In his fourth term, Gila River guv prioritizing land, water, infrastructure and partnerships

It’s not unusual for Gila River Indian Community Elder Diana Knox to see people who aren’t tribal residents recklessly driving through the community, littering on the back roads, and even drag racing on the empty streets.

Knox, 68 and a resident of a district in the GRIC that borders Laveen Village, said it’s scary because she’s seen speed past school buses as children get off. 

She said she understands that, as Phoenix expands to the south and west, new developments will be built along the borders of the GRIC, bringing people to the area, but she hopes that they’ll respect the land and people on the reservation.

Knox said it had become such a problem that GRIC council members put a pile of dirt where the pavement ends near Baseline Road and 91st Ave to prevent non-community members from traveling on the dirt roads in their area.

“They find empty dirt roads and dump the trash,” Knox said.

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So, when Knox heard Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis made working on moderating discussion and solutions for bordering communities a top priority during his inauguration speech, she was excited to see what they would accomplish.

“We’re seeing far too much encroachment onto our reservation,” Lewis said during his inauguration speech, addressing how the community has seen increased trespassing and illegal dumping. 

“If we don’t address this head-on, the problems will continue to get worse and impact the safety of our community members,” he said, including the environmental degradation that can occur.

As part of his first 100 days in office, Lewis said that he will work to establish a task force with the Gila River Community Council Members and department heads so that they can take the necessary steps to work with neighboring jurisdictions to address the multi-jurisdictional issues. 

Lewis was re-elected as governor in December and sworn in for his fourth term alongside newly elected Lt. Gov. Regina Antone, the newly elected chief judge and five associate judges on Jan. 20 at the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass Hotel.

In a packed ballroom at the Sheraton, Lewis gave his inauguration speech in front of hundreds of people, saying that he is entering this next administration with the same excitement and energy from his first term, but he has a stronger vision for the future of Gila River.

“Together, as a resilient Akimel O’odham and Piipaash people, and with our many partners, we can build a lasting legacy in key areas, such as water, land, and tribal infrastructure,” he added. “We can do so while making those decisions that honor and preserve our Himdag, our culture, our values, that’s reflected in our way of life.”

Community Partnerships

Lewis has served as governor of the Gila River Indian Community for 12 years, and the impact of his time in office can be seen in the relationships he’s built with local, state, federal and tribal leaders, many of whom spoke during his inauguration. 

Words of congratulations and speeches were shared by multiple people, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Sen. Mark Kelly, Gov. Katie Hobbs, U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Phoenix), Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton.

“Governor Lewis, time and time again, you have shown up for your community and for Arizona,” Hobbs said during the inauguration. “Always with a good attitude, a collaborative spirit, and a cool pair of sneakers.”

Each of them commended Lewis’ work as the governor of the Gila River Indian Community and his ability to maintain strong government-to-government relationships and lead groundbreaking projects for his community. 

“For years, he’s been on the forefront, working with local, state, and jurisdictional partners to get things done any way they can be done, serving as a model of effective intergovernmental collaboration for other tribal groups,” Buttigieg said during a video address at the inauguration. 

An area that many commended Lewis’ work on was water conversation.

Hobbs said that Lewis’ work was essential in the state’s negotiations with the federal government on conversing water in Lake Mead.

She said it was because of Lewis’s “collaborative spirit and heart” that the state reached the historic agreement which will help keep three million acre-feet of water in Lake Mead over the next three years.

“It cannot be overstated how instrumental you were in achieving that,” Hobbs added. “And, on behalf of the State of Arizona, I again want to thank you.”

The inauguration theme was “O’otham Pee-Posh Unity,” and the keynote speakers were tribal leaders from Gila River’s sister tribes: Martin Harvier, president of the Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian Community; Robert Miguel, chairman of the Ak-Chin Indian Community; and Verlon Jose, chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

It was a light-hearted affair, as each leader shared stories or cracked jokes from their time working with Lewis. But each also highlighted how their communities are stronger when they support and work together.

Harvier said he hopes the tribes can come together to address some health concerns impacting their communities. He highlighted how, within the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, they have learned that the average lifespan for men is just 47 years old and only 52 years for women.

“I want to encourage the leaders that need to sit down and talk about how we can work together to look at the issues of health care to provide a better life and livestock for our communities,” he said. 

Jose said seeing all the sister tribes come together to celebrate feels like a homecoming because they were all never meant to be separated. 

“It was the foreign governments that separated us… and I think this year, thanks to the leadership, we’re going to bring that unity back and enforce that unity back even stronger and better than it’s ever been before,” he said.

Jose thanked Lewis for bringing all the leaders from the sister tribes together to celebrate and speak during his inauguration because it allowed them to plant a seed of unification for their people.

“Let’s move forward in unity for the people,” he added.

First 100 Days

In his 100-day plan, Lewis said that his administration will highlight critical areas for the community over the next few years. 

He said he would establish a roadmap with council members and executive office leaders to ensure they continue existing community efforts and initiate new ones. 

“Our goal with this 100-day plan is to ensure that the community leadership works as a team to move forward and maintain all of the momentum we’ve built up over the past,” Lewis said. The four major categories of this plan include water, infrastructure, land and culture.

For water, Lewis said he wants to develop an update to the Gila River Indian Community strategic plan for water by developing and adopting another five-year water plan, which he hopes to have created and ready for adoption by the end of April.

In infrastructure, Lewis said in the coming 100 days, he’ll work with the council and executive officer to develop plans for infrastructure with the Gila River Indian Community, including one or more government and administration buildings.

His priority for tribal land includes the extension and protection of the lands, which will consist of a discussion about prioritizing adding land to the Gila River Indian Communities land base.

That work includes finalizing the Blackwater Trading Post Land Transfer Act, which involves taking the 55-acre trading post parcel near State Route 87 into trust. Lewis said that the community must now work on passing both acquisitions through Congress.

Lastly, Lewis talked about how it is impossible to separate the tribe’s culture from any of the areas he highlighted. However, he did want to highlight one cultural priority: preserving the O’odham and Piipaash languages.

“We must prioritize preserving and teaching our languages to our families and our youth,” he said, adding that he wants to work with all the districts within Gila River to determine the best way to develop a program that will make learning the languages accessible for all of the community members. 

“We have a lot of work cut out for us,” Lewis said. “But by teamwork, and working together, and working incredibly with our community council, we will push all of these priorities forward for the benefit and for the best results for our community.”

Advocates with the Oodham Solidarity with Palestine protested outside Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis’ inauguration on Jan. 20, 2024. Photo by Shondiin Silversmith | Arizona Mirror

Indigenous activists challenge Gila River to stand up for Palestine

Advocates with O’odham Solidarity with Palestine attended the inauguration for Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, voicing their support for the people of Palestine and demanding tribal leaders support a ceasefire.

More than a dozen people stood near the entrance of Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass Hotel on Jan. 20, holding Palestine flags, flags of the O’odham symbol, and a banner that stated, “We are not free until we are all free. O’odham stand with Palestine.”

They were calling on the administration’s support for Palestinian children and people who are being harmed in war overseas. Israel has relentlessly bombed Gaza and taken other military actions in response to a brutal surprise attack in October by Hamas that left more than 1,400 Israelis dead and 240 kidnapped.

Oodham Solidarity with Palestine wants tribal leaders to demand a ceasefire and to support the end of the ongoing conflict that is happening in Israel and Gaza.

“We’re standing together as Oppressed people,” O’odham Kaitlin Martinez said. “Oppressed people all over the world deserve to live on their homelands (and) to be successful.” 

Martinez is from Sacaton on the Gila River Indian Community. She said if she did not stand up for Palestinians, she wouldn’t be O’odham because the foundation of O’odham’s teaching is to be a good person. 

“We just want to be good people, and in order to be good people, you speak up when others are being hurt,” she added. “That’s all we’re doing here: speaking up, being the resistance.”

The group handed out fliers during the inauguration that read “Help stop the genocide,” and provided more information on the work the group does. The flier provided people with a barcode to access the group’s letter issued to tribal leaders calling for action to support a ceasefire.

O’odham Renee Jackson said their presence at the inauguration was their opportunity to educate their fellow Gila River Indian Community members and stand in solidarity with Palestine.

“We were standing in solidarity with other Indigenous people throughout Turtle Island who are challenging their tribal administration to take stances,” Jackson said, employing a reference to North America based on a creation story common to several Indigenous peoples.

Jackson said Lewis is seen as a progressive leader within Indian Country, so they are calling upon and challenging his leadership to hold him accountable.

Lewis was sworn in for his fourth term in office, but like many tribal leaders across the U.S., has not taken a stance on the ongoing conflict between Palestine and Israel.

“We don’t necessarily feel that some sort of declaration from the Gila River Indian Community will stop the genocide,” she said. But they could not just stand by and not let them say anything. 

“What happens in the world affects our communities,” Jackson said, and people are looking at the Gila River Indian Community because they are progressive. She said she believes this is an opportunity for them to lead by example for other Indigenous communities.

Jackson said she also wants Lewis to make more significant approaches to protecting sacred sites and the environment, which includes him standing up for the community and “having more appreciation and respect for relationships with his community than his political alliances.”

Martinez said that the group attended the inauguration because they are that resistance and pressure meant to be put on leaders, and be those people to question authority and ask what is happening. 

“In order for you to be a better leader we’re here to remind you that leadership is sacred,” she added. “Leadership is scared, and hold it as such.”

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