This week most of the 139 members of the Tonto Apache Tribe, gathered in the cavernous meeting room of the Mazatzal Hotel & Casino to celebrate a rare reversal of history — the political equivalent of water flowing uphill.
The event marked the addition of 292 acres of federal trust land to the tribe’s 85-acre reservation — reversing a loss dating back to the 1870s that nearly exterminated an ancient culture.
But it also commemorated a fundamental change in the tribe’s future prospects — providing enough land to gather together scattered families and to begin thinking again in terms of generations.
Along the way, the ceremony hinted at a possibly historic change in the tribe’s relationship to the town — since the relative handful of tribal members will now control some 400 acres of land at the entry to the town — including a crucial strip of land along the highway. Town officials weren’t invited to attend a ceremony that drew more than 150 people for a breakfast event — including top officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs from Washington, D.C.
Indian tribes aren’t subject to the zoning and land use laws of towns or even municipal ordinances, which can lead to major conflicts between city and tribal officials.
The rise in the tribe’s financial fortunes as a result of the casino and the major expansion in the size of the reservation has now given the tribe a major influence on the future development of the town. But reaching that point represented a long journey.
“I am thinking of one word: That’s ‘persistence,’” said BIA Deputy Director of Field Operations Mike Smith, who is a member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe in New Mexico.
Once upon a time — not so long ago — members of the Tonto Apache Tribe did not dare leave their homes empty.
In truth, the story starts in the late 1870s when small bands of Tonto Apache ranged from the Verde Valley to Pleasant Valley and all through the vast Tonto Basin. After they came into conflict with incoming farmers, ranchers and settlers seeking to hunt the game and monopolize key water sources, the Army launched a two-year campaign to hunt down the scattered bands.
Unable to harvest crops to provide enough food to feed their constantly fleeing families, the Tonto Apache surrendered in the mid 1870s. The Army first settled them on a fertile reservation in the Verde Valley, but then moved them to a malaria-ridden stretch of the Gila River on the San Carlos Reservation.
After years of disease, starvation and despair, the survivors of the once fiercely independent tribe drifted back onto their ancestral lands and built homes — shacks, mostly, without plumbing or electricity or water.
They lived for decades in four shifting camps on the outskirts of what would one day become Payson.
The U.S. Forest Service didn’t want them there: squatting in a vast forest that was, ironically enough, named for the tribe.
So by official policy, the Forest Service would send out bulldozers to raze any home they found unoccupied, officials said.
The tribe struggled to win the rights to land of their own, through a combination of civil disobedience, lawsuits and sheer, blind, sometimes seemingly hopeless persistence.
Finally, in 1972, the U.S. government agreed to establish an 85-acre reservation on the outskirts of Payson. Many of the diminished and scattered bands returned to the reservation there, where they could at least maintain their homes and sustain their culture.
They mostly eked out a living for decades, working in the sawmill in town, ranching, farming and sharing jobs.
The approval of casinos on reservation land marked a big shift in the tribe’s financial fortunes.
As soon as the tribe began accumulating extra money, the tribal council began buying up land elsewhere in the state in hopes it could swap the land with the Forest Service to expand the reservation.
After 20 years of persistence, those efforts were crowned with success this week with the formal signing ceremony — complicated only briefly when Tribal Chairman Ivan Smith realized he’d forgotten his driver’s license — needed to notarize his signature on the historic agreement.
The tribe is now working on a land use plan for the nearly 300 acres of additional land. The tribe plans to use most of the land for housing. About 80 percent of the enrolled tribal members currently live on the reservation, with another 20 or 30 families living in Payson. Individuals cannot own tribal trust land, but can in effect pass along their houses to family members.
The extra acreage will allow the tribe to build enough housing for any members who want to live on the reservation and to accommodate population growth in the future.
The tribe has not yet developed a master plan for the reservation, including the possible use of about 10 acres of property along the highway adjacent to the Payson Event Center.
The tribe and the town have applied jointly for a $3.5 million federal grant to complete an existing sewage treatment plant, which could serve the expanded residential needs of the community and perhaps create a new recreational lake adjacent to the event center. The federal government approved that grant initially last year, but a dispute over how much money the tribe would have to put up required a re-application this year.
The tribe also has rights to about 128 acres of Colorado River water as a result of a state-wide deal with Indian tribes included in authorization for the Central Arizona Project. The tribe has no way to take delivery of that water, but could in theory work out a deal with the Salt River Project to trade its CAP water for rights to water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir. The tribe would likely need to strike a deal with Payson as well to get that Blue Ridge water.
However, that water could potentially give the tribe ample water to develop its new reservation acreage.
Sabrina Campbell, the tribal administrator, said that the community must work through the plan for the land.
“Now we have the land. It’s been a long, hard road. Nothing is set,” she said.