Aaron White plays a flute to accompany Native American tales during the “Storytelling & Song” series at Wild Horse Pass.
Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass

A people’s heartbeat is its stories and songs.

For two Valley Native peoples, the Akimel O’otham, or Pima, and the Pee-Posh, the Maricopa, that spirit is eloquently voiced in the “Storytelling & Song” program, which has returned to the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass, 5594 W. Wild Horse Pass Blvd., Chandler.

Heritage stories and traditional and social songs are shared during the one-hour presentation, 6 to 7 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at the resort’s outdoor fire pit. Complimentary for resort and restaurant guests, the 13th year for the program opened with a ceremonial blessing last month and continues until the closing blessing Feb. 17.

The goal of “Storytelling & Song” is to protect and share the ancient cultures, traditions and meaningful history of the Pima and Maricopa people with resort and restaurant guests of all ages, explained Rosie Rivera, who manages the resort’s cultural concierge.

“The songs and stories, like our traditional legends, teach us about our roles and responsibilities.”

“We have different languages but share the same cultural values based on a sense of community – sharing resources, helping each other and our fellow man and the law of the common good,” she added. “We revere all forms of nature, including animals and birds, as a meaningful part of our lives, and we consider the surrounding Estrella and South Mountain ranges to be sacred.”

Comprising the Pima and Maricopa peoples, the Sacaton-based Gila River Indian Community owns the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass, a destination resort showcasing their heritage, culture, art and legends. 

Historically, different bands of the Maricopa people had lived along the lower banks of the Colorado River for centuries and left these areas, joining the homelands of the Pima people during the late 1700s, said Rivera.

In 1859, Congress established the first reservation in Arizona, comprising 64,000 acres – the beginning of today’s Gila River Indian Community. Since then, Congress added to the designated land, totaling 372,000 acres today.

Fed by the sacred waters of the Gila River, the people constructed 500 miles of large canals linked to smaller ditches and grew cotton for clothing as well as rugs and corn, melons, beans, fruits, tobacco and other foods.

Enrolled tribal members tell and sing a combination of Pima and Maricopa legends based on desert wildlife, often with a moral lesson (but not always), as well as personal stories about their experiences growing up on the surrounding tribal lands.

Some of the storytellers and singers are Tim Terry, Jr., Amil Pedro, Yolanda Hart Stevens and Robert Stone, who recently was elected lieutenant governor of the Gila River Indian Community.

No specific dates for this tradition are stipulated, but winter is the only season when storytelling is permitted among the Pima and Maricopa people. Rivera noted that this seasonal tradition has never before been shared with the general public.

“Much of our history is passed down to us orally through our families, which means storytelling has been a part of every generation,” she said. “The storytellers share different stories from their upbringing on and around the reservation lands. They also share lessons they were taught by their families, and sometimes they tell stories related to their artwork/craft, such as painting, beadwork, primitive tools, gourds and shell jewelry.”

The Akimel O’otham and Tohono O’odham, a separate tribe in Pima County, were premier basket makers; the Tohono O’odham remain active.

For the Akimel O’otham, basket-weaving is being revived, and more and more members of the community are making a living, or supplementing their income, through arts and crafts, Rivera said.

On the other hand, the Maricopa are known for red clay pottery work. Made of natural materials, various jars and bowls were created for essential needs.

The clay was collected at various locations within the area, and natural dyes were used to depict geometrical designs. This pottery can be seen at the Huhugam Heritage Center.

“‘Storytelling & Song’ provides us the opportunity to inspire our guests with a true sense of place and cultural awareness,” Rivera said. “The resort was created to authentically showcase the heritage and culture of the Gila River Indian Community, and this program is just one of the many ways that we continue to do that.”   

Information: wildhorsepassresort.com or 602-225-0100.

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