This is the beginning of the New Year, 2010, and it’s an appropriate time to inform members of the Gila River Indian Community about the State of the Community, about the State of Our Community.
Last year our community suffered through a bad economy just as other municipalities, states and nations did. The income normally enjoyed by our gaming and business enterprises dropped off considerably, and the tribal government was forced to endure much fiscal belt tightening and cost cutting. Though the economy is showing signs of improving, we cannot go back to our old ways of spending as if we have an endless supply of money.
All of our departments were directed to reduce their operating budgets by 13.1 percent, which they did with no reduction in our work force.
In the years since our community has taken advantage of Indian casino gaming, we have gone on an ambitious program of building new homes for our low-income, disabled and elder members. This has allowed us to build needed homes by the hundreds instead of by the dozens.
We have built hundreds and hundreds of new homes over the past decade, and those built with tribal funds have literally been given free to enrolled members of the tribe. The elders and disabled are supposed to have priority to this free housing, but we are finding out that hasn’t always been the case. There are members of our community who, because of their age or frailty, deserve housing, and the community should provide for them if we can afford to do so. But we cannot afford to build a home for everyone. At some point those who have the ability to provide for themselves are going to have to provide for themselves. This giving away of new homes has created a sense of entitlement among some people, and that is something that can’t be good for our community.
When we talk about transportation today we generally envision paved roads and fast-moving vehicles. Unfortunately that vision is not what many of our roads are like today. Our vehicles have gotten newer, the number of drivers in our community is increasing every year, but too many of our roads are in the same shape they were five and 10 years ago.
We also have a Transportation Technical Team made up of representatives from various programs and departments in our tribal government.
One of the important tasks the Transportation Technical Team is now involved with is the South Mountain Freeway Study. This study focuses on the alignment of Pecos Road just north of our reservation boundary. This freeway study has raised issues that concern our community. Even though the proposed alignment of the freeway is off the reservation, it will have an impact on cultural, plant and wildlife resources that are important to our community. Because of this, the Transportation Technical Team is collecting information and listening to a new proposal from the Arizona Department of Transportation on an alternative alignment of the Pecos Road freeway, or the 202, that crosses the reservation.
This freeway alignment along the northern boundary of community is an issue that has been a point of contention for years between Gila River the Arizona Department of Transportation, and nearby municipalities. It also has been an issue among our own tribal members.
Years ago a handful of people on the Gila River Indian Community took a vote and said they didn’t want the freeway to cross reservation land. I said back then and I continue to say now that the allottees and landowners of property along our northern boundary weren’t given the opportunity to say how they wanted their land to be used. They were left out of that decision. It seems a handful of people have been holding back the legitimate development of land owned by these allottees and landowners. At some point a new poll or new vote has to be taken that involves more than just a handful of people in our community.
Water in our desert community for many decades has been in short supply. Over a century and a half ago it was plentiful for the most part. The Gila River flowed and our communities thrived near its banks. Then as time passed, the flow was diminished as people living upstream diverted the water for their own use, leaving the Gila River Indian Community with little more than a trickle, and then only a dry riverbed. Our tribal leaders were forced to take action to protect our community. In 1979 our legal fight for water started and became one of the longest-running civil court cases in history. Through negotiation and legal work a settlement agreement was reached with scores of upstream and downstream water users, and in 2004 the Arizona Water Settlement Act was signed.
You would think that the settlement act would be the end of our fight for water, but it was really only the beginning of another kind of battle. We now face legal claims almost every month that challenge some aspect of the settlement act or lay some claim to water rights.
One of the most talked about events of 2009 was the first Per Capita payout of tribal funds to our enrolled members who are eligible to receive a payout.
You would think that moving money earned by our community’s business enterprises to qualified members of our tribe would be a simple process. Well, it’s not. The tribal law that had to be written and then added to our Gila River Indian Community Code to address per capita payments covers 15 pages.
A total of 9,130 adults received a payout, each one getting $303.78. Another 6,641 minor children and tribal members under guardianship or power of attorney each got $301.20. These members, most of whom are disabled, in nursing homes or incarcerated, have had their money put into trust accounts.
Whether or not giving money to our people is a good thing is a matter of opinion. We already give members brand new homes for little or no cost, we provide free tuition and scholarships for those who want to go to college, our health care corporation provides free health care, we have free health fitness centers, we provide free nutritious meals for our elders. The cost for giving money away through this per capita method is very expensive, not only monetarily, but I think it is taking a toll on the independence of our individual members. I see a growing sense of entitlement among some of our people – and it is troubling because it goes against our traditional sense of being industrious. This industriousness has been a positive attribute of our people, and it has helped us grow and improve as a community over the years.
William R. Rhodes is the governor of the Gila River Indian Community. His State of the Community Address was presented Jan. 20 to the Community Council at its regular meeting.