Spotlight on Culture in Salt River Arizona

The sound of the drumbeat almost drowns out my host, who leans in and raises her voice to be heard above the pervasive rhythm. She fills in more information for me as the names and nations of people processing in are announced over the loudspeaker. The pageant unfolds in front of us, as a who’s who of First Nations royalty and top dancers in the Powwow circuit parade and dance into the arena for the Grand Entrance of the 33rd annual Red Mountain Eagle PowWow. It’s the colourful, exciting culmination of a trip where I’ve found myself immersed in the culture of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community of Arizona.

Culture in Salt River: Dancers at the Native Art Market

Two young cousins keep the culture of Salt River alive as they prepare to perform a jingle dress dance with their mother and auntie at the Native Art Market at Talking Stick in Salt River. image J. Mallia

The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (SRPMIC or easier still, Salt River) which borders Scottsdale and Mesa was born of the allocation of land for the Pima and Maricopa nations under the reservation system. The Pima and the Maricopa people historically lived close to each other along the Salt River, but each has a distinct language, artisanal styles, and traditions. In the community, there is a blending of the two, which means visitors get to experience aspects of each.

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A window into building techniques at the HuHugam Ki Museum in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. image J. Mallia

History

To help give context to the contemporary culture of Salt River, it helps to know some of the history. The HuHugam Ki Museum is a great place to start.

Named “the place of our ancestors,” the small museum is an archive of the ancient and recent history of the Indigenous people of Salt River with lots of artifacts, baskets and pottery, musical instruments (and a great little gift shop) housed in a heritage building built using traditional methods. The stable temperature and humidity of the building that protects the artifacts is a testament to the design skills of early Salt River inhabitants.



Chatting with mother-daughter potters at breakfast, I learned that crafting pottery is a skill passed down by generations. As the elder woman’s practised hands patted clay onto a form with a wooden ladle, she explained that family groups will often have designs that are unique to them, painted with black dye derived from the mesquite tree. The colour of the clay indicates where along the Salt River a family lived: white comes from the east, near California, while red is from the Red Mountain in Arizona.

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Mesquite pods wait to be sorted on a screen frame. image J. Mallia

Outside are recreations of traditional structures used for sleeping, cooking, and respite from the blistering desert sun. The open-air cooking structure–updated with a gas griddle when I visited–is constructed the way they have been made for hundreds of years, using the “bones” of saguaro cacti woven with fronds of tough desert plants. The entrance opening can be moved in any direction to keep the wind out. Inside, dedicated members of the community expertly pat tortillas flat between their hands. “Make sure you stay for the spotlight dance at the Powwow tonight! You don’t want to miss it.” the cook tells me, throwing the dough back and forth until it thins precisely the right amount to cook evenly on the grill. Pulled off the heat by deft fingers and handed to us still warm, I may have eaten six.

At the back of the museum is a spot for processing mesquite. If you, like me, thought mesquite is only a barbeque flavour, allow me to enlighten you. When the meat is smoked over mesquite wood, you get that yummy Texas BBQ flavour. But the mesquite tree also grows legumes which can be ground into flour. If you time it right, you can watch the process at the Huhugam Ki Museum as people from the community bring their mesquite pods in to be milled. First, the seed pods are sorted over a mesh screen before being cracked open so the beans inside can be ground into flour. The mesquite pancakes on the menu finally made sense to me once I understood they weren’t offering barbequed pancakes, although, let’s be honest here, I would have eaten those too.

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“Guy who makes art” Jeffery Fulwider describes the story behind his sculpture A Horse Called Creation, a life-sized mustang reminiscent of a horse that threw him as a boy. image J. Mallia

Art

After seeing the historic art in the museum, it’s time to get a look at modern culture in Salt River and art being created by local artists these days.

Jeffrey Fulwider prefers the title “guy who makes art” over “artist.” His work is well known around the community, even if the humble man himself prefers a lower profile. With ten large scale sculptures rendered in steel scattered throughout town, Fulwider’s art links the stories and traditions of the past with the present. The Gourd Men is a stylised depiction of a group of men who played music using gourds while one of their wives taught dances in the community when Fulwider was a boy. The Ladies (Basket Dancers) celebrates the annual tradition where young women would put their basket weaving–and thus wife-worthiness–on display for potential mothers-in-law to evaluate and select wives for their sons. You can see his work on a self-guided tour, or contact the visitors centre to inquire about group tours, anticipated to begin again in 2020.

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Handcrafted pots for sale at the Native Art Market in Salt River. image J. Mallia

If you are hoping to bring genuine local art home, The Native Art Market is a great place to go. Cheap, mass-produced knock offs that appropriate indigenous art and crafts are a real problem, but aren’t always easy to spot. Shopping at the Native Art Market ensures you are buying genuine articles, and that the money will go towards the artists. The market runs from October to March on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s like a farmers’ market and art walk rolled into one, with many of the artists themselves attending the booths set up at the Pavillion of Talking Stick Shopping Center. As I oohed and aahed over the intricate beaded designs at one of the many stalls, I mentioned my plan to attend the Powwow later. “Oh, you’ll love it!” the young artist assured me. “I love all of it, but the spotlight dance is my favourite!” she enthused.

The audience watches the dancer whirl in the light of the spotlight special. image J. Mallia

Powwow

My interest well and truly piqued about the spotlight dance I kept hearing about, I was excited to get to the Powwow later that night. With over 400 dancers each year travelling from across the US and Canada to participate, the event is the largest of its kind in Arizona. The grounds of the baseball field had a carnival atmosphere, with booths of vendors selling everything from frybread to leather jackets. At the centre of it all was the arena for the dancing.

I felt a little thrill when the bright arena lights clunked off during the Red Mountain Eagle PowWow later that night. The Spotlight Special happens after dark when specially selected dancers are invited to showcase their athletic dancing prowess under a spotlight. One by one, I watched the men and women twirl and jump, costumes whirling around them, then coming to an abrupt halt as the music ends.

Jen Mallia was a guest of Discover Salt River and Visit Mesa, neither of whom were given an opportunity to review before publishing. 

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