01/06/2015 11:37 am ET Updated Mar 08, 2015

The Real Talking Stick: A Visit to a Reservation in Scottsdale

"We've never been here before," our friends, who grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, said as we drove onto the Salt River reservation in their hometown. "And we thought we really knew Scottsdale."

The houses got sparser and the flat, parched, winter landscape was crowned and made glorious by the red-hued mountains in the distance. We tried to imagine what our meeting with Royce and Debbie Nez-Manuel would be like. It was nothing like our imaginings.

For starters, we referred to Royce as Pima, but he said they call themselves "Aw-thum." Royce's father was part of what he called "placement" -- where native families were sent to other places to work. They lived in Compton, California, but Royce came back to the res and learned traditional ways. He followed his paternal grandma as she ate dirt. Literally. It was a part of a ceremony designed to keep people humble. She also made baskets. And as Royce helped her with her work when she became older and weaker, he learned about baskets. He also learned a thing or two about native cooking from his grandpa. The latter set fire to a muskrat house, and when the muskrat came running out, he told Royce to kill it. Then he cooked it in the ground for about four hours and presto, a lip-smacking lunch was ready.

Once, Royce's mother was sick in the hospital. He walked in and told her, "I know why you are sick." There was a white owl decorative image in a planter in the hospital, and when he took it away, his mother got better.

Royce and Debbie's home is decorated with native objects and art. She is Navajo (or Diné) and they have learned to respect each other's culture. Their daughters' hair is curled into traditional Navajo hair bundles, or tseyal. And they have recently learned to grind corn. Outside their house, there is a grinding stone for each family; a grinding stone means you are well-protected. You have food. "When people come to the house, they see a grinding stone and know they can't do anything bad to our family," Royce explained. "We were taught that if you can grind corn, you can do anything in life," Debbie added. Above their doorway is a bow; in both of their cultures, the bow keeps out negative energy.

My friends and I exchanged incredulous looks. Were we really in Scottsdale, or had we somehow slipped through a crack and fallen into a parallel universe?

Royce is considered a traditionalist by his community. He is a full-blood, which is rare, a tribal historian, which is also rare, and an award-winning artist who has brought back the Kiaho' or burden basket, which was used by women for carrying; it hadn't been made since the late l800s. His work is shown and sold at the Heard Museum, the Pueblo Grande Museum, and at Indian Market in Santa Fe. For all his contributions, he received an Indian Living Treasure award.

"So many honors..." I commented admiringly.

"He would say 'acknowledgement,'" Debbie remarked. "The Aw-Thum wouldn't say 'honor' because they are humble."

"Yes," agreed Royce. "I learned that when I ate dirt."

"Royce," I said,

We saw, as we were driving here, that your community owns and operates the luxury, four-diamond resort called Talking Stick. There's also a Talking Stick Golf Club, Talking Stick Casino, and Talking Stick Spa. We've all used the talking stick at spiritual gatherings, community activities, and business meetings. When you hold the stick, you can talk, and you aren't interrupted. Then you hand the stick to the next person, and she or he talks and isn't interrupted. Does that tradition come from the Aw-Thum?

"Talking stick is a marketing term," Royce said, to our surprise.

We call it a Calendar Stick, and it's made from the rib of a saguaro cactus. There is a man here who had it. His name is Day Count. He was one of the long hairs--people who refused to cut their hair. The men applied a kind of mud to their hair. When they washed it out, their hair was silky.

Silky hair, grinding stones, bows above the doorways. I inhaled deeply, trying to breathe in and absorb every detail the couple shared about their cultures.

"In what way is the stick a calendar?" I asked Royce.

It records what happened in one year. Each segment of the stick is one year, which goes from June to June, when the saguaro fruit is ripe. In 1833, the meteor shower was recorded. In l851, there was an Apache raid, and they were chased off and killed. One of the ones who was killed had a buzzard on his shoulder, so they drew the buzzard for that year. Another year, there was a battle where a guy was killed who had a big foot, so they drew the foot. In the year of the Hale Bopp comet, 10 people died here in 12 days. The deaths stopped when the Hale Bopp comet passed, so that was recorded. Only one man in the tribe had the stories, and he recorded one significant event for each year.

Royce is now the keeper of the Calendar Stick, so he chooses what to record. Last year, a woman tribal leader was chosen CEO of the year, and she was named one of the most influential women n Arizona, so she made it onto the stick. I wondered what significant event would be inscribed before next June.

Before we left, Royce and Debbie walked us outside and welcomed us into their Olaski, or round house, where they got married. It was dug into the earth, about a foot below ground level. It is oriented towards the East, where the sun rises. Outside the circular house are the grinding stones of Royce's ancestors. Debbie ground wheat there before the wedding, which established her as someone worthy of being a woman and a wife. And in the grinding on Royce's stone, the two cultures were blended.

"The ancestors were at our wedding," Royce said matter-of-factly. "In one photo, we saw orbs above our heads--they looked like stars. They were large and small, different colored orbs. They diminished at the end of the ceremony. The spirits came in for the wedding. That's for sure."

On our way back to our car, Royce invited us to stay a bit longer so the men could practice shooting with a bow and arrow. They pulled back the bow, so it was taut, and released the arrows, which landed 20 or 30 yards away. When we asked Royce if he could shoot for us, his arrow disappeared into the sun and then arced back to earth. Then he invited the women to carry a burden basket. First we each donned a head strap, and then balanced the huge basket on our backs. It was heavy even though it was empty. I imagined what it was like for a woman to receive a burden basket from her beloved, and then carry 20,30, or 50 pounds of goods without slumping to the ground.

We didn't talk during the car ride back to our friends' house. It wasn't time to toss around words. We needed to absorb the magic history and mystery we had just encountered in the middle of Scottsdale, and in the quiet I silently thanked Royce and Debbie for opening up a slice of their life to grateful travelers.


Photos by Paul Ross

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist, speaker, workshop leader, and the author of LIFE IS A TRIP:The Transformative Magic of Travel, and THE SPOON FROM MINKOWITZ. Her website is

The Real Talking Stick: a visit to a reservation in Scottsdale, Arizona