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The Life of Alfretta Antone

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Danny Harvier, Oscar White, Stan Baptisto, Maynard Andrews, Arnold Easchief and Carlton Able talk with museum staff during their tour of the Huhugam Heritage Center in Gila River during their first Senior Men’s group field trip.

By Angela Willeford
Au-Authm Action News

In 1929, the year when the biggest Wall Street crash in history threw the United States into the Great Depression, a little girl was born. This little girl would make a name for herself for her strong work ethic and eventually become an ambitious woman who would earn the respect of the people of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

Alfretta (Juan) Antone was the last of 13 children, born on June 25, 1929 to Jose Juan and Louisa (Enos) Juan. After celebrating her 81st birthday last June, Au-Authm Action News recently went to visit and sat with her in her kitchen to reminisce about her life’s journey, which has taken her all across the United States, meeting some very interesting people along the way, and resulted in some important contributions to the Community.

Childhood and Marriage
During World War II a time when flour, sugar and gasoline were rationed and meat was a rarity, Antone wanted for very little. Her parents did the best they could during economic hard times. Her mother planted a garden with melons, squash, corn and chiles, and her father farmed cotton and wheat. The family also owned horses and a cow on the 40 acres of land allotted to them.

Every member of the family was expected to work hard, including the horses used to plow the fields. Alfretta remembered getting up at about 4 or 5 in the morning during the summers for trips up to Red Mountain to cut mesquite wood with her father and brothers. The family used the wood to heat their house and also took it to Tempe to sell it. With the money they would purchase flour, lard and coffee, and some meat when it was available. The family mostly ate Indian beans, also called tepary beans, and white and brown beans with homemade tortillas and popovers. In addition to the starchy food they also ate greens; she said that her mom would get after her if she didn’t eat the wild spinach.

Antone also fondly remembers having chickens and turkeys around. She said, “On Thanksgiving my mother would cut the head off of the turkey and we would have it for dinner.” Our milk cow gave plenty of milk and we would make butter and cheese. Antone remembers churning butter.

She knows how fortunate her family was at that time; sometimes other people would come over and ask if they could spare some beans and flour.

Growing up with two parents who only spoke O’odham, education was a priority. When Antone was old enough, she went to the day school for eight years and then went to high school in Laveen, attending St. John’s Catholic School until she was in the 11th grade. This was during World War II, and she remembers one tragic day when her parents arrived at her school to take her home; her brother had been killed in Iwo Jima.

Since Antone knew how to read and write English, her parents wanted her home to write to her other brothers who were still active in the military. They wanted her to translate their thoughts and feelings to them. Although Antone really wanted to continue her education, she said that during this time you just did not argue with your parents. She obliged and went home and took over her duties. Antone’s voice softened as she said, “Oh it was a sad, sad time after the war was over. So many of our young men were killed in action, and you could hear the cries of the families and mothers.”

On March 18, 1950, she married Myles Antone from Blackwater in Gila River.

They were married in the original St. Francis church in Salt River. Myles had served in the military and at first it was hard for him to find a job, but he would eventually land a job in the irrigation department for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Gila River. He decided he would also go back to school, so he learned the meat-cutting trade and worked as a butcher for 29 years. Antone spent her time tending to their family of five children: Janet Andrews, David Antone, William Antone, Cecilia “Tweety” Antone, and Theresa Antone.

Myles passed away in 2000, one month after their 50th wedding anniversary.

A Taste of Politics
Antone was always interested in the Community, in 1960 it was decided Census would be taken across the U.S. States, so several Community member took a test and she passed which allowed her to become a Census taker. Then she had the opportunity to help register people to vote. These two experiences were her first taste of politics, and marked the beginning of her career.

When registering Community members to vote, Antone recalled, many didn’t want to and didn’t know what it was about. “We tried to explain to them the importance of voting,” she said. After her group registered a few people to vote, they were approached to form a precinct and polling location where people from the Community could go vote. The lady who assisted Antone in this effort, Lula Smith from Fort McDowell, suggested they name it the Honda Precinct, which meant good place in Smiths language and today the precinct name remains the same.

One day in 1968, Antone said a man by the name of Robert F. Kennedy came to the Community asking for support. Antone said, “He wanted us to vote for him so he could become senator or congressman or something” (at the time Kennedy was campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president). “It was so sad.

[We were in a] big ol’ building, we called it the Community Building, and we sent word out and nobody came, just me and two or three others came. Nevertheless, he made his little speech, and I felt so bad.” After that, Antone more strongly encouraged people to register to vote and take action and vote.

In the late 1970s, Antone worked for the Community in land management, dealing with leases. She said she was an outspoken person and wouldn’t hesitate to speak to people. She said, “This one time there was all these men who wanted the tribe to fire me because I was too outspoken and a woman. They didn’t think I was doing a good job.” Antone was not going to let them get away with treating her like that, so she visited a lawyer in Scottsdale. The lawyer told her that she was in the right if she was doing her job well, and it was not fair. He would assist in writing each of the men letters saying that if they wanted to go through with Antone’s termination, he would see them in court. The men backed off, but Antone took it upon herself to find a new job. It didn’t take her long to find one. Fort McDowell Police Department was looking for a dispatcher, so she applied and was hired, but would leave that job too for bigger things.

Fighting for Community Rights
Antone worked at the day school as a clerk-typist. In 1979, not too long after former SRPMIC Vice-President Gerald Antone took office, he resigned, leaving the seat open. Some ladies of the Community encouraged Antone to run for that position. She recalled saying to the ladies that she didn’t have the experience, “But they encouraged me and said that all you need is common sense and a few other things. ‘Try it, and we’ll support you,’ they said.”

Antone knew she would have to talk it over with Myles and the rest of her family, because she knew that serving in public office her time wouldn’t belong to her anymore, it would belong to the people. Telling Myles was easy—when she asked him what he thought, he was on board and ready to support her. So Antone decided to try running for the open seat. She not only tried, but won, becoming vice-president by only three votes. In all she would serve as vice-president for 12 years (three terms). When President Gerald Antone resigned, she served as acting president from February to July 1990.

Antone recalled that when she first started it was hard because nobody told her what was expected of her, and for a while she said she was lost. She tells a funny story about this: When it was lunch time, she asked then-executive secretary Vivian Rhoades what time she could go to lunch. “[Rhoades] laughed at me and said, ‘It’s up to you, you can go anytime you want, you don’t have to answer to anybody.’ That was funny to me, because when you’re an employee you have to say, ‘I am going to lunch.’”

Once things got rolling, most of Antone’s time was spent in Washington because the Community was fighting for the water rights at the time and a lot of other issues.

Antone acknowledges that at times people wanted her out of office. It took a toll on her, but she said, “I just loved my job!”

Growing the Community
Antone loved working for her people and loved that she made a difference. Her accomplishments included many things that benefited the Community, like helping to start programs she started a daycare [center so the women of the Community had a place to leave their children] or getting a new fire truck for the Community.

Antone told the story about the fire truck. “One time there was a house that burned on Alma School Road, and (firefighter) Kervin Miles came into my office and was angry. He told me he wanted me to come and see what they have to work with, and that they can hardly deal with a house fire or anything else burning. So I drove over there, and I discovered there wasn’t enough water going through the hoses to put out the fire the hose they had was full of holes.

“When I got back to the office, I talked to Community Manager Frank Mertely. I said, ‘Frank, we have to turn loose some of the monies that are there. We have enough money to buy a truck, and I don’t want any ifs and buts, we are going to buy a truck.’ He said okay. We met with some of the firemen and [looked through] a catalog of fire trucks, and they chose one. That was the first time they got a new truck, and they were so glad.”

What is now the Huhugam Ki Museum was another pet project of Antone’s. She was responsible for the “Hoo-hoogam” spelling; she was really proud of that spelling and angry when the museum recently changed the spelling of the name, even coming into the museum and exchanging words with current Director Kelly Washington. “She (Antone) said she didn’t like the spelling and liked the way it was spelled (in the past),” Washington said.

“I always wanted a museum, because when I went to visit different Indian communities I wondered why we couldn’t have a museum like the other tribes,” Antone said. The Pimarium, which was located on McDowell Road, was incorporated on September 1973, but it only had one display and was not the magnitude of museum in Antone’s vision. “It took me three years to convince Council,” she said.

It was around this time that the Community built a new youth home and left their old building vacant and Antone thought it would a perfect museum.
Antone spoke with Jack Pfister, the general manager of Salt River Project, who donated $1,500 and loaned two of his museum workers. An acquaintance’s shop was going out of business so she went and bought anything relevant to the O’odham/Piipaash culture, such as pottery or baskets. “And that is how the museum got started,” Antone said.

Her middle daughter, Cecelia, remembered, “One day I got a call from my mom, and she said, ‘Meet me at my office tomorrow.’” She recalled being frightened, because she didn’t know what she did wrong. She showed up the next day and Antone told her she was going to be working at the museum, cooking in the kitchen alongside Jeri Carlos. Other women had applied but Cecelia was the successful candidate.

Doreen Duncan, who worked for the Huhugam Ki Museum from January 1987 to June 1997, said, “Alfretta was dedicated to preservation of the Pima and Maricopa culture. Even before the casinos when money was tight, she made sure preservation was key and was a big advocate for cultural preservation.”

Throughout her life, Antone opened the door to many opportunities, but she said she couldn’t have done it without her faith. She is a strong Catholic, and one day she was able to meet a man who made a huge impact on her heart.

Meeting The Pope
Pope John Paul II visited Phoenix in 1987. Before his visit, Antone received a call from a priest who was the director of a Catholic Conference that Myles and her always attended, wanted her to be part of the planning for the visit and to represent the Native American people across the United States. “I could barely get a word out, but I managed to say, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’”

The planning involved regular meetings in Phoenix for a time before his visit, and finally Pope John Paul II appeared at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

According to Antone, “It looked like there was no [security] people, but pretty soon we saw this limousine come and security people seemed like they appeared out of nowhere. They introduced me to him. I don’t know how I felt, it just felt like that he was such a good man. He had this aura of goodness like it was floating out of him. His eyes were real kind state blue. I don’t know if my mouth was open or what. Anyways, I finally managed to speak, and welcomed him. There was a whole line of dignitaries who also met him.”

She remembered being in a room that was filled with gifts for the Pope. “That room was filled with beautiful [handmade gifts]: beaded things, headdresses, shawls. They told me to stay in there until the program was to start. I sat in there and I enjoyed looking at the things. The room was as big as my kitchen, but it was full of stuff. [Everything was] beautifully wrapped, but they brought in these police dogs, I guess to see if anything was contraband. They just tore open the wrapping. Those men they didn’t care.”

About her experience meeting the Pope, she said, “Oh, it was something. I will never forget it, ’til this day I think about it. It really broke my heart when he passed away because I thought he was the kindest man I had ever met.”

Just like she admired the Pope, people in the Community admire Antone for her contributions that paved the way for a better future here. There is no doubt that Antone has lived a life full of memories, experiences and inspirational moments the Community.


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