“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.” ~American Indian Proverb
Arizona is home to a greater diversity of Indian cultures than anywhere else in the United States. Each tribe is distinct and the cultures are unique within each tribe, but they are all proudly united by their Indian heritage. The most well-known tribes include the Apache (Indé), Hopi (Hopituh), Maricopa (Pee-Posh), Navajo (Diné), Papago (Tohono O’odham), Pima (Akimel O’odham), Yavapai, and Yuma (Quechan).
Many of the tribes have cultural centers – hubs of education and history – which are open to the public. Most tribes also host annual events such as rodeos, festivals, and craft fairs. Even some traditional ceremonies are now open to the public. These offer everyone an opportunity to view and participate in Indian history and culture.
Did You Know…? The term “Native American” may be politically correct; however, most Indians actually prefer the term “American Indian,” because anyone born in America is technically a native American. Many Indian organizations – including the American Indian Movement, National Museum of the American Indian, and National Congress of American Indians – use the term “American Indian” in their titles.
One-fourth of Arizona’s total land area is occupied by 20+ reservations. Indian reservations are regarded as sovereign nations, making and enforcing the laws of their land. Permits are needed to camp, hunt, or fish on native lands. The Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the U.S., and the Tohono O’odham Nation, the second largest reservation in the U.S., are both located in Arizona. Since there are a total of 20 reservations in Arizona, I have made two lists: the “Top Ten Largest” and “Top Ten Smallest” Indian Reservations in Arizona.
Top Ten Indian Reservations (largest)
A list of the ten largest federally recognized Indian reservations in Arizona by area:
Land Area: 18,119.2 square miles (Arizona); 26,000 square miles total
Location: Arizona / New Mexico / Utah
The Navajo refer to themselves as the Diné, or “the People”. In 1868, a peace treaty was signed allowing the Navajo people to return to their homeland. Today, the Navajo Tribe represents the largest Indian Tribe in the U.S. and stretches across the high deserts and forests of the four corners region. Tourism has a significant role in the Navajo Tribe’s economy, as it is home to natural wonders such as Canyon de Chelly and Rainbow Natural Bridge. The Navajo Nation is also home to Diné College, the first tribally controlled community college in the country. The college features a six story, hogan-shaped cultural center. The Navajo Nation is the only place in Arizona that observes Daylight Savings Time.
NOTE: The San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe has long been regarded as part of the Navajo Tribe by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. However, the San Juan Paiutes are culturally distinct from their Navajo neighbors, having their own language and history. Tribal members depend on raising livestock and subsistence farming of a small number of crops. The Tribe is also known for its traditional hand- woven baskets. The Tribe is now involved in litigation to establish and secure its own land base.
Tohono O’odham Nation
Land Area: 4,446.3 square miles
Location: Southern Desert
The Tohono O’odham Nation is the second largest Native American Nation in the United States. The Nation comprises of four non-contiguous segments, but the largest of the segments (the Tohono O’odham Reservation) represents over 90% of the land. The Tohono O’odham have been living in southwestern Arizona and northwestern Sonora for hundreds of years. The Nation share 63 miles of border with Mexico. Principal economic activities include tourism (most notable the Mission San Xavier del Bac), an industrial park near Tucson and a casino.
San Carlos Apache Reservation
Land Area: 2,853.1 square miles
Location: Superstition Mountains
The San Carlos Apache’s are descendants of the Athabascan family, who migrated to the Southwest around the 10th Century. The San Carlos Apache Reservation was established in 1871 through an Executive Order by President Grant. Over one-third of San Carlos’ land is forested or wooded. A portion of the Reservation is contiguous with the largest stand of ponderosa pines in the world. Gaming, lumbering, tourism, cattle ranching and recreation are significant sources of economic activity for the San Carlos Apache.
White Mountain Apache Tribe
Land Area: 2,600.7 square miles
Location: White Mountains
Established as the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in November, 1891 by Executive Order, the area is now known as the White Mountain Apache Reservation. The tribal members are direct descendants of the original tribes that lived in this area. The White Mountain Apache live in a region that has an abundance of natural resources and scenic beauty, and the tribe has earned a national reputation for its network of enterprises, which include a timber company, lumber hardware retail center, ski resort, and casino.
Land Area: 2,438.6 square miles
Location: Northeastern Arizona
The Hopi Reservation is located in the high deserts of northeastern Arizona and is surrounded by the Navajo Nation. The Hopi people trace their Arizona roots back to more than 2,000 years. Throughout the Hopi Reservation, every village is an autonomous government, but the Hopi Tribal Council sets policy to oversee tribal business and law. A recent broadband internet project has provided four communities on the Reservation with internet lab access. Agriculture continues to have an important role in the Hopi economy.
Land Area: 1,550.2 square miles
Location: Grand Canyon
Hualapai means “People of the Tall Pine.” The Hualapai live on a reservation along 108 miles of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. An Executive Order created the reservation in 1883. Peach Springs, the tribal capital, is 50 miles east of Kingman on Historic Route 66, owes its name to peach trees growing at springs nearby. The reservation’s topography varies from rolling grassland to forest and the rugged canyons of the Colorado River. Elevations range from 1,500 feet at the Colorado River, to over 7,300 feet at the highest point of the Aubrey Cliffs, which are located on the eastern portion of the reservation. The Colorado River is a significant landmark for the Hualapai. The Grand Canyon always provided important food sources for eating, for medicinal uses, and for utilitarian purposes. The Hualapai Tribe’s primary economic activities center around tourism, cattle ranching, timber sales, arts and crafts.
Gila River Indian Community
Land Area: 581.1 square miles
Location: South of Phoenix
The Gila River Indian Community traces its roots to the prehistoric Hohokam Indians, who lived and farmed the Gila River Basin. Today the community is composed of the Pima and Maricopa tribes. Established in 1859 by Act of Congress, the Gila River Indian Reservation is now divided into seven districts that can be found in peripheral areas of the Phoenix metropolitan area. The community has a diverse economic base that includes Gila River farms, sand and gravel operations, a nationally acclaimed industrial park (Lone Butte), and two casino/resorts.
Colorado River Indian Tribes
Land Area: 353 square miles (Arizona) + 66.7 square miles (California)
Location: Arizona / California
Established in March of 1865 for the “Indians of said river and its tributaries,” the Colorado River Indian Reservation straddles a part of the Arizona and California border, although over 80% of the Reservation is located within Arizona. The Reservation’s economy centers around agriculture, recreation, light industry, and government. The Colorado River Indian Tribes has senior water rights to 717,000 acre-feet of the Colorado River, which represents nearly a third of the allotment for the State of Arizona.
Havasupai Indian Reservation
Land Area: 293.8 square miles
Location: Grand Canyon
For over 1,000 years, the Havasupai have lived at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, practicing irrigated farming during the summer months and hunting on the plateaus during the winter. The Reservation was created in 1882 and enlarged for the Havasupai, which means “people of the blue-green waters”. Tourism is the primary economic staple for the reservation, bringing in more than 12,000 guests a year. The Tribe also operates a cafe, grocery store, museum, cultural center, and an art/silkscreen studio.
Land Area: 188.7 square miles
Location: north of Grand Canyon
The Kaibab-Paiute Reservation is located along Kanab Creek in the grasslands and plateaus of northern Arizona. The Kaibab-Paiute people are members of the Southern Paiute Nation. Three national parks, one national monument, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area all rest within a two hour drive of the Reservation. Arizona Highway 389 crosses the Kaibab-Paiute Reservation and is a main thoroughfare between Las Vegas and Lake Powell, making the Kaibab-Paiute economy centered on tourism along with livestock. Additionally, the Tribe is involved in agriculture and owns a 1,300 tree fruit orchard.
Top Ten Indian Reservations (smallest)
A list of the ten smallest federally recognized Indian reservations in Arizona by area:
Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community
Land Area: 87.2 square miles
Location: 10 miles east of Phoenix
An Executive Order by President Hayes in June of 1879 established the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. The Executive Order allowed the Pima and Maricopa people to occupy a stretch of fertile agricultural land together. Today, the Salt River Community has attempted to take advantage of its location adjacent to the Phoenix metropolitan area through commercial development. This includes a 140-acre retail commercial development called the Pavilions and a Wal-Mart retail center. The Salt River Community also maintains a 19,000 acre natural preserve. Agriculture and gaming represent other important economic activities for the community.
Fort Yuma-Quechan Tribe
Land Area: 68.1 square miles
The Fort Yuma-Quechan Tribe is home to the Quechan Indians and is located on both sides of the Colorado River in Arizona and California. The Tribe is largely an agricultural community, but it also depends on tourism and a sand and gravel operation to help sustain its economy. The Tribe operates five trailer and RV parks, a small grocery store and a museum.
Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation
Land Area: 38.6 square miles
Location: northeast of Phoenix on Highway 87
The Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation was created by Executive Order in September of 1903. The Reservation is a small parcel of land that was formerly the ancestral home of the Yavapai. The landscape of the area is marked by tree-lined bottom lands along the Verde River and cactus-filled rolling hills. The Fort McDowell Gaming Center, tribal farm, sand and gravel center, and a tribally-owned gas station serve as significant sources of economic activity on the reservation.
Fort Mojave Indian Tribe
Land Area: 37 square miles (Arizona); 8.7 square miles (Nevada)
Location: Arizona / Nevada
The Fort Mojave Indian Reservation stretches along the banks of the Colorado River, and the Mojave Indians are the Pipa Aha Macav – the people by the river. Approximately 25,000 acres of its land is used for agricultural development such as irrigated crop land. The two casinos – Spirit Mountain Casino, located in Mojave Valley, AZ and Avi Casino, located in Laughlin, NV – are another notable part of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe’s economy. The 300-room hotel and casino in the Nevada portion of the Reservation was master planned by the Tribe.
Ak-Chin Indian Community
Land Area: 34.1 square miles
Location: south of Phoenix on Highway 347
The Ak-Chin Indian Community was created in May of 1912 by way of Executive Order from President Taft. The community consists of both Tohono O’odham and Pima Indians, and can be found in the Sonoran Desert of south central Arizona. In 1984, a water rights settlement was approved by Congress, entitling the Ak-Chin Community access to 75,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water. Ak-Chin Farms, Harrah’s Casino, and the Ak-Chin Tribal Government are all major employers.
Cocopah Indian Reservation
Land Area: 9.4 square miles
Location: south of Yuma on Highway 95
The Cocopah Indian Reservation was established by an Executive Order from Woodrow Wilson in 1917. In 1985, the Cocopah Land Acquisition Bill extended the area of the Reservation, which is divided into three parcels (East, West, and North Cocopah). With its location adjacent to the Colorado River, agriculture plays an important factor in the community’s economy.
Yavapai Prescott Indian Tribe
Land Area: 2.2 square miles
The Yavapai-Prescott Reservation is located in the rolling hills adjacent to Prescott. The Reservation was established in 1935, and additional area of land was acquired in 1956. At one time, the Tribe depended upon timber, mining and agriculture for its economic base. The Yavapai-Prescott now have a more diversified economic structure that incorporates tourism, gaming and retail activities. The tribe owns a 162-room resort, two casinos, a business park and a shopping center.
Pascua Yaqui Tribe
Land Area: 1.4 square miles
Location: 15 miles west of Tucson
The Pascua Yaqui are descendents of the ancient Toltecs from northern Mexico. Congress transferred 202 acres to the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in 1964 and in 1982, the Reservation acquired another 690 acres. The Tribe’s first constitution was approved in 1988. The Casino of the Sun and Casino del Sol are the Tribe’s largest employers. Other economic enterprises include a landscape nursery, a manufacturer of adobe blocks, and a bingo hall.
Land Area: 1.02 square miles
Location: Camp Verde
The Yavapai-Apache Nation is the amalgamation of two distinct Tribes who historically occupied the Upper Verde Valley. A Reservation was initially established in 1871, but it was rescinded by Presidential Order in 1875 and all of the people, Yavapai and Apache alike, were forcibly marched to the San Carlos Agency east of Phoenix. In 1909, a Reservation was re-established and additional lands were acquired in 1915, 1967, and 1974. The Tribe once relied on agricultural activity as a primary means of economic sustenance. In recent years, economic activity has expanded and the Tribe now operates a convenience market, service station, recreational vehicle park, and a casino.
Tonto Apache Tribe
Land Area: .13 square miles
The Tonto Apache Tribe is home to the smallest land base Reservation in Arizona, recognized by a Congressional Act in 1972. The Reservation is located adjacent to Payson, and the Mazatzal Casino represents one of the community’s largest employers. To enable the Tonto Apache to enlarge its land base, the Tribe is working with the Forest Service in a land purchase and exchange process.
Zuni Indian Reservation
Land Area: 19.5 square miles (Arizona); 723.343 square miles total
Location: New Mexico / Arizona
The main Zuni Indian reservation is located in western New Mexico along the Arizona border. The Zuni Indians built compact villages of multi-storied houses. These were the “Seven Cities of Cibola” (Spanish word for “buffalo”) seen by Coronado and his men on their treasure quest in 1540. For the last three hundred years, most of the Zunis have lived in a single village, the Pueblo of Zuni. Beyond the boundaries of the main reservation, there are ancient sites and areas, sacred points and shrines, and places of pilgrimage central to Zuni life and history. The Zuni Heaven Reservation in Apache County, Arizona, was established by Congress in 1984 and expanded in 1990 to further the religious and cultural needs of the Zuni Tribe. This legislation resulted in the official expansion of the Zuni Reservation into the State of Arizona, and accomplished a goal the Zuni Tribe had sought for more than a century.
Zuni Heaven (also known as Kachina Village) was once a lush riparian habitat northwest of St. Johns with springs, streams and a sacred lake (Hadin Kyaya) as late as the 1930s. Surface water depletions, dams, groundwater pumping, and incisement of the Little Colorado River resulted in loss of the springs, lake and riparian habitat. The Zuni Indian Tribe Water Rights Settlement Agreement of 2002 provides sufficient water for the reservation including reestablishment and maintenance of the wetland environment. Zuni Indians religiously pilgrimage there from the main reservation every four years at the summer solstice, a four-day trek on foot and horseback. This observance is well known to local residents. Although there are no Zuni residential communities located in Arizona, the tribe’s land holdings in the state allow it to be recognized as an Arizona tribe.