More than 17 years ago, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Council Member Ruth Chough expressed concern for a family that was in the process of saying goodbye to a loved one during a wake, and it was rained out. Because another event was going on at the Community Building at the same time, the family had nowhere else to continue the service. This sad circumstance made Chough realize that the Community needed to have a dedicated space for memorials, wakes and funeral services, regardless of a family’s religious faith or denomination.
“[After] taking the oath of office, I felt that it was my responsibility to look out for our Community members, and I saw a need for a place to have memorial services,” said Chough. “I talked to other Council members about my concerns; they suggested that I bring [it up at the meeting], and they decided it was something worth looking into. That’s how it all begin.”
After Chough’s term ended in 1994, she continued to support the development of a dedicated memorial space. In 1995, Chough was appointed by Council to chair a committee of Community members and employees to develop a Memorial Hall (see sidebar).
A True Community Effort
“It was a great responsibility, but who better to help than the elders of the Community? That’s when I began to pick out all the special people that I thought would work together and apply their skills to create a facility that would accommodate all the Community members,” said Chough. Each committee member had something special they contributed to the Memorial Hall.
“Everyone had their key piece of making it all one,” said Memorial Hall Manager Deborah Antone about how the committee’s input brought the facility together. “Everyone contributed in their own way to create the Memorial Hall we have now.”
Frances Kisto and Lamberta Martinez served as the historians; they were the primary culture-keepers who carried the knowledge of the Community. Delbert Jackson had the knowledge of the reburials and was the one who suggested having the reburial storage building in the back.
Daisy Baptisto believed that children weren’t supposed to attend wakes, but since they did anyway, she pushed for an on-site nursery. Lester Manuel wanted the Community veterans to be recognized, so there is a veterans corner inside the main entrance.
Hollis Chough helped incorporate the Piipaash by adding the pillars and skylight in the front, which signify the spirit of the deceased rising up to the sky.
Ned Andrews wanted sound to be carried throughout the building so that people could still hear and enjoy what was going on in the sanctuary; that’s why surround sound is incorporated throughout the building. Ron Chiago, Chris Perkins and Roger Owers from SRPMIC Engineering and Construction Services provided great assistance in the areas of engineering and finding the land for the building.
Designing and Building the Hall
The committee gained a lot of support from Council and Community departments as it moved forward on the Memorial Hall. Committee members always followed the primary goal of having a space that would accommodate and help comfort people during their time of loss and grief.
After obtaining funding for the conceptual design, the committee searched for architecture and engineering companies to build the Memorial Hall.
“We sent out our proposal to five different companies,” said Chough. “We decided to go with a Tempe company, Blossom Design Group. They were approved for the pre-architectural programming and 20 percent schematic designs of the facility.
“When we came to the part where we decided what kind of building we wanted, we decided to go with a sandwich (adobe-style) house, [at least] that’s what we thought. But [the engineers] told us we couldn’t do that because we could get termites,” said Chough. “Finally, [the idea of] earth cast [came up].”
“We went to Tucson and a few other places to see what this type of building material was made of,” explained Kisto.
In 1996, the committee took their proposal for the Memorial Hall to the land board meetings and conducted public hearings of their own. They received a great deal of input from other Community members, who contributed suggestions such as paving the road to the building and the parking lot.
From 1996 to 1999, the project continued to obtain the required approvals in the Zoning Ordinance, General Development Plan, Development and Design Standards and Archaeological Assessment.
In December 2001, the construction contract with Au’ Authum Ki, Inc., owned by Community member Margaret Rodriguez, was signed and the OK was given to proceed. Construction began in January 2002, and after 10 months, the Memorial Hall was complete.
The 10,000-square-foot building is located on five acres. It is the largest earth-cast-wall structure in the United States; the 24-inch-thick cast was made with soil taken from land on the Community. Inside, there is a kitchen, dining hall, memorial chapel, office space, family room, nursery and restrooms.
The committee members never imagined the building would turn out as large as it did.
“It just got bigger and bigger. We thought we were just going to have a little [Memorial Hall], but it turned out big,” said Kisto.
A Gathering Place in Time of Need
Since its construction, not only has the Memorial Hall hosted services for families after the loss of a loved one, but it has also been recognized for its construction and features. The hall has had a number of visits from different tribal, state and national leaders as well as developers, contractors and engineers to examine the design of the building, explained Antone.
“I encourage people to use this place a lot. When someone passes, my family always talks about [using] the Lehi Community Building. I tell them that this is the purpose [of Memorial Hall], it has everything, and we didn’t help build it just to have it sit there. They eventually agree to use it to free up the other buildings,” said Terri Gonzalez.
“I think the committee did a good job. Thinking of this building and its purpose, I think with all the deaths that we had I know a lot of people got a lot of use out of the building. I know I did when my husband passed away. It was a good help.”