Royce Manuel, renowned craftsman and Salt River tribal chief, dies


Famous artist and historian Akimel O’odham Royce Manuel died in Scottsdale on Monday, surrounded by his family. He was 68 years old.

Manuel was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in January and, after undergoing treatment early in his diagnosis, he chose to spend the rest of his time in a hospice in Scottsdale.

“Part of me thought I still had a little more time,†Debbie Nez Manuel said of her husband’s passing. “I feel Royce has a lot to do with the support I have received since (Monday).”

Royce and Debbie had been together for over 15 years and shared a life together in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community with their combined family of eight. Debbie is a citizen of the Navajo Nation.

“Today we are in grief as he begins his journey across the river,†Debbie wrote on Facebook Monday.

Manuel was a citizen of the Salt River Indian community of 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 has been doing since he was 12 years old.

Royce Manuel, an elder of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community, used traditional materials to create bows, arrows, baskets and flutes.

He often used traditional designs that he researched throughout his life or that his family taught him. He grew up and lived in the community of Salt River east of Phoenix with his wife and family.

For years Manuel has been the guardian 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 constantly shared stories and taught him new things about their culture and traditions.

In recent years, he has been pushing to share his knowledge about the Kia-ha, a burden basket.

Traditionally, a Kia-ha is made from fibers of the agave plant and woven into a basket harnessed by willow brim and saguaro ribs. The basket rests on the wearer’s back and is held in place by a front strap.

Manuel said it was 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 embarked on this journey unaware he would revitalize a lost traditional art form.

Manuel did not recognize what he had accomplished until he shared his work in a meeting with the Four Tribes, Salt River, Gila River, Ak Chin, and Tohono O’odham.

He said the leaders of the four sister tribes praised him for his work. One of them even broke down in tears as they didn’t think they would see a traditional Kia-ha outside a museum.

“It has been a long journey,†said Manuel, from teaching himself to producing the baskets and then recognizing his work.

“(It) seems like just yesterday he was harvesting plants and preparing to craft another warrior bow which we all knew would be followed by agave weaving for the next prettiest basket,” Debbie wrote on her Facebook page.

Nez-Manuel said a regional basket expert told him Manuel held the highest position a basket maker or human could reach.

“These roots started within her community,†she added.

Manuel learned of the burden basket from his grandmother when he was about 14 years old. He remembers how she told him that a burden basket was made by the men in the community and that they put part of it themselves.

He would spend years perfecting the art, following a path towards preserving his community’s past and working to improve its future.

Royce Manuel is an artist and advocate for the Indian community of Salt River-Pima.  Royce's wife Debbie Nez-Manuel takes care of him after he was diagnosed with stage four cancer and now in hospice care at his home in Salt River.

Manuel has spent over a decade researching and documenting desert plant weaves and desert lifestyles to ensure his tribal community and family are aware of these traditional teachings.

Manuel has spent much of his life helping others because at 19 he saw a car hit a child. The shock of not knowing how to help her drove 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 this field before joining the Salt River Fire Department in 1987.

Manuel also worked as a great advocate for the game in the 1990s.

He pushed the game within the tribe, he said, because he knew it would be huge. At the time, more than half of the community’s income came from its landfill.

He served on the casino board for about six years.

“The decisions we made were based on business rather than anything else,†he said.

Manuel’s funeral will include traditional and modern services. It kicks off Thursday at 3 p.m. with wake-up service at Salt River Memorial Hall. A traditional night service will follow from 9 p.m. that evening until 4 a.m. on Friday.

The Salt River Fire Department will lead a procession from Manuel’s home at 4:15 a.m. Friday. This will be followed by a sunrise service and a burial in Lehi’s cemetery at 4:45 a.m.

Everyone present should wear a face mask and practice social distancing.

Nez-Manuel said that instead of flowers, the family would like donations to be sent to Morning Star Leadership Foundation.

Any other donation can be sent directly to Manuel’s home in Scottsdale at 4218 N Center St. These donations will be used for needed items, Debbie said.

Journalist Shondiin Silversmith covers the Indigenous peoples and communities of Arizona. Reach her at and follow her on Twitter @DiinSilversmith.

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