Native American History

Native American history, Sedona, petroglyph

Native American petroglyphs on Sedona’s red rock.

People have been gravitating to Sedona since 8,000 B.C. Some of the migrant tribes that crossed the Bering Straight from Asia eventually made their way to Sedona. These “Paleo Indian” tribes roamed in bands along the tributaries of Dry Creek, Beaver Creek, and Oak Creek, gathering wild plant foods and hunting bighorn sheep, deer, and elk.

Eventually some groups settled nearby in scattered villages of pit houses in the uplands and along the foothills of the Mogollon Rim. Evidence suggests that these “Anasazi Indians” came from the high deserts along the Little Colorado River. The name Anasazi was coined by the Navajos and means, “The ancient ones who weren’t us.” For mysterious reasons, the Anasazi left the area.

Next came the Hohokam from the south, during the period of 500 AD to 700 AD. The Hohokam introduced irrigation farming. The ancient canals they built still exist today and were used by white settlers when they arrived in the area.

The Sinagua

By around 650 A.D., the Sinagua were occupying Red Rock Country, the Verde Valley, and the Flagstaff region. They hunted rabbit, deer, and bighorn sheep, and gathered wild plants such as agave, pinyon nuts, sweet acorn, sunflower seeds, goldeneye, wild grasses and berries, yucca fruit, and fruits and seeds from mesquite and saguaro and prickly pear cacti. However, their attention was increasingly going to farming corn, squash, and beans, both in the lowlands and mesa tops. They used “dry farming,” meaning they farmed without irrigation, using only rainwater. Hence the name Sinagua, which means “without water” in Spanish, a name given by the founder of Flagstaff’s Museum of Northern Arizona, Dr. Harold S. Colton. The name was derived from the original name given by Spanish explorers to the San Francisco Peaks north of Sedona—Sierra Sin Agua.

Another important food was agave, which was available year-round and ripened in higher elevations. It provided mescal, a staple that could be relied on in times of need. Mescal took three to four months to prepare. People from different bands would congregate in one area for a time to gather the agave there and share in the laborious process.

Montezuma Castle

Montezuma’s Castle

Throughout most of their history, the Sinagua lived in pit houses, partly-subterranean dwellings with brush and pole sides. An entrance through the roof served as a smoke hole. The years between 800 and 1130 A.D. were unusually wet and warm, providing bountiful harvests that resulted in a population boom that led to people gathering into larger cooperative groups and building pueblos or villages. They began to build their pit houses out of stone between 1000 and 1125 A.D.

Between 1130 and 1300, the uplands were largely abandoned in favor of river valley occupation and forty large pueblos and cliff houses were built, mostly near rivers and streams. Some of these structures, such the ones at Honanki and Palatki, can still be seen today. After 1300, hilltop communities such as Tuzigoot were constructed and had their heyday.

The people of the area were able to gather copper from where Jerome is now, salt from deposits in Verde Lake, and brittle claystone argillite, which they used in jewelry. They grew cotton to trade for parrot feathers, sea shells, and pottery.

After several hundred years of prosperity, the Sinaguans seem to have left the area in the 1400s. About that time, the Yavapai and Apache came to hunt and gather. It is unknown whether all of the Sinagua left, and for what reason, or whether they integrated into the Yavapai, Apache, and/or Navajo.

The Yavapai and Apache

In May 1593, Antonio de Espejo was the first non-Indian in the area. He entered the Verde Valley led by Hopi guides through an Indian trail that descends Wet Beaver Creek. He was ostensibly looking for two friars, but was probably more interested in prospecting for gold. All he discovered were the copper mines, however. He also found what he described as people wearing “crowns of painted sticks on their heads and jicaras [small bowls] of mescal and pinyon nuts and bread made from it.” In 1598, the Spaniard Marcos Farfan de los Godos encountered people wearing small wooden crosses on their heads and labeled them Cruzados (Yavapai).

Yavapai-Apache Nation - Native American history

Cultural dance of the modern Yavapai-Apache Nation.

The culture of the Yavapai and Apache had many similarities, which led to confusion by Anglo settlers and some government officials, who called these people everything from Yavapai/Apache to Apache/Mohave. One subgroup of the Yavapai is the Wipukpaya (Wipukupa, Wipukyipai), whose descendents live on the Camp Verde, Middle Verde, and Clarkdale Reservations.

The greater Sedona area is thought to have been a peaceful meeting place for Native American people from all across the Southwest. There is evidence of elaborate cookouts and ceremonies from times when the first peoples came to the Sedona area for hunting, fishing, and practicing their religion. All of the groups and tribes regarded this red rock country as sacred and special; certain spots in the area such as Montezuma’s Well and Boynton Canyon are the settings to the stories of how their people came to be here, such as those of the Wipukpaya.

When Red and White Mixed

Although Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to come through Sedona, their trips were infrequent and they did not stay in numbers. Their European diseases, however, devastated the population. The Yavapai’s hunting and gathering lifestyle continued without major disruption until the 1850s when more Americans began to settle in northern Arizona. A conflict of cultures developed over incompatible lifestyles, subsistence patterns, and concepts of land ownership. For example, raiding was a way of survival for the Yavapai, while the whites viewed the raids as hostile aggression. American hunters using rifles drastically reduced game populations, and cattle grazing diminished the seed-producing plants.

Native American history - 1875 Yavapai Apachi exodus

Bronze statue of an old man carrying his wife to San Carlos in 1875.

In the 1860s, gold was discovered near Prescott, bringing more white settlers to the state. As a result, there was more contact and conflict with Native American locals. In 1865, the frontier reached the Verde Valley when the first farmers arrived. The incoming Americans found the Yavapais directly on the lands they wanted. Consequently, the Yavapai and Apache tribes were constantly moved around by the cavalry. In 1872, General Crook moved all Apache to the newly created Rio Verde Reservation in Middle Verde Valley. In the process they wiped out large numbers of Native Americans. The Yavapai were moved to the reservation the next year. The raids, murders, and battles culminated in 1875, when 1,500 Yavapai and Apache were forcibly marched on foot from their Camp Verde reservation to another reservation in San Carlos 180 miles away.

However, in the 1880s and 1890s, some Indian Agents there encouraged the Yavapai and Apache to return to their lands near Sedona. Approximately two hundred Yavapai and Apache people gradually made their way back to the Verde Valley. At first, they did not get their land back, but were able to make a living at different jobs, such as mining, or by farming small sections of rented land.

Then in 1914 and 1916, 448 acres with water rights were set up for the Yavapai eight miles west of Camp Verde at Middle Verde. Again in 1969, sixty acres of land near the former mining community of Clarkdale were established as a reservation once most mines had been closed. A Department of Housing and Urban Development program helped to build new homes. The 1960s in general saw a resurgence of Native American tribes, and today the Yavapai-Apache nation encompasses 665 acres around Camp Verde, Clarkdale, and Rimrock.

Native Americans in Sedona Today

Festival of Native American CultureThe rich cultural impact of the first peoples is still felt in many facets of Sedona life from their stewardship and respect for the land to their powerful ceremonies and artistic contributions. Native American culture is alive and well in present-day Sedona. Visitors will inevitably share their long-established reverence for the land. Just as they hold many places around Sedona to be sacred, travelers will doubtlessly find their reverence to be well placed. There are many fine examples of Native American artistry in Sedona’s galleries and shops. Native American pottery and jewelry are some of the most popular items for visitors. Their music and dance are often showcased at various venues and visitors can book one of Sedona’s Native American tours to visit the sites and learn more about the historic people of this region.