Sunbird Martin

America’s Only American Indian Cultural Concierge

Lee Allen
3/28/11

Ginger Sunbird Martin knows a bit about responsibility and pressure.  As the nation’s only Native American Cultural Conceirge, she acts as a representative of the 22,000 current day voices that encompass 2,300 years of existence among Arizona’s Pima/Maricopa peoples.

In her one-of-a-kind capacity at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa outside Phoenix, Sunbird Martin has a lot of bosses to answer to in her role as cultural historian, contact for the resort management company, a direct interface to tribal elders, an educator to the visiting public, and a liaison for her community at large.

“When the tribe chose to diversify gaming income, they decided hospitality was the way to go, so they invested $170 million to build this property,” she says.  “The second thing they did was look for a management company willing to bend corporate rules to accommodate the needs of a native people --- in this case, to accurately tell the story of our culture.”

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, managers for nine major hotel brands, was chosen because of their ability to flex with unique needs.  In total, Starwood altered or abandoned 117 of their rules to respond to specific Gila River Indian Community requests.

“Tribal leaders told the management company they wanted someone in-house, at all times, to police the true culture of the Pima and Maricopa tribes,” Sunbird Martin said.  “Starwood responded by saying ‘we will create the first-ever cultural theme manager position in our company’ --- and that ended up to be me.

“My position represents a first-ever for a tribe to embrace Corporate America and bring it into our backyard --- and conversely, this is a first-ever for Corporate America to embrace a tribe and bend so many rules to accommodate our needs.”

Her job description involving cultural accuracy is as unique and unusual as the jobs she performs.  “One  example would be that in every other Sheraton property in the world, you’ll find the standard ‘S’ logo on the bed pillow.  Here we have an exception to that rule as every resort guest has an authentic throw blanket in their room instead.”

Take food as another example.  While Sheraton buys corporate supplies in bulk, Wild Horse Pass prefers to use traditional ingredients wherever possible and chefs are allowed to use locally-grown beans if tribal elders approve and homage is paid to the bean.  Another example: The resort doesn’t end up with sample headdresses from the mid-west or musical instruments from other tribes, but ensures that all craft and artwork is verified local in origin.

The importance of displaying tribal history and culture revolves around the most important commodity in a desert environment --- water.  “When the gold rush died and settlers arrived here in the late 1800s, they asked if we would share the water we used to grow our crops,” Sunbird Martin explained.  “We said ‘Sure, take what you need because Mother Nature has always provided for us.  They did, diverting upstream water and building dams.  But it was all take and no return.  In our history, it resulted in The 40 Years of Famine and because of litigation involving those water rights, we haven’t been able to write the story of our people.  That’s why tribal leadership decided to put so much culture into this property because we’ve been literally waiting --- and dying --- throughout a 118 year court case to tell our story.”

For Sunbird Martin, there is no such thing as a standard work day although the fact that 80% of the resort’s business is group-related indicates a major area requiring her attention.  “The sales team is now using me as an authentic representative of site ownership and I’ve become the closer on million dollar contracts.  I’m responsible for creating on-site storytelling efforts through things like petroglyph replicas in the lobby and architectural/spiritual details like doors that face east or the prominent circular design that symbolizes the cycle of life to the Pima and Maricopa people.

“I feel like my efforts do justice to our people and our untold story,” says the young woman who grew up in a reservation mud house close to the posh resort she now looks after.  “I view my job as a huge honor and my humble roots keep me grounded.  I burn sage in my office every morning to keep me balanced because I’m blessed to be able to come to work and share the story of our people.”

Evidence of integrating well-worn traditions and tools of the past can be found throughout the resort property where hallways, restaurants, guest rooms, and the lobby area have all been kissed with a touch of the traditional arts.   Tribal efforts at remaining true to basic beliefs have resulted in the receipt of an Arizona Cultural Preservation Award.

The resort lobby entrance welcome sign tells it all: “Welcome to a unique resort offering guests an authentic cultural experience not found anywhere else in the world, incorporating indigenous culture into every detail of the property.”

History is told thru quiet touches like guest room bedspreads featuring ancient water symbols and basket weave patterns to the resorts’ impressive domed ceiling mural telling the creation story through illustrations that depict the 10 most important aspects of the Pima/Maricopa culture.

“We’re here.  We’re alive.  And we’ve been practicing hospitality for hundreds of years,” says Sunbird Martin in extending an offer to visit Sheraton Wild Horse Pass & Resort --- home of the Gila River Indian Community.

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