Arizona Sheraton Nurtures Tribal Culture

When Bunty Ahamed leaves his suburban Phoenix home each morning, he heads to work in a different land with a culture as old as the shifting sands. He calls it "another world." Nonetheless, he can leave his passport tucked away in a drawer at home.

After two years as general manager of The Phoenician resort in Scottsdale—what he describes as the "Nirvana" of a hotelier's career —Ahamed in 2003 left for a unique challenge: GM of a new, Native American-owned property near Chandler, AZ, about 15 miles to the southeast.

While leaders of the Gila River Indian Community needed the income the Wild Horse Pass resort—and, in particular, its casino—would generate, they knew nothing about property management. Therefore, they created a unique relationship with Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and Ahamed came on board to run the property, officially branded as the 500-room Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa. The tribal elders had one non-negotiable demand for Ahamed: The ancient traditions of Gila River's two tribes must be respected—revered even.

"Wild Horse was a fresh canvas. It was an opportunity to do something extraordinarily special," says Ahamed. "It had unbelievable potential, particularly because of the culture and the integrity of the culture."
To maintain that integrity, Ahamed hired a tribal member, Ginger Sunbird Martin, as his cultural theme manager, the only such position in the entire Starwood chain. She serves as the liaison between managers and tribal elders.

"My job is to protect the integrity and the respect of both the Pima and Maricopa tribes at all times," says Sunbird Martin. That includes "the approval of menus, logos on uniforms, new signage, training. Anything like that, I'm responsible for.

"The resort prides itself on being the only resort in the Valley that doesn’t have a palm tree," she says. "The reason is that since the elders say palm trees aren’t indigenous to the Sonoran Desert, they don’t want to offend Mother Nature and bring any of them in. So our flora and fauna specially represent the Sonoran Desert."

Seemingly everywhere, there are such tangible reminders that this is a place apart. They are evident from the moment guests step through the front doors held open by greeters in traditional dress. Moving inside, they are awed by the 10 murals that adorn the ceiling of the atrium, all painted by a member of the community.

"The murals are of the 10 most important aspects that our tribal elders wanted to share with our guests," Sunbird Martin explains. "When you look at them, they really are the basics of humanity [including] laughter, song and dance, hunting [and] farming."

The sharing of culture continues throughout the resort. There are displays featuring everything from traditional crafts to tribal history. Guests are invited to join in artisan demonstrations as well as cultural tours of the property.

"We built the resort to showcase and tell our story," she says. "We tell our story through every inch of the property, including our food. So it's very important that if we serve a bean salad the beans used are our traditional beans."

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