The Tonto Apache Tribe Tuesday morning signed a deal to add 293 acres to its reservation on the south edge of Payson, quadrupling its size.
The tribe has struggled for years to expand its 85-acre holding by buying up about 405 acres of privately owned land to swap, including one of only two peat bogs in the state.
The Tribe traded that land for the 293 acres adjacent to a reservation that already includes the Mazatzal Hotel and Casino and housing for many tribal members.
The United States Department of Interior will add the land to the reservation, which the federal government will then hold in trust for the benefit of the tribe.
the benefit of the tribe.
“The journey has been a long fight,” said Tribal Chairman Ivan Smith. “Our population has exploded in the last decade and we now have a chance for much-needed housing for our members — not only for this generation, but for future generations.”
The land exchange took more than 15 years to put together. The tribe hopes to quickly build 22 new homes for tribal members.
“This means a lot to me and to the tribe, because it means that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to get homes,” said Tribal Elder Casilda Johnson. “We used to live in shacks across the way and then moved into our current 85-acre reservation.”
Council member Calvin Johnson said, “Above all, I would like to thank God for making this happen. It is good to finally reach the light at the end of the tunnel. This marks a new chapter in the struggles that the Tonto Apaches have had to overcome.”
The dramatic expansion in the size of the reservation could have a significant impact on Payson. The casino and hotel is already one of the biggest employers in town, despite a series of layoffs as a result of the impact of the recession on the tourist industry in Rim Country.
The tribe doesn’t pay taxes and isn’t subject to the town’s zoning ordinances, but the tribe often makes contributions to the town — including money the town used in the past year to help the state keep Tonto Natural Bridge State Park open.
Tribal leaders depicted the land trade as the culmination of a struggle stretching back to the 1800s.
General George Crook waged a fierce war of attrition against the Tonto Apache and Yavapai, who lived in small bands in Prescott, the Verde Valley and throughout the Tonto Basin. Crook enlisted Indian scouts from rival bands and kept troops in the field for months, pursuing the Tonto and Yavapai bands so doggedly that they couldn’t plant crops or keep their families fed. They eventually surrendered to starvation, although the pursuing troops were able to force only a handful of battles.
The Tonto and Yavapai settled peacefully then on a fertile reservation on the banks of the Verde River in the Verde Valley and were soon producing bumper crops of vegetables and hay to sell to the army.
However, settlers and military contractors lobbied Washington to move the tribes to the San Carlos Reservation, a barren stretch of land with sweltering summers and swarms of malaria-bearing mosquitoes.
The Army rounded up the Tonto and Yavapai bands in the winter of 1875 and forced them on a grueling, 200-mile winter march from the Verde Valley to San Carlos, amidst heartbreaking scenes, like the old man who carried his sick wife on his back the whole way. Many did not make it to their destination.
Once there, they found themselves dependent on meager Army rations, beset by disease and surrounded by rival tribes — including some of the groups that had helped hunt them down.
Settlers quickly moved in and claimed their homeland.
Many of the bands and individual families drifted off the reservation and settled here and there throughout the Tonto National Forest, named ironically enough for their tribe. However, they were often treated like squatters and driven from their homes, without any ability to lay claim to the land. In one bitterly remembered incident, the U.S. Forest Service used a bulldozer to demolish a forest settlement.
After decades of struggle, the Tonto Apache finally convinced the federal government to set aside the 85-acre reservation near Payson, a tiny piece of the vast area they had once claimed.
Tribal members struggled to make a living on their forested reservation, until the approval of Indian gaming and the construction of the hotel and casino provided a steady source of income.
However, growth of the tribe soon led to crowded conditions on the reservation.
“Three and sometimes four generations of family were forced to live together in homes on the reservation and other tribal members were forced to move off the reservation entirely,” said a written statement released by the tribe.
So some 15 years ago, the Tribal Council started the process of acquiring land it would trade to expand the size of the reservation.
The tribe has scheduled a day of celebration for June 1.
“This has been a long process,” said Tribal Council member Vivian Burdette. “This will allow for us to bring other tribal members who are living off-reservation home. I am thankful I am here to see this happen. We have loved ones that have gone on that did not get to see this. This would not have been possible without God. I gave Him all the praise.”