Gila River governor praises Indian community
The Arizona Republic, 7/7/04
Richard P. Narcia is governor of the Gila River
Indian Community, a 600-square-mile sovereign nation that borders Chandler,
Ahwatukee Foothills and Gilbert. Narcia oversees a yearly operating budget of
more than $100 million, which funds about 80 programs for the tribe's 17,000
enrolled members, made of two tribes, the Akimel O'odham (Pima) and Pee Posh
The Akimel O'odham, whose name means "People of the River,"
traditionally were farmers. But in the early 20th century, much of the water
from the Gila and Salt rivers was diverted. This month, after 30 years of
wrangling over water rights, a historic water settlement awaits approval in the
Last month, the community celebrated 10 years of Indian gaming, money that has
funded infrastructure improvements such as health care, educational
scholarships, public safety and housing to the people living in the seven
districts that make up the reservation. In a few months, two dialysis centers
and a Diabetes Education and Resource Center will open. By next summer, a new
government center will be complete.
Your inaugural ceremony on Jan. 3, 2003, blended
traditional and modern dress, as well as O'odham and English. You said at the
time it wouldn't be easy to merge the culture of the past with the thinking of
the present. Have you been successful in reaching a balance between generations?
I've been working with the elderly quite
extensively. District 5 needed help building its elderly facility. It's about
ready to be completed. The focus on the elderly as well as the youths, that
interaction may not be as quick as I had hoped, but it's getting there. With our
youths, we need to remember where we came from and the only way to do that is
through our elders.
Diabetes is a huge health problem for your
community. What progress are you making against that disease?
We have tried to focus on what causes the
diabetes: the changing of the lifestyles, diets, the fast foods. That's a real
challenge. The perception with our young people, they'd rather go off the
reservation, buy a hamburger than eat something healthy. Our diet contributes a
lot to the state that we're in. Changing that lifestyle has been a major element
in fighting that disease.
Is the community responding?
I think so. I think there's much more awareness
of what's happening.
You have two dialysis centers nearing completion?
It's been a long time coming. The existing
dialysis center is not meeting our needs. We had to shut down the old one for a
while. The floor was caving in, the water was leaking. It was a mess over there.
We did a major rehab but it was a Band-Aid. I know the patients are very anxious
to move into the new building.
Why is the Arizona Water Settlements Act so
The ultimate objective of our community is to
have gaming as a secondary resource. Our water settlement is going to be key in
how we can develop. It's an economic thing but it's also a cultural thing.
Historically, we're an agricultural society, all the way back to the Hohokam.
We've been farmers for centuries. I guess it's in our blood. So water's very
important to our people.
What's the status of the historic water settlement?
It's in the Senate Energy Committee right now.
It's due to be marked up July 14.
What will that mean for the River People?
It will bring 653,500 acre feet of water a year.
That'll mean that we can open up areas in our community that we've slated for
agriculture. We intend to irrigate 146,000 acres of land here on the
In the southeast Valley, land that was farmland is going away. It seems like
we're creating a huge need for agriculture nearby. Is that something you'll be
stepping up to fill?
Yes, and that's the main idea. As an economic
development tool, we feel that agriculture in the future is going to be very
beneficial for our community. While the farming economy sometimes is kind of
unstable, goes up and down a lot, with the urbanization of surrounding
communities, we're going to be the only open area in southern Arizona. I think
we could be the garden spot of southern Arizona.
How does the growth of the Valley, particularly
Chandler and Ahwatukee, affect your community?
I think we've opened the door with the metro
Phoenix area cities and towns to reach out to those communities, Chandler,
Gilbert, Phoenix, Tolleson. I think we can work together on the transportation,
freeways, roads and things that are coming about; I think we can work together
so it enhances both their needs and our needs.
When you mentioned freeways, are you talking
specifically about the Pecos Road South Mountain Freeway talks?
That issue is kind of a sensitive issue with a
district in our community that's impacted, District 6. They want to keep their
area as pristine as possible. They're not in favor of the freeway. So until that
resolves, it's not going to be in our community.
What are the community's development plans for
We are in the process of updating the borderland
plan. It's not complete yet. With all the potential for land use there in that
area, all along the northern boundary, we needed to have an assessment of what
could be. Hopefully, this will give us a better indication of what the highest
and best use of the land will be.
Do you see it changing a lot from what they
planned 10 years ago?
Right now that area is slated for agriculture.
There are a lot of allottees there, landowners, and I think they're looking for
more commercial development.
If District 6 wants to keep that area pristine,
are they different from the people who want commercial development there?
I think some of the landowners would like to see
that freeway go through. The district is pretty much the entity that when it
comes to council, the council would view the wishes of the district. There's a
resolution right now that states that the district is opposed to the freeway in
How are you using revenues from the casinos to
help the community?
In 10 years, we've just begun to scratch the
surface of decades of poverty and economic depression. We've made, in my mind,
huge strides in raising the quality of life of our population. The Police
Department has over 80 officers; 10 years ago it was a very small force. Our
Fire Department is also a state-of-the-art fire department, in excess of 80
firemen. The equipment is all the latest equipment. The biggest priority is
adequate housing for our community. If you drive around, you will see a lot of
houses going up. It's a direct result of the use of the gaming revenues.
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