Tonto Apache Tribe Marks 35 Years Of Federal Recognition

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Payson's founding 125 years ago was surely not something met with joy by the local Apaches. After all, Payson was founded on a base, created in part by pushing Native Americans out.

Yet, the Tonto Apaches are very important to Payson. They have made a great impact on the town and its citizens up to this point and surely will continue to make a difference going forward.

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Chief Melton Campbell

It may be hard to believe, but just 40 years ago, the Tonto Apaches had it very rough. They did not truly have land of their own, much less the economic enterprises that are needed to be considered successful in today's capitalist society.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Tonto Apaches fought with the government to be recognized as a tribe and to get the reservation land that they have today.

In the 1960s, the Tonto Apaches were living across the highway from where they live now; just south of Payson.

However, in the government's eyes, they were considered squatters. Worse, since they were squatters in the government's eyes, they could not perform basic upgrades vital to have an even remotely decent quality of living.

While the 1960s were tough, the basic story of how the Tonto Apaches got to that point is interesting as well.

A United States Department of Interior letter from 1967 has the following history of Tonto Apaches role in the early days of Payson:

"The older Indians informed us that their parents often spoke of having been at San Carlos and the group has maintained contacts with the San Carlos Apaches.

"Payson is on the route from San Carlos to Camp Verde and it is reasonable to assume that the Payson group left San Carlos about the time the Yavapai-Apaches returned from San Carlos to the Middle Verde River country.

"A resident of Payson reports that a camp of Indians were living on the East Verde, about six miles from Payson in 1899. In 1904, these Indians moved to a piece of private property northwest of Payson, known locally as ‘Indian Hill.'

"The group lived on the private property until it was sold by its owner, William Boardman, in 1954, when they migrated into the Tonto National Forest, just south of the town of Payson. The migration was gradual with some families moving upon Forest Service land, as late as 1958...

"The present Indian camp is located... within 200 feet of the Beeline Highway less than 1/2 mile from the business section of Payson. The buildings are constructed of scrap lumber from the nearby mill where 10 of the family heads are employed seasonally.

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A small casino, started in 1993 by the Tonto Apache Tribe, has grown to become the new, multimillion-dollar Mazatzal Hotel and Casino, which opened its doors this summer.

"There is no electricity and water must be hauled from town. The privies do not meet minimum standards and are considered a menace to the health of the camp, as well as Payson itself.

"The Indians seem to have individual garbage dumps near the various houses and trash is scattered about the camp.

"At the present time, there are 14 families, with a total of 64 individuals living in camp."

Clearly this group of people had it rough, something to admire and respect them for as a people as we look at them today.

By 1968, work had begun on bills in Congress to give the Tonto Apaches Forest Service land. One of the side issues was the need for funds to assist the Tonto Apaches in creating infrastructure once they received the land.

Ironically, one of the sources of funds was $10,000 from the Save the Children Federation (SCF). This money came from royalties from the sale of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew wrist-watches and T-shirts.

Things continued to move forward in 1971 as the bills were formally presented and Tonto Apaches, such as Chief Melton Campbell, made their way to Washington, D.C. to plead their case.

Even at that point, the Tonto Apaches continued to face adversity. They were not yet recognized as a tribe by the Interior Department and according to an August 22, 1971 UPI article, this was something that the Interior Department was against.

"The Interior Department is willing to give title to the land to the Payson Apaches, but says they should form a corporation, instead of seeking recognition as a tribe.

"Harrison Loesch, assistant secretary for Public Land Management, said: ‘We do not now recognize this group and believe that we should not now recognize them. If this group wishes to avail itself of Indian services, they need only to remove themselves to the San Carlos Indian Reservation, which they have refused to do for a number of reasons.'"

A little over a year later, the Tonto Apaches won their battle to be recognized as a tribe and to get some land south of Payson.

This year, as Payson celebrates its 125th anniversary, the Tonto Apaches simultaneously celebrate the 35th anniversary of owning their own land in the eyes of the United States government.

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