The Tonto Apache Tribe’s history is marred with struggle. Before casino slots and blackjack tables, there were land wars, various reservation migrations and widespread poverty. It took hundreds of years for the tribe to get to where it is today — a recognized tribe with its own land.
Unfortunately, the history of the tribe is in danger of dying out. Few adolescents know the history and fewer speak the language.
A new museum exhibit unveiled last week in the Mazatzal Hotel and Casino captures a slice of the tribe’s story, offering visitors a first chance look at some of the tribe’s artifacts and culture.
Teri Alba, conference sales coordinator with the hotel, said guests frequently ask casino employees about the tribe, curious to its background. Because not everyone is as familiar with the information, the exhibit, titled “Tonto Apaches: Then and Now,” gives guests an opportunity to see and read accurate information about how the tribe came to be in Payson.
It took Alba, Shawna Davis and casino staff months of research and planning to build and complete the exhibit.
The idea for an exhibit first came from casino General Manager Farrell Hoosava who in September of 2008 suggested creating a museum exhibit in the casino. Hoosava contacted Alba, who he knew was interested in creating a cultural center or museum.
Both Alba and Davis are participants of the casino’s Tribal Professional Development (TriPoD) program. The program encourages leadership development through hands-on learning with mentors, community projects and monthly forums with guest speakers.
Working on the new display was one of Alba’s projects for the course.
In July 2009, Alba began work on the exhibit by meeting with Sandy Carson with the Rim Country Museum and Lita Nicholson with the Historical Society.
Carson and Nicholson explained how to catalog artifacts and create displays.
Alba said her main goal was creating an exhibit that was professional looking and functioning.
In August 2009, Alba and Davis visited the Heard Museum in Phoenix and met with Artistic Director Cesar Chavez and Dan Johnson, who builds and maintains the museum’s displays and cases.
“With everyone’s help and ideas, we were pushed in the right direction to collect resources and complete the job,” Alba said. “We used mostly recycled materials from the old casino gift shop for the construction of the display case and we had help from the tribe’s cultural liaison, Wally Davis, in acquiring most of the artifacts for our first exhibit.”
The first exhibit includes a traditional women’s outfit, a doll and jewelry from tribe members. Everything in the exhibit is on loan from a member of the tribe.
Every three months, the exhibit will be changed. This keeps the case interesting and protects the items.
Extra care was taken so no items are damaged. Special paint and lighting were used inside the exhibit case. The only thing Alba could not control was cigarette smoke, which funnels into the exhibit since it is located off the main gambling hall. Rotating items out ensures smoke does not damage them.
The exhibit includes a poster detailing the history of the tribe.
For hundreds of years, the tribe migrated across northern Arizona, moving with the seasons. After much fighting, the Apaches surrendered and were placed on a reservation in Camp Verde with the Yavapai Indians the in the 1870s.
In 1885, the reservation was dissolved. Some of the tribe survived the long walk back to Rim Country; however, when they arrived, settlers now occupied land they once used to farm.
For a while, the tribe lived around Payson in shacks without running water or electricity. Finally, in October 1972, the tribe was recognized by the federal government and given 85 acres to live on south of town.