Crafting a cultural revival
Arizona Republic
Oct. 24, 2007


Resort a showplace for Gila River artisans, inspiring youth to return to tradition

Lisa Nicita

Elders within the Gila River Indian Community are seeing fears of a lost culture fade as the success of a reservation resort reinvigorates interest in traditional Native American art.

Younger residents, once uninterested in learning cultural centerpieces such as language, stories and crafts, are realizing that becoming a reservation artisan could be a profitable career path.

A conscious effort of corporate and cultural integration among the Pima and Maricopa tribes and the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa has played a major role in showing community artisans that there is big interest in their culture.

From the turquoise and coral jewelry that beckons behind showcase glass in the gift shop to throws rolled in each of the 500 guest rooms, the work of community artisans is on display at the resort.

Children's artwork hangs on a wall near the resort's coffee shop. A community member, who doubles as a burly security guard for the resort, designed the menus placed in front of hundreds of diners at the gourmet Kai restaurant. Corporate conventions also can request, for a fee, custom-designed lanyards for all of their convention members, beaded by the community's children to benefit the Boys & Girls Club.

"The resort has allowed us to spark interest again," said Ginger Sunbird Martin, the resort's cultural theme manager.

It also has shown community artisans that crafts, from paintings to pottery, don't have to be sold out of the back of a pickup truck. The resort provides for them a built-in marketplace.

"I think this kind of happened by accident," said Kristen Jarnagin, the resort's public relations director. "All of a sudden, it's a new way to preserve the culture that they didn't expect."

Jewelry is the most popular seller inside the gift shop at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort. Guests specifically ask for Pima- and Maricopa-made items.

The only problem is keeping the jewelry in stock.

Culture as a selling point

"There are still some challenges," Jarnagin said. "But to have come this far - we're only 5 years old."

It was the intent of Sheraton and the Gila River Indian Community to build a resort that embodies the spirit and culture of the Pima and Maricopa tribes.

Culture is a selling point, and it has trickled down. Martin, who has been with the resort for three years, said younger generations need an incentive to learn a culture that, to them, might seem outdated in light of video games and skateboards.

A subtle change is taking hold. Visitors not only want the jewelry and crafts, they want to learn about the culture. Younger generations have seen that there is a market for traditional items.

"All of a sudden, they realize their culture is important," Jarnagin said. "I think it's a state of mind. 'Someday, it could benefit me.' "

Hilda Sunn, 13, already has seen those benefits. Sunn began learning the traditions of Maricopa pottery when she was 5 years old. She would sit and watch her mother, Dorothea Sunn-Avery, mold clay into pots. Now, Hilda Sunn is doing the same, and with the success of the resort, the teen has found a way to make her own money.

"It's fun," Sunn said.

She spends her profits on cellphone calling cards, tickets to the movies and sweet treats. Sunn said she feels an obligation to carry the traditions of her elders forward.

Sunn-Avery, 43, believes her daughter truly understands the importance of tradition.

"I really believe she is going to carry it on," Sunn-Avery said.


But culture not for sale

Without interest to carry certain traditions forward, a piece of the Pima and Maricopa cultures could die. Martin, the cultural theme manager, said fewer than 20 basket weavers remain among a population of 23,000. The last community members who are fluent in their native languages are older than 50.

"It's been on the elders' mind for probably 20 years," Martin said. "It's just getting more and more (pronounced). There is an internal effort to maintain the culture somehow."

There's also an effort to maintain it without diluting it.

When children greet convention guests with hand-beaded lanyards, they tell the story of their tribe. But if a guest asks for a particular ceremony that traditionally is held in private or a story that isn't told until winter, the request is denied.

Martin says no to guests as much as she says yes. Jarnagin said the culture is not for sale and it won't be exploited.

"Everything we offer here in the resort is socially accepted," Martin said. "We want to tell our story. We just didn't know how great that would be."


A corporate transition

Yolanda Hart Stevens, 50, has witnessed the change. Stevens does beadwork and coordinates an annual arts-and-crafts festival at the resort. This year, the festival will be held nearby at Rawhide.

Stevens said Martin's work as a tribal liaison has shown young artists that financial success is possible. Stevens said the work is the easy part. It's that transition from the traditional world of sales at a roadside stand to the corporate world of invoices, inventory and indoor sales that can be difficult.

Martin's and the resort's efforts, Stevens said, make that world less intimidating - especially for younger entrepreneurs.

"It is very frightening for them to think that all these things need to be in place," Stevens said, referring to business licenses and back stock.

Jarnagin said having enough items to sell is one kink that remains. She said artisans are used to making one batch and selling it in one day or one weekend, receiving cash on the spot. The corporate world doesn't work the same way.

Artisans are paid a few weeks after a delivery. And there must be enough inventory to keep shelves and display cases stocked.

The success outweighs the kinks, according to Stevens, who said she has seen a building momentum among young artisans within the community during the past two years.

"I do see it. I see the potential," Stevens said.


Making an impact

She also sees a struggle. Stevens said young artists interested in showcasing more contemporary work feel intimidated. She said they worry about the reaction their work would receive because, as Native American artists, they chose to produce contemporary work.

But having that venue will help bring those artists to the public.

"There's still that resistance. Nobody's going to come looking for you if they don't know your work," she said. "They (visitors) like the idea they can come in and get authentic work and help someone."

They truly are helping.

One of the most popular team-building exercises at the resort puts conventiongoers in small groups to build bikes. To their surprise, they then deliver the completed bikes to needy children from the community, who are waiting in another room. The kids are just as surprised - they think they are at the resort to pick up trash.

The exercise always ends in happy tears.

Children rewarded for quality artwork have their pieces hung in the hallway and featured in a calendar, which is available for purchase.

Soaps made by elementary-school children are featured in the resort's spa.

That money and, more importantly, that interest are making an impact. Martin said it's keeping kids on the right path.

"It really does catch them from falling the other way," Martin said.

Reach the reporter at or 602-444-8546.