November 7, 2023
By David Martínez
Every aspect of my experience writing My Heart Is Bound Up with Them: How Carlos Montezuma Became the Voice of a Generation has been profoundly rewarding and fulfilling. From delving into the treasures of the Carlos Montezuma Archival Collection in ASU’s Hayden Library to first holding the book in my hands, I felt a genuine satisfaction with the work I created and an immense amount of gratitude for everyone who has helped along the way. However, now that the book is out, the focus is more on the historic figure at the center of my book than it is on me as researcher and author. As an Indigenous scholar and public intellectual, a unique experience in my professional career is sharing my work with Indigenous communities. Of particular importance is the opportunity to speak with an historic figure’s living descendants. On the evening of October 5, 2023, I had the honor of telling members of Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation what I had written about their revered ancestor, Wassaja, also known as Carlos Montezuma. It was a night I will always remember.
While many today think of the Wekopa Resort and Casino complex when they think of Fort McDowell, for others the lands along the Verde River are the ancestral Yavapai homeland. For my Akimel O’odham ancestors, however, the Yavapai were o’ob, which is how we say “enemy” in our ne’oki, our O’odham language. In turn, the Yavapai called us jo’go ha’na. Nonetheless, as Arizona Territory was building its economy for the purpose of being admitted into the Union as the forty-eighth state, which it did in 1912, local business interests in the Verde Valley coveted Yavapai land and water. Toward that end, they convinced the Office of Indian Affairs under Commissioner Cato Sells to take steps at relocating the Yavapai from Fort McDowell to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa reservation. Needless to say, neither tribe was pleased with this proposition. Fortunately, someone arrived, a protector, who would fight the Indian Office, advocate for their rights, and avert an economic catastrophe and a humanitarian crisis. His Yavapai relatives knew him as Wassaja and always addressed him in their copious letters as “Dear Cousin.” The rest of the country, including my O’odham ancestors, knew him as Carlos Montezuma, the author of “Let My People Go” (1915). What Montezuma did for Salt River, not to mention the Gila River reservation, which would have also felt the impact of the Yavapai forced removal, was the story that I wanted to tell at Fort McDowell.
When Clissene Lewis, director of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation Museum & Cultural Center, invited me to present, it was at the behest of Irasema Coronado, director of ASU’s School of Transborder Studies, where I have a joint appointment (with American Indian Studies). Clissene, in addition to other Yavapai community leaders, were given signed copies shortly after the book’s release this past February. So, it was no surprise that Clissene was anxious to organize an event. She had read the book already and had written to me to share her favorable opinion. The only restriction with respect to the event was limiting it to Fort McDowell community members. Irasema and I were amenable to this request. Fort McDowell wanted this to be just for them. Consequently, my wife Sharon and I drove from our home in Tempe to the Fort McDowell Recreation Center, which contains a ballroom and theater stage. A sign inside called this venue the “Large Room.”
While the recreation center, which stands near the museum, isn’t that far away from the casino and resort complex, it feels a world apart. The facility was decorated for Halloween and the workout room, gymnasium, pool, and other rooms were busy with Yavapai children and adults. Clissene was waiting for us in the Large Room. Having arrived early, Sharon and I were introduced to the small team of community members that were there to help make the night’s event run smoothly. I wish I could recall all of their names. But the night turned into a whirlwind. Not long before 6 pm, the room began to fill. Before I knew it, Clissene was greeting the audience. She then asked an elder to say a prayer and bless the refreshments. People ate and visited, all the while laughing and having a pleasant time. A few minutes later, it was time to begin.
After thanking Clissene for her warm introduction, I began telling my Yavapai audience why their ancestor, Wassaja, was so important to my people as well. I showed them the ooshikbina, the calendar sticks, which recounted how my O’odham ancestors at Salt River and Blackwater villages remembered young Wassaja as Hejel-wi’ikam, or “Left Alone,” when he was captured by O’odham scouts, who were working for the US Army during the late 1860s. I told them what the Indian Office wanted to do to Yavapai; how their rights were disregarded and their well-being ignored, all in the name of progress. Significantly, I shared with them my feelings when Montezuma showed compassion for the O’odham, even though they were the ones that stole him and sent him into exile from his homeland. In fact, as Anna Moore Shaw related in A Pima Past, Montezuma once visited Sacaton Village on the Gila River reservation, where he asked to meet his captors. According to oral history, Wassaja’s captors, now elderly, were apprehensive about meeting the young boy who was now a man. Yet, when Montezuma met one of these former scouts, he shook his hand and thanked him for saving him from the devastating conditions that his Yavapai family had to endure in the aftermath of the Army’s invasion. My story concluded with an account from Yavapai oral history, which said that not long before Montezuma passed away in January 1923, he was taken to Skeleton Cave, the site of an 1872 massacre that shattered the community. Ancestral remains were being recovered. However, even after fifty years, the cave walls still showed the blood stains. Montezuma wept. My presentation concluded with a reverential silence, which I honored by saying that whatever one may think about Montezuma’s political legacy—he was a friend to Carlisle Indian School founder Richard Pratt and a strong proponent of abolishing the Indian Office—no one should ever doubt that Montezuma loved his people.
In conclusion, as people applauded, a little girl, about seven years old, came rushing up to the stage. When she gestured to me that she wanted to say something, I leaned forward so I could hear her. “Can I have your autograph?” Needless to say, I was delighted. At the same time, I noticed that she wasn’t holding anything. Clissene had purchased books for community members, however, I didn’t expect a little girl to be among my readers. “What did you want me to sign?” I asked her. “I don’t know. But my grandmother said that we could get your autograph.” Naturally, like a typical college professor, I had a pen and yellow pad with me, complete with my lecture notes. I then led her to the table where Sharon was sitting. While writing a thank you note to my young autograph seeker, others began lining up to get their books signed. One at a time, they told me their names, expressed appreciation for my lecture, and asked me an assortment of questions about my book, Montezuma, and me. Among the attendees was the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation president, Bernadine Burnette; the vice president, Paul J Russell; and the treasurer, Pansy P Thomas. Only on my own reservation have I felt so moved and honored. Thank you all.
David Martínez is professor of American Indian and Transborder studies at Arizona State University and is enrolled in the Gila River Indian Community. He is the author of My Heart Is Bound Up with Them: How Carlos Montezuma Became the Voice of a Generation, Life of the Indigenous Mind: Vine Deloria Jr. and the Birth of the Red Power Movement, and Dakota Philosopher: Charles Eastman and American Indian Thought.