Penrose Fulwilder connects art and life at Wild Horse Pass


''So, go! Go ahead with what has come ... Go through with the remainder of your days treating everyone fair. That you may be treated the same. When you come to the road to the singing and dancing gourds, you will have no regret, knowing you have done your part while here.''

- Akimel O'otham writer George Webb

ARVADA, Colo. - Penrose Fulwilder is a man who knows about connections: connections to family, to the Earth, to culture and to the Creator. He doesn't ever question how he knows these things; he just does what he does: paint. And what he paints has helped to revitalize an Arizona tribal culture many folks didn't even know existed.

The Gila River Indian Reservation, 15 minutes east of Phoenix, covers 580 square miles. It is a place of legends, where wild horses still roam free and runoff from the Mogollon Mountain Range creates a riparian oasis in the Sonora Desert terrain. Forty miles north on the southern edge of the Tonto basin, covering another 90 square miles, is the Salt River Reservation. These two reservations are home to more than 30,000 members of the Akimel O'otham (Pima) and Pee Posh (Maricopa) nations. They have lived together harmoniously for two centuries. Today, they enjoy economic prosperity based on successful commercial and agricultural programs. And everywhere you look, there is art: art in public places, in homes, on fences, on roads and on buildings. Art is one of the means by which the two tribes have held on to their identity.

Fulwilder, a Salt River Pima-Maricopa member, remembers a time when things were very different; when, in the late '90s, his people were still suffering the effects of assimilation wrought upon them by the European immigrants of the late 1800s. For decades, the tribes suffered through famine and joblessness.

''Our water rights were taken away; we had no way to grow food and no way to make a living. Many of us had to leave the reservation to seek work in the city. We lost our language, our art and our ways for many years,'' Fulwilder said.

''When you talked about Southwest culture, people knew Navajo weaving, Hopi jewelry and Pueblo pottery, but no one knew about the people of the Gila River Reservation or the Salt River Reservation. No one knew about Maricopa or Pima people; no one knew about our basket weaving, our pottery, our art, our language. We were on the verge of losing our cultural identity. But thanks to so many brave elders and adults and young adults, we were determined to keep the traditions and pass them along for the future generations.''

The legalization of reservation gaming and years spent in court to reclaim their water rights, coupled with far-sighted business savvy, gave the tribe a new lease on life. The exclusive Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort, a world-class golf course, theme parks, five-star spas and other attractions now occupy space alongside public works buildings, medical clinics, state of the art schools and museums that now grace the once-devastated reservations.

But it is the murals, paintings and sculptures that grace every nook and cranny of the reservations that speak the loudest about the preservation of a culture. A humble man, Fulwilder would be the last to admit that it is his works that stands out among the plethora of art gracing the reservations. This is because the tribe's most famous muralist was also the artist who illustrated the binded language workbooks for the O'odham-Piipaash Language Program in the early '90s that would begin the process of returning the Pima and Maricopa languages to the children of the reservations.

After working in various trades, Fulwilder followed in his family's footsteps and became one of many contributors to the tribe's plan to revitalize the language and culture with the help of his elders. In 1993, Carol M. Antone, an education major and fluent speaker from Tohono O'odham, and Emmett White, a traditional speaker or vahki from Gila River, would help Fulwilder lend his artistic talent to help bring back the tribe's language.

Fulwilder began the painstakingly slow process of illustrating a series of hand-painted posters, teaching materials with traditional Maricopa and Pima symbols that incorporated basic words from the two tribe's languages. These teaching materials were used to teach children on the reservation the building blocks of those almost-forgotten languages. In the process, his imagination was set on fire with a vision to create a lasting body of art representing his people.

His largest and most prolific piece is a story mural painted on the ceiling of the rotunda of the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort on the Gila River Reservation. The focal point of the resort's multi-million-dollar facility, the mural consists of 10 separate panels and took months to complete. It depicts the creation stories of the two tribes and their art, as well as their art, hunting, games, songs and dances. One panel pays tribute to the elders and another comes full circle back to the future of the tribe, the youth.

Most of Fulwilder's work, however, is in the Salt River community; some is in Gila River. It can be seen literally everywhere. From schools to telecommunication buildings, Fulwilder has filled the reservations with art that represents the heart and soul of his people. He never titles his works. ''I call all my work himdag, 'the way of life.' I paint what I am connected to: the land, the work, the ritual, the ancestors and the future,'' Fulwilder said.

The self-taught artist is pragmatic about the future of the reservations. ''We are finally moving forward with our dream for education, health care and economic stability. Artist like myself are here to ensure that our ways are always part of where we go. It is important to be connected.''