Thanks to a partnership between a local Native American community, the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass offers guests an authentic escape from city life, beginning the moment you step into the lobby and gaze up to see a massive 10-panel domed mural depicting different aspect of the Gila River Indian Community’s culture, including pottery making, basket weaving, hunting and a reverence for elders.
Located just 11 miles from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the hotel sits in the heart of the Gila River Indian Community Reservation, home to the Pima and Maricopa Tribes.
Opened in 2002, the Gila (pronounced “heela”) River Indian Community owns the resort and hired the Sheraton to manage it, yielding a true partnership, says Rosie Rivera, cultural director of the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass and herself a member of the Gila River Indian Community, Pima Tribe. The result is a property that preserves and reflects the community’s culture and heritage.
For instance, the 500-room hotel is shaped like a bird (visible only from above), an animal especially revered by the indigenous people groups. All main doors and entrances face East, an architectural tradition of the Pima and Maricopa Tribes, who traditionally built their homes facing East “so that we would rise with the sun,” Rivera explains.
Perhaps the most noteworthy feature is the river flowing through the mile-wide property.
History Meets Present
The reservation was established by Congress in 1859, and the inhabitants relied largely on the waters from the Gila River as well as more than 800 miles of irrigation canals dug by hand by the Pima and Maricopa Tribes. For years, agriculture flourished. When non-Indian groups entered and settled the land in the late 1800s, they diverted the water from the river to irrigate lands upriver from the reservation, leading to years of famine, starvation and drought for residents.
A century-long battle for water rights ensued, at last settled in 2004 when the Supreme Court ruled water ownership be returned to the Gila River Indian Community. Unfortunately by then, the actual river had dried up. The Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass recreated a 2.5 mile-long Gila River to pay homage to the original one.
Besides being a serene place to stop and meditate, the river is a popular attraction for group teambuilding activities, says Andrew Riggs, director of event management. Groups can explore the water via hydrobikes, pedal boats, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.
(The hotel works with destination management company Hello! Arizona.) Some groups opt to set up “Amazing Race”-style water relays; one group organized a competition in which teams created boats out of cardboard boxes and had to successfully paddle them 100 yards without sinking. Only one team has ever been successful, Riggs says.
Water taxis are available to transport groups to the Rawhide Event Center at the end of the river, or the on-site Whirlwind Golf Club. Also nearby is the 100,000-sq.-ft. Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino for blackjack and slots.
Other possible on-site group activities include dinner at Kai, the only AAA Five Diamond/Forbes Five Star restaurant in Arizona (the chef incorporates indigenous ingredients like heritage grains, beans and squash; Kai means "seed" in the Pima language); or exploring the desert on horseback, through the nearby Koli Equestrian Center. (Rivera says about 1,500 wild horses still roam the area, but not to worry – your horse will be trained.)
Rooms are decorated in earth tones reminiscent of the desert land surrounding the property, filled with paintings created by local artisans and a pair of calendar sticks, the traditional method used to mark the passage of time.
“All of these different puzzle pieces create such an escape,” Rivera says. “You’re transported to another place when you’re here.”
The Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass offers more than 100,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor meeting space, including the 17,000 square foot indoor Akimel Ball Room, dividable into four spaces; the Komatke Ballroom, which seats up to 1400 and features gorgeous desert vistas; a junior ballroom and 17 breakout rooms.
Outside, three distinct areas beckon, including the Beehive Patio, featuring a crackling adobe wood fireplace that Riggs says works well for everything from executive dinners to sunrise yoga sessions. (Mountain vistas and babbling river water add to the ambiance.)
Special catering requests are welcomed. When the Mind & Life Institute recently hosted its International Symposium for Contemplative Research here, they requested a meat-free menu featuring plentiful options for gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan attendees. And when the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation hosted an event on-site, the property made sure to arrange the various buffets and tables lower, and reduced its use of tiered platters, to increase accessibility to guests using wheelchairs.