Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today 

An Arizona city has formally recognized the traditional homelands it was built on more than a century ago.

Tempe, along with metropolitan Phoenix, sits on traditional O’odham and Piipaash land. Recently, the city acknowledged that its 40 square miles are on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community homelands — a rare move by a large city — as a way to recognize Native historical and cultural land significance.

The statement will be used in its educational programs, ceremonies and holiday observances. As well as be included in the city’s discussions and decisions about land use and development, according to the press release.

Council member Doreen Garlid, Navajo, was part of the team that helped propel the initiative. She was elected in March 2020 and became the first Native American council member for the city.

“This was something so close to my heart, and I’m so proud to be a part of it,” she said.

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Arizona State University's main campus in Tempe has already acknowledged the land it sits on. Portland, Oregon, approved a series of directives in December, one was to adopt a formal land acknowledgment.

(Related: Portland paves new path toward inclusion)

Garlid said the city worked with citizens of Salt River and its sister tribe, the Gila River Indian Community, to help guide the language of the statement. Read the full statement here.

“It’s not a document that the City of Tempe put together, it’s a document that was put together by the local nations, the city of Tempe, with lots of respect, honor and love went into it. It’s a beautiful document,” she said.

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She said the process began around early fall last year, and everything seemed to develop quickly.

“When you realize the importance of it and when you realize how special it can be, people are just so excited and proud to work on it,” she said.

Discussions of the land acknowledgement stemmed from Debbie Nez Manuel, Navajo, asking Garlid about Indigenous People’s Day, and what the city could possibly do. Tempe Council member Lauren Kuby also discussed with Garlid about an email signature that acknowledges the land.

“I’ve always wanted to embrace our partnerships with the tribes, and embrace everyone in our city,” Kuby said.

Tempe’s Historic Preservation Officer John Southard and the Community Development Deputy Director/Special Projects Alex Smith were also involved.

Kuby said they plan to have the statement be heavily included in the city’s government.

“It’s a commitment to acknowledge the ancestry of this region, and it’s a commitment to embrace the understandings of land, so when we are making decisions, we are keeping the entire history of this place,” Kuby said.

The statement was formally read at a meeting on Jan. 14, which Garlid said Mayor Corey Woods asked her to read. She said it was a moving moment for her and her Navajo-side of her family.

“This was an opportunity to elevate all of our history and our ancestors and be able to honor them,” Garlid said. “Even though it wasn’t for the Navajo Nation, when we lift one nation up, we lift them all.”

She added some Indigenous people have reached out and expressed their excitement and non-Natives said how proud they were of the city’s actions.

She said that she hopes in the future that there will be more Native recognition in the city.

“It’s just the beginning, this is just opening doors,” she said.

Nez Manuel said this process was different than when she worked three years ago with Native youth from Morning Star Leaders to have cities like Tempe acknowledge the land.

Debbie Nez-Manuel

“I think that has to do with representation at the table. Meaning council member Doreen Garlid was at the table; her being Navajo, her being able to see the internal workings of the city” she said.

Nez Manuel said that this is the precedent for other land acknowledgements and hopes that other cities will follow like making time and working with tribes.

“It’s happening, it’s slowly happening,” she said. “I think as time goes on, we’re going to get there, but it takes so much education to teach non-Indians what we’re asking for, what we mean, what outcomes we want to see.”

Despite how long the process took, Nez Manuel said that there is plenty of time to continue these initiatives.

“It will take time, but we have a lot of time to start those for our children and our grandchildren to see,” she said. 

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Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at kbenallie@indiancountrytoday.com. Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.

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