How the Gila River Indian Community Is Restoring the Landscape and Ecosystem

March 20, 2024 By Sean Buffington, Vice President
How the Gila River Indian Community Is Restoring the Landscape and Ecosystem
Gila River Indian Community Wetlands.

On March 2nd, the staff and Board of the Luce Foundation visited the Gila River Indian Community outside Phoenix. At Luce, we support Indigenous knowledge makers across the United States. We were eager to see how the Akimel O’odham and Pee-Posh people of Gila River were using their deep knowledge and understanding of the Sonoran Desert to restore the landscape and ecosystem.

A drawing by a Gila River Indian Community child hangs in the Department of Environmental Quality.

We were welcomed by the Department of Environmental Quality staff, which is responsible for wildlife and ecosystem management, water quality, air quality, and more on tribal lands. We met at the future site of the Environmental Education Center, which will incorporate community gardens and offer learning opportunities to all tribal members

Luce Board and staff at the Environmental Education Center site.
Detail of a mural at the Gila River Indian Community Center.

From there, we boarded a bus to the Gila River Interpretive Trail. The Huhugam, ancestors of the Gila River peoples, constructed a remarkable network of canals to water their desert home. Centuries ago, before colonization, the desert bloomed under the careful care of the Huhugam! The Department of Environmental Quality is working to restore that condition.  

Foundation Board and Staff on the trail.

Water from the Gila River is diverted and stored in wetlands, which in turn nourish plant life and attract birds and other wildlife back to the area. 

The canal.

The presence of water supports cottonwoods and willows, which are native to the Sonoran ecosystem. The DEQ staff uses willow and cottonwood posts to grow new trees. Within five years, the new trees have already reached significant heights. 

A new tree has grown around a post put in place by the Department of Environmental Quality staff.
A new willow thrives in its restored environment.

The MAR-5 Interpretive Trail is the first step in the Community’s restoration efforts. For now, the site offers tribal members a retreat and a place to envision what is possible. In the future, DEQ and GRIC hope that many more of their homelands will resemble this. 

A walking path on the wetlands.

The Henry Luce Foundation Board and staff extend their gratitude to Lisa Gover and her team for their generosity and hospitality. Click here to learn more about the Gila River Indian Community. 

Authored by:

Sean Buffington
Vice President: Sean Buffington

Prior to joining the Luce Foundation in 2015, Sean served as President of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. During his tenure, the University developed and introduced an innovative interdisciplinary curriculum, launched a number of new degrees, and established a program for creative entrepreneurs. Before moving to Philadelphia, Sean was a senior administrator at Harvard University, initially overseeing inter-faculty initiatives in neuroscience, health policy and environmental studies on behalf of the Provost, and then managing Harvard's arts and culture activities as Associate Provost. Sean received the A.B. summa cum laude from Harvard College, and an M.A. in American Culture from the University of Michigan.

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