Community Members’ Contributions Recognized on Earth Day
May 06, 2022
Gila River Indian News
The Gila River Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) celebrated Earth Day April 22 with a virtual presentation aired on the Gila River Broadcast Corporation’s Facebook page and via Zoom.
DEQ Environmental Education & Outreach Specialist Tison Gill said the focus this year was on Gila River Indian Community members doing their part to make the environment a better place for people and animals. Speakers included Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, Gila River royalty, Community gardeners and others.
Gov. Lewis provided an overview of the Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act of 2004 that allowed the Community to protect the waters of the Gila River and receive water from the Colorado River as a supplement to their Keli Akimel (Old River). He said the Community’s significant water supply would protect against drought and help it with “climate resilience.”
With regard to resiliency, Gov. Lewis said, the Community embodies a sense of stewardship over the land and the history going back to the Huhugam, who lived in harmony with the land and the canals they constructed to sustain themselves.
“It is a proud legacy we all should embrace, because it is in our DNA and our connection to the Huhugam,” he said.
Gov. Lewis also emphasized the importance of climate change and how it affects the Community in terms of the mega-drought, and how the Community must be a leader in devising solutions to water issues. “
“We have been such good stewards of our natural resources—our shudag (water) with MAR 5 [Interpretive Trail] and implementing cutting-edge conservation practices—that’s all in our value system,” he said.
“During past events, DEQ has really focused on outreach and what DEQ does,” said DEQ Acting Director Ryan Eberle.“For this year’s Earth Day celebration, we have switched gears a little… and instead of solely talking about DEQ… we want to focus more on what [you] all are doing in the Community to improve the environment.
“No Earth Day celebration would be complete without cultural enrichment and a little competitive learning,” Eberle added. “I am really excited to show you this presentation and extend a sincere ‘thank you’ to Tison Gill, staff at GRTI and all the participants and planners that contributed to this Earth Day event.”
Gila River Royalty Kelsey Martinez, Miss Gila River 2022-23, and Eliana Rhodes, Jr. Miss Gila River 2022-23, offered their perspectives on what it means for Community members to seek greater participation in environmental stewardship.
“As stewards, we have great reverence for the whole Earth,” Martinez said. “Earth Day is a special day to give our thanks and to keep [it] clean, which should be every day.” She said it is a reminder to preserve the environment for future generations, and said elders are crucial for teaching Community members about the environment and cultural practices.
Rhodes echoed Martinez’s remarks on keeping the environment clean for future generations. “As O’otham, we really know how to appreciate Mother Earth, especially all that she has done for us, with our crops and water,” she said.
Norman Wellington from District 4 gave a tour of his garden, which consisted of tomatoes, onions, squash and garlic, among other vegetables, and noted that he helped his father farm alfalfa during his older years. Indigenous plants are both healing and healthy, he said, and can be used in basket and gourd making.
“It takes a commitment as far as putting in time into your garden and staying at it and being out every day and being active,” said Wellington. He added it takes daily maintenance, but as things start to grow, people will see the fruits of their labor and understand how rewarding it is to grow edible plants.
“Everything comes full-circle … and so it pays off,” he said.
Abel Flores, a teacher at Gila Crossing Community School (GCCS), said they grow vegetables including peppers, cilantro, garlic and tomatoes. He provided an overview of the schools’ greenhouse, where students can work at several stations to plant, pot and take their vegetables home.
“I’ve been gardening most of my adult life,” said Flores. “Here at GCCS, for the past five or so years, I have been helping with the garden.” Flores said his introduction to gardening came in his high school years working for local nurseries in south Phoenix.
Christina Pablo, a Community gardener from District 5, went over how she developed her green thumb. “For the past three-and-a-half years on and off, I have been figuring out what works and doesn’t work,” she said.
She added that she is part of the agriculture committee and enjoys getting to know the local farmers and gardeners and learning valuable information from them. Her stepdad is a farmer who grows alfalfa and corn for cattle, so she said she has learned by watching and helping him.
It is important for her kids to live off of the land on what they have grown, she said, because they will get a better sense of accomplishment when they grow their own fruits and vegetables.
Commitment is a large part of growing food, Pablo commented, because a lot of work goes into gardening. “You need to treat[plants] as you would your kids,” she said.
Former GRIC Lt. Governor and District 5 resident Robert Stone said he has been gardening most of his life and has a sprawling garden called “Hothai,” or Stone Gardens.
“I’ve been doing this in my backyard for as long as I have lived here,” said Stone as he showed viewers around his garden, which largely consists of heirloom plants and vegetables. “I get the crops from other areas and research online through the seed catalogs.”
Stone’s property includes purple hulless barley, Sonoran wheat, Salt River peas and other crops from across the globe, like Karma Tibetan barley. Stone explained how crops can be grown and re-grown without tilling the soil, which allows for the continued growth of harvestable plants in a small area.“Start small if you’re not experienced, because it is a lot of work,” he said.
Other subjects covered during the virtual presentation included an overview of the Gila River MAR 5 Interpretive Trail, which is part of the Managed Aquifer Recharge Site 5. The area is maintained through the removal of invasive species and trimming out the trees to keep them healthy.
Many cottonwood trees and Gooding’s Willow that line the Gila River Interpretive Trail came from various locations around Southern Arizona and the Community. Some were planted so Community members can use them for cultural purposes.
The virtual presentation concluded with a traditional dance by the Achem A’al (We Children) Traditional Pima Basket Dancers and a quiz that covered various Earth Day topics.