Pomp and circumstance at the powwow.
Pomp and circumstance at the powwow.
Paolo Vescia

Revenge of the Verdes

The pinball symphony of 400 slot machines morphs into the thump and wail of a Yavapai-Apache drum circle as I leave the dim, eau d'ashtray interior of the Cliff Castle Casino and step 30 yards to a bull-riding ring, site of the sixth annual Verde Valley Powwow. I smell burning sage, roasted corn and beef on the grill.

At the gate, I hand six dollars to an Apache named John -- "Like John Wayne."

John Like John Wayne stamps a bear on my arm and waves me through. I follow his gesture, and this is what I see: three young, Yavapai-Apache men, in full U.S. military dress, dancing, Native American-style, in a circle. With them are a dozen other Yavapai-Apache men who wear bone armor, feather headdresses and ceremonial garb with beadwork in the colors of turquoise, pine trees, prickly-pear fruit, the sun and fresh blood.

The drumming ceases. Each of the three military men picks up a flag. One carries the banner of the Yavapai-Apache Nation. The second grabs the Arizona state flag, and the third lofts the Stars and Stripes -- the flag under which all three now serve. The same flag under which, a century ago, their ancestors were slaughtered -- the foul irony being that many of the best cavalry commanders and troops who fought for the Union in the Civil War, ostensibly to free the slaves, were then sent west with orders to kill Indians.

Two of the Yavapai-Apache flag bearers are Marines, on leave from Camp Pendleton, a base outside San Diego. The third is a recently recruited Army private stationed at Fort Ord, near Monterey, California. Fort Ord is named after U.S. Army General O.C. Ord, who was asked in December 1870 to give his opinion of our country's policy of extermination toward the Yavapai-Apache of the Verde Valley.

(The Yavapai and Apache were once two distinct tribes who shared customs and a creation myth, yet spoke different languages. U.S. soldiers seeking payback for Apache attacks confused the Yavapai for Apache and pulled the more peaceful Yavapai into the war. Eventually, the Yavapai and Apache were grouped together on one reservation, creating the Yavapai-Apache nation of today.)

At the time of Ord's statement, the Apache had massacred hundreds of white men, women and children and were engaged in a brutal guerrilla war with U.S. Army troops who had been stationed in north-central Arizona in an effort to protect the settlers and miners flocking into the territory.

"I believe the hostile Indians of Arizona should be destroyed," Ord said. "And I encourage troops to capture and root out Indians by every means, and hunt them down as wild animals."

Thirty miles west of the powwow is Skull Valley, so named for the sun-blasted bones of 40 Yavapai who came there for a peace conference on April 13, 1866, carrying a letter of protection from Arizona's superintendent of Indian affairs.

U.S. Army troops set an ambush and cut them down with Gatling guns.

Fifteen miles south is Skeleton Cave, where in 1872, a band of 100 Yavapai men, women, elders and children hid to avoid internment on a reservation. Three days after Christmas that same year, U.S. soldiers quietly surrounded the cave and opened fire as the Yavapai ate breakfast.

Some of the worst butchery on both sides of Arizona's bloody Indian War went down within a half-hour drive of where I stand today, calmly munching fry bread with honey, surrounded by Apache who pay me no mind. If I'd entered their midst 125 years ago, they likely would have killed me on the spot, or, worse, dragged me screaming back to a hidden camp in the red rocks and handed me over to the widows of dead warriors, who would have flayed me alive or hanged me headfirst over a fire to roast my brains.

But today, I'm no enemy. Just a sightseer.

A teenage boy in blue jeans and an Ozzfest '99 tee shirt walks purposefully to a ring of drums behind a six-stack of amplifiers, sits down and strikes up a somber, solitary beat. In answer, the trio of military men marches slowly across the grass field, as the Ozzfest kid keeps the beat going with one hand, and pinches his throat with the other, shaking it back and forth as he sings, to gain a ghostly vibrato. As the procession comes to its end, I notice that, contrary to what I was taught in Cub Scouts, the flags of the Yavapai-Apache Nation and Arizona are never lowered in deference to Old Glory.

When I entered the powwow, I'd asked John Like John Wayne for a schedule of events. He looked at me as if I'd just asked for the white buffalo petting zoo, then replied, "This is a powwow. . . . Powwows don't have schedules."

Point being, I have no idea what's going to happen next, until the powwow emcee begins to perform a send-up of comedian Jeff Foxworthy's "You-might-be-a-redneck-if" standup routine.

"If you go to A.A. meetings because there's no coffee at home, you might be a redskin."

"If you know how to fillet bologna, you might be a redskin, hey."

"If you call farting in my bathtub a Jacuzzi, hey, you might be a redskin."

Little kids run up to him, carrying scraps of paper on which their parents have scrawled one-liners.

"If you celebrate Thanksgiving with Kentucky Fried Chicken, you might be a redskin, hey."

"If your wife is a better fighter than you, hey, you might be a redskin."

"If your dogs look like they're on hunger strike, well, you might be a redskin."

Some finely honed self-deprecation, sure, but these days on the 652-acre Yavapai-Apache reservation east of Camp Verde, the more accurate qualifier for redskin status might be a casino job. The largest employer in these parts used to be the copper mine in Jerome, owned by Phelps Dodge Corporation.

Now it's the Cliff Castle Casino, owned by the Yavapai-Apache nation. Since it opened in 1995, Cliff Castle has pumped at least $40 million and 400 jobs into the community. Hiring is via a three-tiered, preferential criteria: first to get hired are Yavapai-Apache, then anyone else with Native American blood, then everyone else.

Working for Cliff Castle is a coveted gig; the jobs come with all the trimmings -- health insurance, 401(k), paid vacation, etc. The closest casino to Flagstaff and Sedona, Cliff Castle also draws gamblers from Jerome, Camp Verde and the surrounding, retiree-clogged burgs of Cornville, McGuireville and Rimrock. It's open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and area locals say it's usually packed. A new, massive Cliff Castle casino is under construction on a hill above the powwow site. It's due to open in January, creating 900 new jobs.

Tucked among the powwow's turquoise-jewelry booths, the roasted-piñon-nut booths, the snow-cone booths and the ubiquitous fry-bread booths (no less than 28 varieties were for sale, including fry bread with beans, fry bread with cheese, fry bread with taco meat and fry bread with all three, plus powdered sugar), I come across two Cliff Castle booths (the casino sponsors the Verde Valley powwows). One casino booth sells engraved bricks on the entrance path to the new casino for $20 each. The other is a makeshift employment center, where Yavapai-Apache are seated in metal folding chairs, their headdresses draped over the back, intently perusing pamphlets marked "Pick a job, any job," and three-ring binders choked with jobs that will be filled in October -- everything from busboy to supervisor of surveillance.

The new casino is a monument to the resilience of the Yavapai-Apache, who were hunted to the precipice of extinction.

"Just now our red brethren are awful thick hereabouts," read a July 1865 editorial in the Camp Verde Arizona Miner. "So keep your powder dry and whenever you see an Indian that says 'Americano muy bueno,' kill him; he don't mean it."

That year, around 6,000 of our red brethren lived in the Verde Valley. Ten years later, there were less than 1,200. There are 1,600 today. The new Yavapai-Apache casino overlooks the lush high-desert valley where, starting in 1873, the final 1,500 of their great-grandfathers and grandmothers who surrendered were held on the first Yavapai-Apache reservation.

There, along the Verde River, the Yavapai-Apache began to prosper. They dug irrigation ditches and planted successful crops. Then white settlers began to covet their water rights, and in February 1875, the reservation's native residents were ordered to gather what they could carry and immediately embark upon a forced march to the San Carlos Apache reservation -- 180 miles away, over several mountain ranges in the dead of winter.

The best account I could find of Arizona's version of the Trail of Tears is a journal kept by Army surgeon William H. Corbusier, who was along for the ride on this 10-day excursion through a frigid hell. (His log, titled Verde to San Carlos, is available for research in the Arizona Room of the Burton Barr Central Library.)

Corbusier writes of soldiers on horseback using bullwhips to urge their charges along, of a baby a day dying in its mother's arms and of men and women swept to their doom during three perilous river crossings. Death estimates for the San Carlos march are inexact, varying from 150 and 300.

After 1900, the remnants of the Yavapai-Apache were incrementally returned to a second reservation in their homeland. And now, it would seem, they have begun to prosper there once more, this time harvesting casino chips instead of corn.

I return to the cool cacophony of the casino, look around, and realize there are very few Indians gambling in the Indian casino. Likewise, I saw few fellow palefaces over at the powwow, although it's only a short walk away. They're here to gamble, stupidly and with determination.

I watch a guy in suspenders with a handlebar mustache and a trucker's gut play Joker's Wild video poker for a dollar a hand. He never plays it safe, discarding all even-money pairs to draw for flushes and straights. Every 15 or 20 hands, he hits a long shot, clenches his fist and whispers, "Yesss." I clock him losing at a rate of $30 an hour, and he's just one of hundreds.

There's the shriveled seven-card stud player in the House of Diamonds poker room, chain-smoking Camels, tubes in his nose, oxygen tank on wheels at his feet, eyes intently following the cards, wearing his hope for a third jack like a yellow-tasseled fez; the biker couple in black leather, camped out at the virtual roulette table, always betting on double zero and 13; or the cowboys and their embroidered-shirt-wearing girlfriends, seated around the virtual blackjack table, jabbing at "double-down" buttons glowing amid spilled mounds of silver dollars.

They've all been lured here by the same base motivations that lured white people to the Verde Valley in the first place, 200 years after the Spaniards left: greed, and the desire to strike it rich.

It's a massacre in here, I decide, watching a thick Indian woman lug a bucket of silver coins: the collector of virtual scalps.

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: dholthouse@newtimes.com


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