The earliest inhabitants of Arizona Rim Country were a people known as the Mogollons, members of a Native American tribe that moved into Arizona from New Mexico about 300 B.C. Living in loosely connected villages, they made clothing from fur and feathers, hunted by bow and arrow, and grew corn, squash, and beans.
By 1500 A.D., the Mogollon culture had been absorbed by two tribes new to the area, the Hohokams from the south and the Pueblos from the east.
It wasn’t long after the Mogollons faded from the scene that the Apaches arrived. An athletic people more interested in hunting than gardening, they lived wherever their bows and arrows led them. The Apaches were here when the Spanish Conquistadors passed through, and they were here when Union soldiers arrived to secure the region from Confederate intrusion. In fact, the soldiers dubbed this area “Apacheria”.
Once the Civil War ended, these soldiers turned their attention to making the Rim area safe for miners and ranchers. A major campaign was launched including soldiers from many forts, camps and posts. Troops radiated out from Tonto Basin in a thorough search for “hostile” Indians. With superior firepower and overwhelming numbers of mounted cavalry, they easily defeated the Apaches who were forcibly herded to reservations in the south.
With the capture of Geronimo in 1886, the guards were removed from the San Carlos reservation. Reduced from thousands, the 50 or so Tonto Apaches began the long walk back to their Arizona Rim Country home. More peaceful than other Apache tribes, they settled once again in the area and began farming. One of their chiefs recalled that in the early days in Payson many cattails grew in the rivers and streams. The returning Apaches used them for medicine, for food, and for religious ceremonies.
The tribe had become known as the Tonto Apaches, the word “Tonto” means crazy or foolish, and was given to these Native American settlers by the other Apaches because of their willingness to live near the white man.
After a relentless effort, the descendants of these peaceful farmers were given their own 85-acre reservation in 1972 on the southern outskirts of Payson.
Today they number over 100 members, and their Mazatzal Casino on reservation land, is the largest non-government employer in Payson. The casino payroll alone pumps well over two million dollars a year into the local economy, and the tribe has become a major contributor to Payson community charities and events. Casino revenues are used to provide much needed housing, establish scholarship funds, and generally improve the health, education, and welfare of the Tonto Apache people.
In 1999, the Tonto Apaches signed an Initiative of Agreement with the U.S. Forest Service that will provide the tribe with 272 additional acres through a federal land exchange. The land will be used to provide much-needed homes for the tribe’s young people and their families.
To this day, it is not unusual to come across a Tonto Apache woman gathering acorns in a basket. Picked while still green, then dried and ground, the acorns are used by the tribe as a seasoning on tortillas, in stew, and with a number of other foods.
Preserving the heritage of the tribe by continuing such practices is important. The elders of the Tonto Apache tribe are doing their very best to sustain both their language and culture by passing old customs and beliefs down to their tribe’s younger members.