Skek Thash (“Good Day” in the Pima language) reads the welcome sign as you turn off Arizona’s busy Interstate 10 and enter 372,000 acres of the Gila River Indian Community, home to the Pima Akimel O’otham and the Maricopa Pee Posh tribes.
About ready to celebrate their first decade of operation of the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, the tribe’s decision to transfer millions of dollars from gaming revenue as an investment at becoming a major player in the hospitality industry has paid off.
Word of this desert delight has gotten out and license plates in the resorts parking lot from all over the country attest to the fact that the 500 guest rooms maintain an enviable occupancy rate. Over 100,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space continue to catch the eye of meeting planners for groups of up to 2,000.
The resort offers distinctive lodging in two separate 4-story wings, the Maricopa Wing with its Governors Suite and the Pima Wing with its Presidential Suite. True to the entire site’s emphasis on the theme of tribal history and culture, guest rooms on the Maricopa side reflect that nation’s abilities in the area of pottery while the Pima wing features a focus on basket weaving.
Wild Horse Pass has incorporated the cultures of both indigenous entities into every detail of the property starting with a lobby entrance plaque announcing: “This unique resort offers guests an authentic cultural experience not found anywhere else in the world.” Take a few more steps and you’re looking at reproductions of centuries-old petroglyphs found elsewhere on reservation acreage. Look skyward and take in the colorful details of a massive domed ceiling mural portraying 10 of the most important aspects of the local culture — from the Creation Story to an agricultural mural depicting the Pima’s significant contributions to U.S. history which are not written in books.
Step outside the lobby and marvel at the views of the Sierra Estrella mountains (called Komatke in the Pima language) and the South Mountains (Muadagi). Where these two ranges meet was the most traveled passage for migration to the West, a once lush farmland and a paradise to weary travelers. Known for their hospitality, the two tribes offered a safe haven for rest and food from their crops.
Of the ability to rest here, former Gila River Indian Community Governor Richard Narcia says, “We’ve been practicing hospitality for centuries. Now we just charge by the night.” In reference to food, sustenance and libation is available at seven food and beverage outlets from the relaxed atmosphere of Ko’Sin (Pima for Kitchen) to the more formal eating experience available at Kai (Seed) Restaurant.
Kai bears the distinction of being the only AAA 5-Diamond restaurant in Arizona as well as having earned a 5-Star rating from Forbes Travel Guide, one of just 23 similarly-rated eateries in North America.
Another star-studded delight lies not far away from the dining experience, this one belonging to Aji Spa (Sanctuary), offering the only authentic Native American spa menu in existence. Culture also plays an important part here in treatments that use desert ingredients such as cedar and sage oils, creosote bush, local honey and olive oil, and a proprietary Azulene mud pack.
“We’re Forbes 4-Star now and are hopeful of being awarded 5-Star distinction this fall,” says spa director Shane Bird. “Kai Restaurant already has its five stars and we want that too so we can be bookends. We’d be the first 5-Star spa in Arizona, one of the Top Twenty spas in the world, and the first-ever Native American spa to achieve that distinction.”
While no date has been confirmed, it’s believed the Akimel may have begun using horses as early as 1740 and they are available today at the Koli (Corral) Equestrian Center where visitors can experience that part of the West via a trail ride atop saddle-ready ponies. “Wild horses are still here, some 1,500 of them,” says Piman Chuck Pablo who acts as trail boss. “The herd is left alone to do their thing, living off the land and spending their lives roaming the desert as they have for centuries.”
If you like both massages and mustangs, that combination is available too, in a day package that mixes a hearty horse ride with some soothing spa time.
For those who prefer to use a golf cart for their riding, there are 36 PGA tour championship holes waiting at Whirlwind Golf Club. Devil’s Claw goes around the resorts outlying areas while the Cattail course can be seen from the resort pool area. “Both courses are really forgiving if it’s your first time,” says clubhouse representative Justin Lake, who estimates about 60,000 rounds are played annually between the two courses.
A recent addition to the Gila River community site was the 2006 arrival of Rawhide, an 1800’s Western-themed town that moved on property following some 35 years in Scottsdale. Rawhide has a rodeo arena, an award-winning steakhouse, entertainment, and retail stores. Also nearby is Wild Horse Pass Casino.
The Golf Course, Casino, and Rawhide can be reached by boat via a man-made replica of the nearby — and now mostly dry — Gila River. Pima native Matt Talamantez has been boatman, running the mile up and the mile back, ever since the resort opened. “We replicated this waterway with indigenous trees and plants you used to see on the natural river,” he says, adding a reassuring note that “nobody has ever fallen overboard” while he’s at the helm.
For further information, (602) 225 0100. For reservations, (888) 218 8989. Gila River Indian Community, www.gric.nsn.us, (520) 562 3311.