Royce Manuel, a renowned artisan and Salt River tribal leader, dies
Renowned Akimel O’odham artist and historian Royce Manuel died Monday in Scottsdale, surrounded by his family. He was 68.
Manuel was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in January and, after undergoing treatments early on in his diagnosis, he chose to spend his remaining time in hospice care in Scottsdale.
“Part of me thought I still had a little more time,” Debbie Nez Manuel said of her husband’s passing. “I have a feeling that Royce has a lot to do with the amount of support that I received since (Monday).”
Royce and Debbie had been together for more than 15 years and shared a life together on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community with their combined family of eight. Debbie is a citizen of the Navajo Nation.
“Today we endure the heartbreak as he begins his journey across the river,” Debbie wrote on a Facebook on Monday.
Manuel was a citizen of the Salt River Indian Community from the Auk-Mierl Aw-Thum, or Akimel O’odham culture. He specialized in traditional O’odham arts, including bows, arrows, flutes, rattles and baskets, work he’s been doing since he was 12.
He often used traditional designs that he researched throughout his life or that his family taught him. He grew up and resided on the Salt River community east of Phoenix with his wife and family.
For years, Manuel has been a keeper of traditional and cultural knowledge. He often happily shared his teachings throughout his community, in Arizona and across the country.
Much of Manuel’s knowledge comes from his father and grandparents, who were constantly sharing stories and teaching him new things about their culture and traditions.
In recent years, he pushed to share his knowledge on the Kia-ha, a burden basket.
Traditionally, a Kia-ha is made from fibers from the agave plant and woven into a basket harnessed by a willow rim and saguaro ribs. The basket sits on the carrier’s back and is held in place by a forehead strap.
Manuel said it’s like a woman’s backpack. The basket was typically used to carry firewood, seed pots and large pottery, and could hold up to 100 pounds.
Within his community, the knowledge behind making a Kia-ha was almost non-existent, so he went into this journey without knowing he’d be revitalizing a lost traditional artform.
Manuel didn’t recognize what he’d accomplished until he shared his work during a meeting with the four tribes, Salt River, Gila River, Ak Chin and Tohono O’odham.
He said leaders from the four sister tribes praised him for his work. One was even brought to tears because they didn’t think they’d see a traditional Kia-ha outside of a museum.
“It was a long journey,” Manuel said, from teaching himself, to finally producing the baskets and then being recognized for his work.
“(It) seems just yesterday he was harvesting plants and preparing to make yet another warrior bow which we all knew would be followed by the weaving of agave for the next most beautiful basket,” Debbie wrote on her Facebook page.
Nez-Manuel said a regional basket expert told her that Manuel held the highest position a basket maker or human being could achieve.
“These roots started among his community,” she added.
Manuel learned about the burden basket from his grandmother when he was about 14. He recalled how she told him that a burden basket was made by the men in the community and they put a part of themselves into it.
He would spend years perfecting the art, following a path toward preserving his community’s past and working to better its future.
Manuel spent over a decade researching and documenting desert plant weavings and desert lifeways to ensure that his tribal community and family are aware of these traditional teachings.
Manuel spent a large portion of his life helping others because when he was 19, he saw a car hit a child. The shock of not knowing how to help pushed him to take CPR classes.
From there, he became a first-aid instructor for the Red Cross, then the National Heart Association and the National Safety Council. He spent about two decades in that line of work before joining the Salt River Fire Department in 1987.
Manuel also worked as a major advocate for gaming in the 1990s.
He pushed gaming within the tribe, he said, because he knew it was going to be big. At the time, more than half of the community’s income was coming from its landfill.
He served on the casino board for about six years.
“The decisions that we made was based on business rather than anything else,” he said.
The funeral for Manuel will include traditional and modern services. It will start at 3 p.m. Thursday with a wake service at Salt River Memorial Hall. A traditional overnight service will follow from 9 p.m. that night to 4 a.m. Friday.
The Salt River Fire Department will lead a procession from Manuel’s home at 4:15 a.m. on Friday. That will be followed by a sunrise service and burial at the Lehi Cemetery at 4:45 a.m.
Everyone in attendance must wear a face mask and practice social distancing.
Nez-Manuel said in lieu of flowers, the family would like donations to be sent to Morning Star Leadership Foundation.
Any other donations can be sent directly to the Manuel home in Scottsdale at 4218 N Center St. Those donations will be used for necessary items, Debbie said.
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