then dip it into the acorn meal. It's good eating, but it's an acquired taste."

Burdette also recalls harvesting a native berry and making a sweet drink out of it.

"We used to go to the hillside by Gisela to pick these small, red berries," Burdette said. "They are very sticky and sour, so we would put them in a sack and put it in the current of the river and it would take all the sour out. Then we would mash them and flavor them with sugar."

Keeping members active

Burdette said this year has brought a new emphasis on keeping tribal members physically fit.

"We will be expanding the gym," she said, "and we are getting our pool covered. It will be a much larger area for our youth center."

Along with an expanded weight room and covered pool, the building will also be used for activities and education, Burdette said.

"We don't want it to be just a play room for them," she said. "We want it to be a place where they can learn things and understand things.

Burdette said they plan on taking kids camping this summer as well.

"We are hoping to give them plenty of things to do," Burdette said.

More housing and expansion

One of the tribe's goals was to expand housing, but Burdette said they are getting a little too crowded to put much more in.

"We are busting at the seams," she said. "We did put in four more houses -- the only problem is we have nowhere else to put more housing. We probably won't be able to until the land exchange goes through."

The total amount of land the tribe has been working to acquire is 273 acres south of town.

"That will be in addition to the 85 acres we have now," Burdette said. "There's really nowhere else for us to grow right now.

"Our main goal is for our younger generation to be able to have homes."

Tribal police department

With Tonto Apache Police Chief Joe Tunno at the helm, the force has grown to seven tribal officers.

The officers are federally trained and are working toward becoming the primary law enforcement on the reservation.

"We've completed all our training," Burdette said. "They are fully-fledged officers now and we have 24-hour coverage. We still use the services of the town."

Currently the Payson Police department is the primary agency and has a contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"We are hoping for that, but I don't know how long down the line we will be able to take over and not need the help of other law enforcement," Burdette said. "The town of Payson and our department work well together."

Looking ahead

Looking toward the future without forgetting the past is what Burdette and her staff strive for. With a new administration building, plans for a new casino, covered pool, expanded youth center and programs, the tribe continues to progress.

"Our new administration building has really served us well. We are really proud of what we have here," Burdette said. "We are looking forward to the gym and the expansion of the casino."

Yet, as the reservation changes, Burdette is striving to keep traditions of the past alive.

"Our youth are a priority," Burdette said. "We'd like to see them grow and understand who we are and where we came from.

"The tribe has come a long way," Burdette said. "All the elders who are not here today -- if they were to see us, I think they would know that we have come a long way. It's a gradual, slow process and we are proud of what we have.

"We are the gateway to the town of Payson," Burdette said. "We want to make sure that when people come up, they see a place that is nice -- that's our goal."

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