American Indians lived, worked and played in the verdant valleys, harsh deserts and lush high Ponderosa pine forests of Arizona centuries before Anglos set foot in the state. Although Anglos’ relationship with tribes hasn’t always been smooth, Native Americans have contributed much to the state as it has grown up during its first 100 years.
“We were here long before Arizona was even a territory,” says Bernadine Burnette, vice president of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. “We watched as Arizona became a state.”
Burnette says Yavapais played a pivotal role in winning voting rights in Arizona for Native people.
After Native people were granted American citizenship in 1924, the state’s denial of voting rights for them was a thorn in Indians’ sides, especially when so many fought and died in defense of their new nation. After World War II, war hero Frank Harrison and Chairman Harry Austin sued the state after they were denied the right to register to vote in Maricopa County. The two Fort McDowell Yavapais took their case all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court, where, in 1948, Justice Levi Udall wrote the opinion affirming the right of American Indians, who had been citizens for nearly a quarter century, to vote in state and local elections.
Carlos Montezuma, the first Native American physician, also fought for Indian rights in the early 20th century. “He pushed for the creation of our reservation in 1903, and helped protect tribal land and water rights,” Burnette says. “He worked on behalf of Indian people until he passed away from tuberculosis in 1923.”
The Yavapais also struck a blow for Native land and water rights when they successfully fought off efforts to dam the Verde River and flood two-thirds of the Fort McDowell community in 1981. Students of Arizona history will also remember the 18-day standoff between Gov. Fife Symington and the U.S. attorney over the right of tribes to engage in gaming on their trust lands.
Burnette wryly notes, however, that despite these and other incidents, “People didn’t seem to want much to do with us until we had gaming and the revenues that accompany the industry.”
Other Native Americans have quietly been working for better relations between tribal and state governments at the Capitol. Jack Jackson Sr., of Window Rock, one of the first Indians to win election to the Arizona State Legislature, fondly recounts his contribution to extending a hand across the reservation border. Back in 1986, Jackson, then a freshly-minted representative, was summoned into a meeting with House leadership.
“We sat down and Burton (Barr, the House majority leader) says to me, ‘Jack, we need to figure out how Indians and non-Indians can get to know each other. I think that would be good for the state,’” says Jackson, who heads up the Navajo Culture Program at Diné College in Tsaile, located in northeastern Arizona. Barr and Jackson came up with a plan to get the two communities to mingle in a casual way and start making connections. First was the Indian Rodeo at the Arizona State Fair; later on, the Legislature approved a bill to hold the annual Indian Nations and Tribes Legislative Day, where state and tribal leaders meet and discuss governance issues.
Jackson’s son Jack Jr., now a senator from dad’s old legislative district, is taking that approach a step further.
“Home to almost 300,000 American Indians comprising 22 nations and tribes, Arizona’s identity is indelibly marked by the substantial contributions its Indian people have made to the prosperity and cultural diversity of this state,” Jackson Jr. said in a recent statement. “To honor this legacy and to ensure an equitable role in our state’s future, I have proposed Senate Concurrent Memorial 1010 to encourage the elevation of state-tribal policies and issues to cabinet-level status for the mutual benefit of Indian people and the State of Arizona.”
Jackson Jr.’s proposal would create a cabinet-level agency that mirrors New Mexico’s Indian Affairs Department. Arizona’s eastern neighbor, Jackson noted in a phone interview, has virtually the same conditions as Arizona: a large population, many tribes and a large percentage of lands owned and controlled by tribes.
The significance of the new agency would be more than just symbolic, Jackson says. “The governor creating a cabinet-level Indian Affairs Department would substantiate the influence tribal leaders and members have in our state’s policy and decision making,” he adds. “For the first time in our state’s century of existence, our tribal communities would finally have a legitimate voice.”
Jackson’s statement concluded: “It is important to recognize and remember all who have lived and sacrificed to make this state what it is. Native peoples have become annealed by their treatment at the hands of government during the last 100 years and it benefits all of us to capitalize on that strength and perseverance to ensure our continued prosperity for the next century.”
Burnette also continues to hold hope for the next 100 years of Arizona’s existence: “We will continue to stand up for our rights,” Burnette says, “but we also will continue to work to be good neighbors and want Arizonans to be good neighbors to us as well.”