A Brief History:
San Xavier District, Tohono O'odham Nation

The Past

The San Xavier District (SXD) is one of eleven political subdivisions of the Tohono O’odham Nation. It lies approximately 10 miles south of downtown Tucson, AZ and contains nearly 72,000 acres of Sonoran desert, including a stretch of the ephemeral Santa Cruz River. Its population is approximately 1800. This area is a traditional homeland of the Tohono O’odham (Desert People); their ancestors, the Hohokam, lived here over 10,000 years ago. The community is also known as Wa:k, and its people, as the Wa:k O’odham.

The SXD government has evolved from an informal decision-making body to a complex organization. It was formally established in 1937, shortly after the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). At that time, the Tohono O’odham Nation was known as the Papago Tribe. The IRA led to the creation of the Tribe’s constitution and official recognition of its 11 districts. At the time, SXD government consisted only of a Council made up of 11 male elder volunteers. They made decisions for the community and organized community events such as feasts and cattle round-ups. There were no revenues to fund provision of services. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) provided services such as police and schooling to the community. The BIA was, and still is, based in Sells, approximately 60 miles west of San Xavier. In the first half of the 20th century, this distance was enough to hinder the Wa:k O’odham in attempts to access BIA services.

Change came in 1968, with the passing of the Indian Self-Determination Act (P.L. 93-638). Under this law tribes could (and still can) petition to take over a service or program provided by a federal agency. If the request is approved, the money for the contracted program goes directly to the tribe, bypassing the federal agency. This allows the tribe to provide the program or service directly to its people, rather than relying on the federal agency.

The 638 process increased revenue available to the Tohono O’odham and allowed Districts some additional autonomy. In the late 1970s, the tribe began its Papago Bingo enterprise, which further increased revenue. At this time, District Chairman became a paid position, and SXD began to allow women to participate on the District Council. The Council and Chairman acted primarily as liaisons between the community, the BIA, and the central tribal government in Sells.

In the early 1980s, the tribe expanded its gaming operations, building the first Desert Diamond Casino on the San Xavier District. (A second casino, the Desert Diamond II, followed in 2001.) The expansion of gaming revenues has allowed SXD to steadily increase services and facilities provided for its community members. In the early 1980s, the District government assisted the San Xavier Cooperative Association in obtaining a lease for farmland, and is now coordinating and facilitating rehabilitation and expansion of the Cooperative Farm. A community center was built in 1986 and operates as a venue for community meetings and celebrations. An Elder Center was built in 1996 and serves as the location for congregate feedings of seniors, social activities for them, and other events.

Over the past twenty years, the District government has grown to 80 employees in fourteen departments providing services such as education, health and wellness, elder care, protection of natural and cultural resources, and many others. The District is a prime example of tribal self-determination in action. 77% of staff members are registered members of SXD, an additional 9% are Tohono O’odham from other Districts, 2 % are from other tribes, and only 12% are non-Indian.

Revenues from the two Desert Diamond casinos fund the Nation’s programs and central government, as well as providing financial resources to all eleven Districts. This leaves little reserve for facility and capital expenditures and other major projects. SXD is now developing grants and economic development programs that will bring additional resources into the community, bridging this funding gap.

The Present- Mission & Priorities

The mission of SXD is to promote self-determination and provide a legacy for future generations by guiding, leading, and supporting the community in the protection and preservation of the land, water, air, culture, traditions, knowledge, language, and vitality of community. Although this mission has not changed over time, the ways in which SXD approaches its mission have expanded over the years.

SXD meets many societal needs, including housing, education, environmental and cultural resource protection, law enforcement, health and wellness, and elder care. Clients for all of these services are the enrolled tribal members of the San Xavier community. Ages range from infant to senior, and most clients served are low to very-low income. With fourteen departments, there are many priorities. These can be divided into the clusters of land and natural resources, community and economic development, human resources, and governance. Under land and natural resources, priorities can be broken down into the specific areas of water resources, mineral resources, agriculture, rangelands, and environmental quality. Priority areas for water resources include developing a water management plan and researching large-scale groundwater recharge within the District. Mineral resource priorities focus on assuring ASARCO compliance with federal reclamation and lease requirements as it begins the shutdown process for its San Xavier Copper Mine. Under agriculture, the District holds the priority of assisting the San Xavier Cooperative Association with their rehabilitation and expansion of the Coop Farm. Rangeland priorities focus on developing a Range Management Plan.

For community and economic development, priority areas include housing, transportation, public facilities, and community and industrial development. The Housing program has a waiting list of over 100 households need of major repairs before they will comply with building codes, and reducing this waiting list is a high priority. The key transportation priority is road repair. There is a pressing need for paved roads within SXD; the vast majority of homes are accessible only via dirt roads that are in poor repair and are nearly impassable during summer rains.

Economic and infrastructure development are important priorities because the District recognizes that, over the long run, simply delivering services is not an effective way to increase the quality of life within the community. Rather, community members must have opportunities for business development and employment if they are to make permanent strides toward self-sufficiency. Therefore, building infrastructure and creating an environment in which new businesses can flourish is a high priority.

For Human Resources, priority areas include education, health, cultural resources, social services, and employment and training. Under education, main concerns include supporting youth who are currently in school, helping youth who have dropped out return to school, increasing the community’s perception of the value of education, and preserving traditional knowledge through free language and culture classes. Long-term priorities include expanding the Education Center, to allow for more educational programs for community.

Under health, precedence is given to prevention programs for youth and to elder care programs. The latter focus on helping San Xavier elders remain in their own homes while maintaining social interaction, health, safety, and a good quality of life. Prevention programs focus on helping youth stay in school and stay away from drugs and alcohol. A key goal in this area is the construction of a recreation center where community members will engage in activities such as fitness and nutrition classes, after-school recreation and team sports. Other human resource priorities include expanding violence and abuse prevention programs, increasing opportunities for youth to gain work experience, and helping more Tohono O’odham become certified teachers.

Finally, in the area of governance, the District’s top priority is to ensure it is an efficient, professional government organization. This priority includes the San Xavier District Council, the elected body that makes and/or oversees policy decisions for the District. Governance priorities also include a new District administration building that will allow all programs to be centralized. This new building will make District operations more efficient and will improve the working conditions of District employees, reducing turnover and further increasing effectiveness. It is discussed in more detail below.

Finally, governance priorities include advocating for residents in the face of accelerated growth in the nearby communities of Tucson, South Tucson, and Sahuarita. This growth has increased trespassing, encroachment, and development in and near the District. The District government puts great importance on assuring it has a place at the table when nearby municipalities discuss growth, resource use, pollution, and other trans-border issues.

The Present- Current Needs

Most of the District’s current needs stem from the fact that demand for services is growing at a rate that outstrips growth of the organization. Arizona is one of the fastest growing states in the U.S. As the populations of SXD and surrounding municipalities increase, there are more SXD neighbors trespassing on the District and harming cultural and natural resources; more seniors in need of meals; more homeowners calling for assistance to bring their homes up to code; and more youth requiring academic and emotional support.

Needs are felt most acutely at the staffing and facility levels. District operations are currently housed in trailers dating from the late 1970s and early 1980s. These trailers are in very poor condition. The electrical systems within them cannot handle modern office equipment such as computers, fax machines, and copiers. Power outages occur frequently. The overloading of most trailers’ electrical systems raises the very real possibility of fire, leading to loss of irreplaceable government records and possible loss of life. The trailers leak during storms, and files and office equipment have been damaged by rain. The trailers do not comply with the ADA.

In addition, these trailers are at full capacity; there is no open office space within them. There is no extra land to house new trailers. This lack of space prevents the hiring of additional staff members needed to meet increasing demand for services in the community. There is an urgent need for a new District administration building that will centralize all departments, increase available office space, and improve working conditions.

The Future

SXD’s mission to guide, lead, and support the community, providing a legacy for future generations, has not changed since operations began, and will not change in the future. However, the environment in which this mission is carried out is constantly changing, and will provide impetus for changes in District operations over the next 5-10 years. The District population, as well as the population of surrounding jurisdictions, will continue to grow, further increasing demand for social services and protection of resources. The provision of services and stewardship of resources will also become more complex, as the District continues to increase its presence and successfully meets its goal of having a place at the table when decisions affecting its people are made.

SXD’s commitment to meeting basic societal needs of education, health and wellness, housing, senior care and protection of cultural and natural resources will not change. That commitment is expanding to include the need for economic development and generating sustainable revenue streams within the community, improving employment and quality of life for residents. This expansion will continue over the next 5-10 years, as the District oversees and coordinates the incubation of new businesses and employment opportunities within its boundaries, and further develops its grants program. The District envisions increasing revenues enough to allow costly infrastructure projects such as road improvements. Within the next 5-10 years, we will expand our services and efforts to result in a significant, sustainable increase in autonomy and quality of life for members of the Wa:k O’odham community.