The Tonto Apache Reservation is located on the southern outskirts of Payson, Arizona. It consists of 85 acres that was carved out of the Tonto National Forest in 1972. The reservation is adjacent to the Town of Payson, and has a population of 140 people, with 110 of them being enrolled Tribal members. It is the smallest Indian Reservation in the State of Arizona.
The Tonto Apache are direct descendants of the Dilzhe's Apaches who lived in the Payson area long before white settlers arrived. The Tonto Apache were originally relocated to the Rio Verde Reservation near Camp Verde in 1871, but that reservation was dissolved in 1875 and they were moved to the San Carlos Reservation. Because of the forced relocation in 1875, many Tonto Apaches still live in two other Arizona Apache Reservations, the San Carlos Reservation and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.
After Geronimo was captured of in 1886, the San Carlos reservation was no longer under guard and the Tonto Apaches were free to return to their Mogollon Rim Country home. Reduced from thousands, the 50 or so Tonto Apaches began the long walk back to the Payson area. The Tonto Apaches were more peaceful than other Apache tribes, and they settled once again in the Rim Country area and began farming.
The tribe had become known as the Tonto Apaches for their willingness to live near the white man. The word “Tonto” means crazy or foolish.
The Mazatzal Casino on the Tonto Apache Reservation is the largest non-government employer in Payson employing over 300 people. The Tonto Apache Tribe is very generous and has become a major contributor to Payson community charities and events. Revenues generated by the Mazatzal Casino are used to provide much needed housing, establish scholarship funds, and generally improve the health, education, and welfare of the Tonto Apache people. Casino salaries and visitors also pump millions of dollars into the Town of Payson economy.
Legislation is currently pending that will provide them trust title to the land on which they currently reside. The Tonto Apaches also signed an Initiative of Agreement with the U.S. Forest Service in 1999 that will provide the tribe with 272 additional acres through a federal land exchange. The land will be used to provide much-needed homes for the tribe’s young people and their families.
Tonto Apaches are well known in the art community for their outstanding basketry and beadwork. These items have won the Tribe national recognition and they are available for purchase on the reservation. Tonto Apache women still gather acorns in a basket. The acorns are picked while still green, then dried. Once dried they are ground into powder and as a seasoning on a number of tribal foods.
The elders of the Tonto Apache tribe consider preserving their heritage as important and are making every effort to sustain both their language and culture by passing old customs and beliefs down to their tribe’s younger members.