The Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) just south of Phoenix, Arizona, is a 372,000-acre American Indian reservation for members of the Pima and Maricopa tribes. The reservation was established in 1859 by an act of the U.S. Congress and was officially incorporated in 1939. It is governed by a tribal council that includes a governor, lieutenant governor, secretary, treasurer and representatives from each of the reservation’s seven districts. Sacaton, Arizona, is the reservation’s capital.
The GRIC’s people have a history in the region dating back to the prehistoric Hohokam Indians, who farmed the Gila River Basin as early as 300 B.C. They built canals to provide water from the Gila River to crops planted in the desert and prospered with a bounty of cotton, tobacco and assorted fruits and vegetables. These Native Americans developed a strong arts culture highlighted both by jewelry and by pottery made from the region’s famous red clay.
The Pima tribe that arose from the Hohokam was a peaceful tribe whose members welcomed visitors to their land, feeding and caring for weary travelers as they passed through on their way west to California’s gold rush. The Pima also extended a permanent welcome mat in the mid-1800s to members of the Yuman Maricopa tribe who had been driven from their land by other Yuman tribes. The two tribes — Pima and Maricopa — continue to coexist in the Gila River Indian Community.
The community began thriving again after a period in the late 1800s and early 1900s when upstream dams and water diversions led the tribes’ vital water source to dry up and their crops to wither. Famine took its toll on the tribes’ population, and the federal government stepped in to provide food assistance. The drastic change in diet from fresh foods to processed and canned staples took its own toll, and obesity and diabetes became tribal issues that persist today.
The Gila River Indian Community has a diversified economy designed to incorporate the tribes’ heritage while securing their future. Farming has made a comeback; industrial parks have sprung up; and tourism-supported efforts such as resorts and casinos are thriving. The Gila Indian Center on Interstate 10 includes a museum, a restaurant and a shop featuring tribal arts and crafts for sale. Various heritage-themed festivals dot the reservation’s calendar, including the St. John’s Indian Mission Festival in March and an annual tribal fair in February. An arts festival of both Pima and Maricopa artistry is celebrated in November.