Starwood’s Wild Horse Spa Honors, Preserves Native Culture

Ginger Sunbird Martin knows a bit about responsibility and pressure: As the Starwood chain’s first Native American cultural concierge, her job each day for the past six years has been to fairly represent and safeguard the 2,300 years of existence for Arizona’s Pima/Maricopa peoples for visitors from all over the United States. She is the in-house (and -hotel) cultural historian at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa outside Phoenix, and also serves as the contact for the resort management company, liaison to tribal elders and educator for the visiting public.

Her unique job came from a unique set of goals set by her tribal leaders. “When the tribe chose to diversify gaming income, they decided hospitality was the way to go, so they invested $170 million to build this property,” she says. “The second thing they did was look for a management company willing to bend corporate rules to accommodate the needs of a Native people—in this case, to accurately tell the story of our culture.”

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, managers for nine major hotel brands, was chosen because of their ability to meet these unique needs—it altered or abandoned some of their rules to meet specific Gila River Indian Community requests. “Tribal leaders told the management company they wanted someone in-house, at all times, to police the true culture of the Pima and Maricopa tribes,” she says. “Starwood responded by saying, ‘We will create the first-ever cultural theme manager position in our company!’—and that ended up to be me. My position represents a first-ever for a tribe to embrace corporate America and bring it into our backyard—and conversely, this is a first for corporate America to embrace a tribe and bend so many rules to accommodate our needs.”

Her job description—to maintain cultural accuracy at the resort—is as unique as the many jobs she performs and oversees. “One example would be that in every other Sheraton property in the world, you’ll find the standard ‘S’ logo on the bed pillow,” she says. “Here we have an exception to that rule—every resort guest has an authentic throw blanket in their room instead.” All craft and artwork at the spa are verified to be local in origin.

Food is another example of this unique relationship—while Sheraton buys corporate supplies in bulk, Wild Horse Pass prefers to use traditional ingredients wherever possible, and chefs are even allowed to use locally grown beans if tribal elders approve and homage is paid to the bean.

The proper integration of well-worn traditions and tools of the past can be found throughout the resort property—hallways, restaurants, guest rooms and the lobby have all a touch of the traditional arts. The resort lobby entrance welcome sign tells it all: “Welcome to a unique resort offering guests an authentic cultural experience not found anywhere else in the world, incorporating indigenous culture into every detail of the property.” Tribal history is also told through quiet touches such as guest-room bedspreads featuring ancient water symbols and basket weave patterns, and the resort’s impressive domed ceiling mural in the lobby that tells the creation story through illustrations that depict the 10 most important aspects of the Pima/Maricopa culture.
The importance of displaying tribal history and culture revolves around the most important commodity in a desert environment—water. “When the gold rush died and settlers arrived here in the late 1800s, they asked if we would share the water we used to grow our crops,” Sunbird Martin says. “We said, ‘Sure, take what you need, because Mother Nature has always provided for us.’ They did, diverting upstream water and building dams. But it was all take and no return. In our history, it resulted in what we call the 40 Years of Famine, and because of litigation involving those water rights, we haven’t been able to write the story of our people. That’s why tribal leadership decided to put so much culture into this property because we’ve been literally waiting—and dying—throughout a 118-year court case to tell our story.”
For Sunbird Martin, there is no such thing as a standard workday. “The sales team is now referring to me as an authentic representative of site ownership, and I’ve become the closer on million-dollar contracts,” she says. “I’m responsible for creating on-site storytelling efforts through things like petroglyph replicas in the lobby and architectural-spiritual details like doors that face east, or the prominent circular design that symbolizes the cycle of life to the Pima and Maricopa people.
“I feel like my efforts do justice to our people and our untold story,” says the young woman who grew up in a reservation mud house close to the posh resort she now looks after. “I view my job as a huge honor and my humble roots keep me grounded. I burn sage in my office every morning to keep me balanced because I’m blessed to be able to come to work and share the story of our people.” 0

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Starwood's Wild Horse Spa Honors, Preserves Native Culture

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