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Aug. 1, 2006
Judi Irons had a revelation a few years after moving to Phoenix.
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Judi Irons had a revelation a few years after moving to Phoenix. It was run-of-the-mill as revelations go, but I'd been in Phoenix for less than two days, and she was the third person to tell me that a mind-opening, life-changing experience had occurred shortly after moving there.

At first I attributed this to the hallucinatory effects of the sun, which shines 325 days a year. But after a few more days--and a few more tales of revelations--I decided it was simply a reflection of the city's name. Phoenix, of course, is named after the mythical Egyptian bird that lived, died and was reborn in the desert, arising from its ashes as an even more beautiful, more magnificent creature.

In a similar manner, the city of Phoenix spouted from the remains of an ancient civilization and rose to be the fifth largest and second fastest growing city in the United States.

After a quick tour of the Desert Botanical Garden, where Judi, having chucked her job as an accountant, is now a docent, I felt well-enough briefed on the desert environment to delve more deeply into the culture, both ancient and modern, that thrives among the cacti.

The Pueblo Grande Museum is less than a ten-minute drive from the Botanic Gardens, right near downtown Phoenix. It's not as much a museum as an archeological site, the spot where some thousand years ago the Hohokam Indians created a complex civilization. They built an intricate system of canals to bring freshwater from the Salt River, and thus they were able to farm and build houses from the desert adobe.

No one knows why the Hokokam disappeared--the word "hohokam in Pima language means "those who have gone"--but there is no record of these people after about 1450 A.D. They may have been forced to disperse because of human enemies or a sustained drought, but they left behind remnants of their civilization that are now visible at Pueblo Grande. Among other displays, visitors can see a mound that was probably used for group gatherings or an administrative center, a ballcourt and two full-scale reproductions of Hohokam living quarters.

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Only part of the site has been excavated. Our guide explained that archaelogists are only revealing enough to answer current questions; they want to leave some of the remains untouched in the hopes that future researchers will have techniques that will allow them to delve further.

Today Arizona has more Native American reservations than any other state, and their history and cultures can best be understood by a visit to the deservedly-famous Heard Museum, a relatively small building that houses the world's most comprehensive display of Southwest Indian artifacts--larger, even, than that of the Smithsonian, according to people who have visited both.

We weren't lucky enough to be there during one of the Heard's major festivals, but we were fortunate in drawing Elaine Weston as our guide. Elaine left her east coast home after college, married a Navajo and spent twenty years living and teaching on a reservation. Her personal understanding of both cultures lends an added dimension to her tours.

Contemporary Native American culture is best glimpsed at the Wild Horse Pass Resort, eleven miles from Sky Harbor Airport, a four-star resort located on the Pima and Maricopa Gila River Indian Reservation.

The tribes first built a casino on their 372,000 acre reservation; then, flush with cash, they built a luxury resort. Their own cultures have a long tradition of hospitality, says Cultural Concierge Ginger Sunbird Martin, and now it seems both natural and wise to charge for that hospitality. To that end, the tribes have established a partnership with the Sheraton Starwood Corporation, which will manage the technicalities of running a resort that both showcases Native American culture and provides a much-needed income stream for the tribes.

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The resort, which opened in October 2002, features a golf course, spa and riding stable. As Martin leads guests on a free property tour, she explains how the resort reflects ancient traditions, from the resort entrance, which faces east to greet the morning sun, to the age-old patterns on fabric and rugs that are derived from basketry (the Pimas) and pottery (the Maricopas).

Out in the vast lands that surround the resort, wild horses roam, but aside from a few of the tamer horses, they're rarely seen by guests. Instead most guests learn about the horses during a morning hosrseback ride in the desert or while sitting round the fire pit in the evening, listening to Native American storytellers relate age-old tales.

Thirty-five miles across town, in Scottsdale, the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa pays homage to Arizona's cultural heritage in another way. The developers hired state historian Marshall Trimble to work alongside them in both interior and exterior design. Trimble led members of the hotel's design and development group to different parts of the state, giving them an in-depth education in the state's history as well as scenery. The scenery is reflected in sandstone columns, trickling water and tables of petrified wood (the state fossil) in the lobby; the history is depicted through a virtual museum of historic paintings and photos that are displayed in various halls and rooms.

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But it is the Culturekeepers program that distinguishes the Kierland from similar properties that aim to reflect their environment. Every September the resort, in conjunction with the Arizona Historical Foundation, recognizes special individuals who have "made a positive impact on Arizona's history, culture, environment or economy"--people such as Vivian Burdette, who worked with young Apache dancers to keep their culture alive; Angel Delgadillo, who started a grass-roots effort to turn a stretch of old highway into an historic route; and Don Larry, who founded the Territorial Brass Band to preserve the music that was heard throughout Arizona in the late 1800s. Photos of the Culturekeepers and descriptions of their accomplishments line the walls of the Kierland Resort.

But while the Westin Kierland remembers the past, it's determined to lead in the future. Thus in 2005 it became one of the first resorts in the Southwest to introduce air-conditioned golf carts--standard carts equipped with small units that blow out air-conditioned mists.

The idea sounded like another of the famous Phoenix revelations.

For more information:

Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau: 602-254-6500, 866-268-0844;

Desert Botanical Garden: 480-941-1225;

The Pueblo Grande Museum: 602-495-0901, 877-706-4408;

Heard Museum: 601-252-8848;

Wild Horse Pass Resort, Chandler: 602-225-0100, 888-218-8989;

Westin Kierland Resort and Spa, Scottsdale: 480-624-1000; Ask for a copy of the free brochure, "Treasuring the Essence of Arizona, a Self-Guided Walking Tour," which explains the different historic elements of the resort.

Story by Andrea Gross; first three photos by Irv Green, DDS; final photo courtesy of Westin Kierland