By Candace S. Hughes
“Water and birds have played a significant role in the daily life of the people of the Gila River Indian Community. While the Gila River flowed free, these lands were rich and fertile. Channels were hand dug throughout the entire community. Today, electric pumps bring up ground water for the farms. There are several ‘swimming holes’ throughout the community that serve as recreation centers. The irrigation ditches are now concrete.”
Anne Powers-Pedro (wife of artist Amil Pedro) Statement at entrance to
Memories from the Gila River exhibit
“Chain of Spires Along the Gila River” and “Basin of the Rio Gila,” both painted in 1855
and now hanging in the Phoenix Art Museum, show different perspectives of the
waterway which once flowed continuously from New Mexico through Arizona to the
With the building of Coolidge Dam on the San Carlos Indian Reservation, water was
diverted to central Arizona farmland. The lush areas with wildlife, Native Americans and
settlers have changed to dry banks devoid of vegetation and birds.
Only occasionally does the river flow and only after heavy rains. Sometimes the water
remains in puddles for awhile, but most of the year the riverbed is dry.
Few are now living who remember the flowing river, however stories remain.
Following a tradition of passing along cultural values, Sacaton Middle School students
and their teacher, Amil Pedro, are displaying art and tools at the Scottsdale Center for the
A group of eighth graders carried on the practice of creating headdresses, guided by
Pedro, but they weren’t the large Plains Indians war bonnets seen in movies. These are
smaller creations of turkey feathers in the custom used by Native peoples from the Gila
The work was done at Sacaton Middle School under a grant from the Center for the Arts
paying Pedro, and is part of a decade-long focus of community outreach activities by the
The introduction to the exhibit hall displaying the art and tools provides the explanation
that the Gila River no longer flows freely and many of the indigenous birds which would
have provided feathers have left the area.
“This river served as a lifeline that linked the Gila River Indian Community, which is
composed of two tribes: the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Pee-Posh (Maricopa). Today
these tribes live together as one community, each maintaining their own distinct
traditions,” the exhibit materials explain to visitors from outside the area.
Pedro was raised in District 7 on the west side of the Gila River Reservation near 83rd
Avenue and West Baseline Road and has never seen a continuously free-flowing Gila,
but has witnessed the Salt River running after rainfall.
“Our cultural tradition is that the Gila was a free flowing river and I’ve heard they had a
lot of wild birds and even geese, golden and bald eagles and blue herons as well as
beaver, turtles and fish,” Pedro said.
The headdresses in the exhibit are the type that would have been made from the feathers
of these wild birds who had nests along the river, he explained.
The seven students whose work is at the center are: Melissa Blackwater, Heidi Howard,
Lorena Clashin, Joshua Mejia, Rainee Juan, Daylene Whittaker and Kelly Morris. All
attended the opening except for one who was performing in a dance group that evening.
“Helping the youth of Sacaton Middle School to hold onto their traditions by learning to
make their own headdresses” is one of the highlights of his career, Pedro said.
Arts are encouraged for all youth to promote self-esteem and to encourage young people
to stay in school and with the artist residency program the additional goal is to help
preserve Native American cultural heritage.
Pedro, who lives in the foothills of Casa Grande Mountain, is of Quechan and
“When they saw the students’ completed project this year the center thought it would be a
good idea to spotlight him and the different things he has taught at the school,” said Anne
Powers-Pedro, Amil Pedro’s wife. The exhibit is dedicated to her for support of his
“Honor the Past – Develop the Future” is the theme of his art, which includes decorated
gourds and walking sticks, arrows, a knife and ancient tools including an atlatl.
“They were kind of afraid to put the headdresses together at first, but after they got
started, and saw each was a little different, they were happy about their results. They used
their own technique and it was their own creation,” Pedro explained.
The students met three times weekly for a month, he added. Their work may be shown on
the reservation and at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort when the Center for the Arts
exhibit is taken down.
Three Sacaton Middle School teachers attended the April opening and supported the
project. They are Toni Allen, social studies; Barbara Snyder, reading; and Joe Ellen
Kinnamon, physical education.
“For about 10 years Barbara and I have been the “teacher coordinators on our staff who
have been involved in scheduling Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts events for
our school,” said Allen, of Casa Grande.
The project is starting its 29th year and helped students learn to set a goal, work steadily
towards it and not give up when it got difficult, she added.
“They learned about some of the ways their ancestors appreciated art and brought it into
“Then, public events such as the opening challenged them to stand up in front of
strangers and speak – totally impromptu and they did rise to the occasion!” she added.
“They got to socialize in a kind of upscale setting,” Allen continued.
The teachers know art education is valuable, she explained.
Pedro’s calling as an artist came early. His first memory of art was drawing on his
bedroom wall, followed by scolding and a reminder not to do this in the future. He then
took his art to the rafters where no one could view the results.
More successful attempts brought rewards of arts supplies and boxes of food when he
entered reservation art shows.
Although while he was at Sherman Institute in California he was told he didn’t have the
talent to attend art school in Santa Fe, he feels this was an event which gave him the
motivation to develop his own style and practice his skills.
He entered South Mountain art shows starting at age 14 and moved to art events in
Scottsdale at the Safari hotel and other locations as well as Cahokia art show in East St.
Louis where he won first prize in 1999 for an atlatl (a spear throwing device).
Pedro worked restoring Arizona state buildings for 20 years before retiring 10 years ago.
He was in the Arizona State Employees Art League and displayed at the state Capitol
during that time. This work has resulted in receiving the State of Arizona’s Governor’s
Award of Excellence on two occasions.
His art now may be seen in Arizona state offices as well as tribal buildings, banks and
credit unions in the United States and Canada. Through a cultural exchange, Pedro’s
work is on permanent display in Russia.
In addition, he has demonstrated flint knapping at the Museum of Man in San Diego, and
has received the Arizona Indian Living treasure Award at the Museum of Northern
Some of his work includes illustrations for a series of Maricopa County Parks and
Recreation Department pamphlets as well as work in a children’s storybook for the
Phoenix Indian Center.
Amil works out of his home studio now and has collectors regularly requesting walking
sticks, which start at about $45 and go up depending on the size. “People bring him
saguaro ribs they’ve collected on the reservation,” Anne Pedro-Powers said.
“People buy one thing and come back and buy another thing from him. He gets to know a
lot of people and does a lot of custom work,” she added. He regularly shows work at the
Huhugam Heritage Center adjacent to Sheraton Wild Horse
Pass Resort, the Gila River Indian Arts and Crafts Center, the Chandler Indian Market,
the Heard Museum Indian Market, and the Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological
Park in Phoenix where he teaches a gourd workshop.
And as for the Gila River, it occasionally comes back to life, but has the additional
dangers of groundwater pumping and gravel pits close to its banks. The paintings in the
Western wing of the Phoenix Art Museum remind all of what once was, what we have to
value, what has been lost and how memories can be restored through the work of artists.
Cultural Connections at the Middle School level addresses the Cultural Connections program goals of racial, socio-economic, gender and multi-cultural tolerance and understanding through exposing a target group of 7th and 8th graders to arts education they would not otherwise receive, as well as measuring the impact this exposure has on these students academically, emotionally and socially. Theater, world music, movement and visual arts are presented in 5- 7 week residencies during the course of the school year, accompanied by field trips to the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts to attend school performances.
Salt River Pima-Maricopa and Gila River Indian Communities have been a focus for the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts’ community outreach initiatives for more than a decade. Artists conduct long-term residency programs at Salt River Elementary School, Salt River High School and Sacaton Middle School, teaching photography, storytelling, songwriting, beadwork, pottery, music and dance. Artist-in-residency programs have been highly effective tools for encouraging youth to stay in school and for building self-esteem, while also preserving their cultural heritage. For many of these children, working with artists has offered an important outlet for expressing deep emotions, discovering positive energy within themselves, and developing hope for the future.