There’s a lot more to visiting Phoenix than luxury spas, golf courses and fancy resorts.
As one of the largest cities in the United States, Phoenix is home to more than 4.6 million people, a number growing at an unprecedented pace. It’s also home to dozens of distinct communities, from artsy Old Town Scottsdale to a revitalized downtown district and the lake-studded area around the University of Arizona. And while some 19 million visitors flocked to this desert-meets-the-mountains destination in 2019, there’s another side to Phoenix that begs exploring.
Centuries before the city was founded in 1881, the valley was home to Indigenous peoples, primarily two distinct tribes: the Akimel O’odham (River People), more commonly known as the Pima, and the Xalychidom Piipaash (People Who Live Toward the Water) commonly known as the Maricopa. Both share cultural values but maintain their unique traditions.
Around 11,000 members of the Pima and Maricopa tribes live on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community that stretches across 52,600 acres to the northwest side of downtown Phoenix, with 19,000 acres of green space held as a natural preserve. Beyond visiting the casino resorts that operate on sovereign Native land, visitors can connect to living Native American culture in many ways around the city, ways that look back in time and gaze ahead to future possibilities.
From the pageantry of tribal dance and ritual to connecting with local artisans and delving into how the tribes were treated by the U.S. government, exploring Native culture adds depth and richness to any Phoenix experience.
Visit a thriving entertainment district
The Talking Stick Entertainment District is a compact swath jam-packed with activities and attractions – commercial enterprises planned and owned by Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Visiting the district’s attractions is one way to directly support tribal enterprises and contribute to the well-being of the community – and have tons of fun.
The 12-year-old district is anchored by Talking Stick Resort, a luxury casino hotel with 10 restaurants and bars. That includes the five-star gourmet Orange Sky, with its 360-degree views of the valley from the 15th floor.
You can also catch a game or a concert at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the first Major League Baseball stadium on tribal land. Topgolf gives golfers the chance to up their game in climate-controlled comfort. Arizona Boardwalk includes OdySea in the Desert, the largest aquarium in the Southwest, as well as Butterfly Wonderland, America’s largest butterfly conservatory.
As you tool around, take note: the culture and the history of the O’odham and Piipaash people are also shared through building design, landscape and interior art at many sites.
Go hiking at A Mountain to see petroglyphs
The 60-foot-high letter ‘A’ on the side of Hayden Butte Preserve Park, known locally as A Mountain, stands for Arizona State University. Way before the university was founded, the butte was considered a sacred place by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and thousands of years ago, by the Hohokam people, who lived in the area between 750 and 1450 C.E.
Today, this section of the mountain is popular with hikers and history buffs interested in seeing hundreds of petroglyphs, with some easily seen from the trails on the south side of the mountain.
Connect with local artists
Frustrated by a dearth of opportunities to showcase their Native jewelry designs, Denise Rosales and her daughter Heather Tracy founded Native Art Market in 2018. It’s a parking lot-turned-gallery for some 30 Native artisans, their crafts and their stories, along with fry bread and music and dance performances.
Open on weekends between November and March, the market spotlights artists like August Wood, who has spent the last 13 years working with elders to learn both paddle and anvil pottery, as well as Pima basket weaving techniques. Maricela Hinojosa is another regular with her business, Beaded Plume, a modern take on the custom beadwork of her Pima and Yaqui heritage.
During the heat of summer, artists do indoor shopping pop-ups, community art fairs and First Friday art events. Tracy and her sister, Devin Shea Tunney, along with their mom, opened a brick-and-mortar gallery in 2020, also called Native Art Market. It’s open year-round.
Be alert to imported goods sold in trading post shops that don’t give local artists their due. For information on purchasing authentic arts and crafts, contact the Indian Arts and Craft Board and the Indian Arts and Crafts Association.
Try some fry bread
The Fry Bread House was recognized by the James Beard Foundation as an American Classic in 2012, an honor given to authentic family-owned businesses. The first Native American-owned restaurant to be so honored, the Fry Bread House was opened in 1992 by Cecilia Miller, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
Fry bread is made from white flour, baking powder, salt and shortening, an ingredient list that reflects the government commodities doled out to reservations for decades. Golden brown and crispy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside, fry bread is used in both sweet and savory dishes, swapped out for tortillas to enclose the likes of green or red chili with beef, pork, chorizo or refried beans and cheese.
The menu also features chumuth, a large hand-stretched tortilla prized by the Tohono O’odham, used for all kinds of stuffed burros. On the sweet side, fry bread is served open-faced and drizzled with butter and chocolate, cinnamon sugar or honey.
Another spot for great fry bread is The Stand, a funky roadside eatery at 3996 Alma School Road owned by Cindy Washington, who is also Tohono O’odham, and her Pima-Maricopa husband, Michael.
Facing the past
After touring the outstanding collection of traditional and contemporary Native art at the Heard Museum, be sure to visit the exhibit “Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories,” the newly updated installation of the Boarding School exhibition that opened in 2000. The powerful exhibit examines an important and often unknown period of American history.
The Heard Museum website states, “Beginning in the 1870s the U.S. government aimed to assimilate American Indians into “civilized” society by placing them in government-operated boarding schools. Children were taken from families and transported to far-away schools where all signs of “Indian-ness” were stripped away. Students were trained for servitude and many went for years without familial contact – events that still have an impact on Native communities today.”
At the entrance, there’s a wall of hundreds of school portraits of Indigenous students who attended scores of boarding schools across the United States – many against their wishes – over the course of 140 years.
Before your visit, check the museum’s events calendar. The Heard is also home to ongoing cultural celebrations, like the recent 2022 Hoop Dancing World Championship.
Reflect at the USS Arizona Memorial Gardens at Salt River
Built and funded by The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the USS Arizona Memorial Gardens at Salt River opened in February 2020 to honor the troops aboard the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Open from dawn until dusk, the five-acre development was built around a relic of the ship’s boat house, which is enclosed in a glass case.
The attack killed 1,177 of the 1,512 crew members, and the Gardens honor each of them on metal monuments of stacked blocks engraved with names and ranks. The site invites reflection, with benches carved with quotes from survivors found along pathways that end in flagpoles marking each branch of the military. Commemorative columns form the outline of the 608-foot-long battleship, and they illuminate at night to remember the lives lost during the attack.
Take a tour of Native sculptures
Follow the Salt River Sculpture Trail and feel the strength and power of the Pima and Maricopa cultures through the work of artist Jeffrey Fulwilder. His large-scale steel works scattered throughout the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community include a gorgeous mustang in motion (located in front of the Rancho Solano school) and “Basket Dancers,” a group of four women carrying woven baskets on their heads, mirroring a harvest dance that fills each basket with food from a different season.
Fulwilder bases his work on his own dreams and the traditions of his culture. A resident and member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Fulwilder works with a local fabricator to create his towering work. Ask about touring with the artist, a wonderful way to hear Fulwilder’s stories firsthand.
Be soothed by Native plants
When Stella Rojas was growing up at the edge of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, she remembers how important the creosote plant was to her grandfather and uncles. When they’d come back from working on the reservation’s community farm, the men would soak their feet in water floating with bits of the scrubby plant, a sacred shrub prized for its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties.
Rojas, whose mother is Pima and father has roots in Mexico, took those memories and created a treatment at the Aji Spa, a pampering palace that puts the emphasis on Native American-inspired wellness and indigenous plants. As the cultural leader for the spa at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass, she helps interpret and integrate Native practices into Aji repertoire.
During the spring, she forages for creosote, blending it into neutral oil to make a healing balm. Utilized with a heat-activated body wrap, the balm revitalizes thirsty skin, leaving a body glowing and smelling like the desert when it rains.
The Spa at Talking Stick Resort also channels Indigenous ingredients and practices, including using products that incorporate Native desert lavender balm, Pima sweet mesquite bean polish and Native wild chaparral oil formulated by a Native botanist in Sedona.