Many residents of Rim Country only know the Tonto Apache for their Mazatzal Hotel and Casino, but they also have members of the tribe with their own significant cultural contributions.

Early in the 1900s an effort began by Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Indian, who was the director of the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Rochester, N.Y. to gain a day of recognition for the significant contributions that first Americans made in the United States. Over the years, this has resulted in an entire month being designated for that purpose. In 1990 President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November “National American Indian Heritage Month.”

Here in Rim Country we have the smallest land based Native American reservation in Arizona, the Tonto Apache. According to the Native American Advancement Initiative at Arizona State University, the traditional lands of the Apache Ndeh (The People) extended from Texas through New Mexico and Arizona into Mexico and California. Over time, the many bands of the Apache were forcibly moved to reservations. The Rio Verde Reserve was established in 1871 for the Tonto and Yavapai Indians. In 1875, the Tonto and Yavapai were forcibly moved to the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Twenty years later, some of the Tonto Tribe returned to the Payson area. Gradually, more members moved here.

A Congressional Act federally recognized the Tonto Apache Tribe in 1972. Their original land mass was 85 acres. In June 2010, an additional 267 acres was added to the 171 members of the community.

We look at their contributions by stopping by the Tonto Apache Gym basketball court to see the mural painted by Greg Davis and Junior Tinnin in 1999. While Payson High School students, they painted stylized basketballs in the gym symbolizing the Tonto Apache.

Randy Pryor, an employee of the gym, said “I encouraged the young men and said to them, ‘Use your talents. Expose your talent so that people can see it.’”

Jeri de Cola, former Tribal Council chair, shared items that her family had made over the years. Traditional cradle boards were made with leather and wood used as baby carriers in the first two years of life. They often found use for generations and were considered works of art. It imitated a feeling of being held. Jeri saved the one made by her mother, Ola Smith and her aunt, Rhea Delma.

“My sister, Bonnie Curtis, made original, contemporary Camp dresses for ceremonies.” said Jeri. “She was very creative and would make dresses to order. DeCola followed her older sister, Polly Davis, and created a beaded necklace.

Polly Davis, the first female member of the Tonto Apache Tribal Council, became known as a skilled, renowned artist. Her daughter, Louise Lopez said, “My mother was a homemaker and started making jewelry to help supplement the family income. That was her way of contributing.”

She sold mainly to three people in Payson — Nan Pyle, Doris Sturgis and one other person. She made necklaces, belts, earrings and other items. She was always looking for something new. “Sister, she would ask me,” said Louise. “What is the latest color?”

She bought her beads from Drumbeat Indian Arts in Phoenix. It’s still in the same location.

“During the winters, when work was scarce, my dad helped my mom with the beadwork,” said Louise.

She made a design for a belt that Nan Pyle helped her enter into a National Native American Contest representative of tribes throughout the U.S. It won first prize. A company bought the design. “My mother gave the proceeds from her bead work design to the tribe,” said Louise.

From those sales, the tribe bought a race car called Apache Gold. They also owned an auto parts store. All from the royalties of Polly’s bead work and designs.

Nan Pyle brought her bead work and designs to the attention of the Heard Museum during a Pow Wow the museum has every March. They now display the work of Polly Davis from the Tonto Apache Tribe. Louise said “Nan Pyle was a kind lady who was interested in the Native Americans and one of the people who helped us get our tribal recognition in 1972.”

Lopez said, “I was very proud of my mom.” When she died, Jan Chilton gave me a rope necklace with a round medallion that she made. Jan said, ‘You should have this.’”

Polly Davis and other members of the Tonto Apache Tribe shared their creativity with the tribe and with the people of Arizona.

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