A’AGA Something to be told or talked about

Two Christian missionaries left their marks on the Gila River Indian Community.   Although Reverend Cook preached in American/Milga:n and O’otham, it took twelve years before he baptized his first convert, Manuel Roberts of Blackwater in 1885. This started a slow avalanche as others accepted Cook’s teaching: Maichu Jackson, O’otham police captain; James Vanioo of Gila Crossing; Sala Hina of Casa Blanca; and John Lewis of Santan.  Antonio Azul was a regular parishioner, but waited until 1893 to be baptized.  Church records show Reverend Cook baptized over 1,800 people between 1889 and 1911. Some kept their O’otham names such as Kachalas of Cottonwoods and Mrs. Hannah Lawsa Hohokum, others identified by a description, such as “sore-eyed man,” or “man with weak eyes.”


Forty years of missionary work took its toll on Reverend Cook. Word was sent to Presbyterian seminaries for someone to go to Arizona and help.  Dirk Lay was at Dubuque Seminary in Iowa, and decided to come and help for one year. Dirk Lay and his wife arrived in Sacaton in September of 1910 with the plan to stay for one year. 


Dirk Lay’s first attempts at reviving Sunday school, didn’t go well.  The first meeting had only one participant.  Mr. Lay kept on his mission and within ten years reservation wide Sunday school attendance had over 1,600 children.  The next project was to raise money to replace the old adobe Sacaton Church dating from 1884.  O’otham elders Manuel Roberts, Horace Williams, Edward Jackson, John Howard, and Xavier Cawker traveled to various parts of the country to raise money. Construction began on the First Pima Presbyterian Church of Sacaton, meanwhile Reverend Cook’s health declined, formally retiring in 1914 and earning his eternal rest on May 4, 1917. The church was renamed in his honor in 1918.


Other original churches; Blackwater (1881), Gila Crossing (1895), and Vah ki (1897) had to be rebuilt. The Vah ki church was renamed the Culbertson Memorial Chapel, to honor the parents of a donor who donated five thousand dollars. Dr. Lay and Horace Williams, an O’otham evangelist, were part of the dedication service. 

Dirk Lay came to realize that the Pima Indian Agent did not have always have the best interest of O’otham/Piipaash as a guiding force. Good ministers don’t just preach, they also listen, and he responded to O’otham/Piipaash complaints about the continued water loss.


In 1912, Dirk Lay and BIA employee Herbert Marten began looking into the actions of Indian Agent J.P. Alexander.  A House Indian Affairs Committee hearing was scheduled. Mr. Marten read a letter from Antonio Azul, gave testimony of a failed water pumping project, and noted Alexander’s conflict of interest with land speculator, Dr. A. J. Chandler. (Dr. Chandler wanted Congress to build a bridge across the Gila so guests at his San Marcos Hotel could drive to the Casa Grande Ruins.) Congress scheduled more study, i.e. nothing. 


In 1923, the Arizona Christian Endeavor Union’s state convention was held in Sacaton.  Dr. Lay was elected president and invited to speak at the World Convention held in Iowa later that year.  Fifteen thousand delegates heard Dr. Lay speak of work done with O’otham/Piipaash.  When Arizona Congressman Carl Hayden told Dr. Lay that the Coolidge Dam bill would probably not be heard, Dr. Lay went to Washington D. C. to rally support from Congress. Arizona Senator Ralph Cameron arranged for Dr. Lay to stay in Washington, D. C. and work for this bill to be heard.  


The bill for San Carlos Dam was passed by the House Committee on Indian Affairs with less than a month to go before Congress adjourned which would essentially kill the bill. Even with the support from presbytery of Phoenix, the Synod of Arizona, the National Staff, the Committee of One Hundred and the Indian Rights Association, the bill seemed a lost cause with only four days left before Congress would adjourn.  As a last ditch effort, Dr. Lay wrote a letter to President Calvin Coolidge. On June 7, the President signed the bill authorizing the construction of a dam across the Gila River near San Carlos, Arizona. It meant water for O’otham/Piipaash, but gave rise to other problems, such as the lack of farm equipment, money to purchase seed and preparing the land for irrigation.  Dr. Lay was probably deceived in gaining support for a dam at old San Carlos. Carl Hayden saw to it that about 15,500 acres of reservation land and 23,000 acres of off reservation fields would get water.  Dr. Lay wound up staying for twenty-seven years until he was transferred to Sioux lands in South Dakota. Lt. Colonel Dirk Lay continued to serve as chaplain for the 158th Infantry, Arizona National Guard so when the Guard was mobilized to the Panama Canal Zone, Lt. Colonel Lay deployed along with his Bushmasters.  Lt. Colonel Lay died while serving in the Canal Zone on December 1, 1944.  A Christian soldier to the end, an example for all of us. 


Information was taken from An Oasis Remembered by Robert Ramsey; The Pima-Maricopa by Henry F. Dobyns; Peoples of the Middle Gila by John P. Wilson; Archives of the Coolidge Examiner of December 8, 1944; and A History of the Presbyterian Work among the Pima and Papago Indians of Arizona by John M. Hamilton.