”All her long life Mary Riley has tried to help her people move into the future without losing their Apache heritage.”
— Joan Baeza, “God’s Country,” Arizona Highways (June 1984)
When asked her birth date, Mary Riley often laughingly replied that she had been “a Christmas gift.” Born at Fort Apache, Arizona, on December 24, 1908, Mary Riley truly was a gift – not only to her people, the White Mountain Apaches, but to all the people of her state and nation.
Mary Riley attributed her successes in life to the early training she received from Aadiihe, her maternal great-grandmother who was Apache, from her aggressive paternal grandmother, Juana Velasquez, and from her Mexican-born father, Jesus Valasquez. All of them stressed the value of hard work, and they knew that making a living on the reservation was not easy. Mary’s great-grandmother, Aadiihe, was used to spending days cutting wild hay, loading it on horses and hauling it to the cavalry post at Fort Apache, and gathering acorns and mesquite beans to supplement food for the winter. One of Mary’s strongest memories was of Aadiihe’s gathering the children around a campfire with a pan of parched corn for them to nibble on while she talked. “If you put your arms to work, everything you want is going to be at the tip of your fingers,” the grandmother would say. “You don’t have to take anything from anybody because you can do it yourself. Don’t be afraid, stand on your own two feet. You’re as good as the next person … Don’t be afraid, don’t give up. Just keep trying and you’ll get there.”
Grandmother Juana had come from Coahuila, Mexico, to the Apache reservation with her two children, Mary’s father and his sister. Juana was able to make her own way through her shrewd business sense, a trait Mary Riley inherited.
Working all day long was common on the large ranch Jesus Valasquez, Mary’s father, operated as she was growing up. Mary said that in addition to helping with the 61 milk cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, sheep, and goats, her father had her doing many different things. Even as a little girl, she was given the responsibility of handling money as she collected and recorded ranch receipts. Her father told her, “Maybe some day you will be on the tribal council, Mary. That’s why I’m going to teach you to take care of your family and your people, too. I know that you are not afraid of doing things for your people.”
Mary had to leave school when she was in the third grade because of the debilitating influenza epidemic of 1918. To escape the contagion, it was necessary for the Apaches to scatter their wickiups out from Fort Apache. Jesus Velasquez provided the essential milk and other food for the outlying areas, and it was necessary for Mary to go along with him to help with the deliveries. But Velasquez continued his daughter’s education by reading to her from newspapers and books. From him, Mary acquired her lifelong interest in keeping up with the world through the newspaper. She and her second husband, Peter Riley, encouraged all of their children and grandchildren to get a good education. Many of their descendents are college graduates. Getting an education was also the advice that Mary always gave the young people of her reservation, and she was active in obtaining the best school facilities possible.
In 1958, Mary became the first woman elected to the White Mountain Apache Tribal Council. For twenty years, she represented her district and her reservation. Whether at the tribal council in Whiteriver, at the state capitol in Phoenix, or in Washington, D. C., Mary always proved that her father had been right – she was not afraid to do things for her people.
Erect and dignified, dressed in her long, full Apache camp dress, Mary was an imposing figure, but she succeeded by simply being herself. The story is told that one time in Washington, D. C., the tribal delegation had been waiting a long while to see Hubert Humphrey, but he was continually surrounded by people. Not wishing to miss a vital opportunity to present the Apaches’ cause, Mary pushed her way through the crowd, saying, “Excuse me, please.” She linked arms with the statesman and his wife and guided them smoothly over to the Indian delegates for an important meeting which would benefit her people.
Mary Riley was a born leader with foresight to see what her Apache tribe would face in the future and to devise ways of coping with those problems. She worked hard with other members of the council to produce results – in education, health, housing, and resources management. Mary, more than any other individual, is given credit for bringing the Fort Apache Timber Company (FATCO) to the reservation. It is wholly owned and operated by the White Mountain Apache Tribe and carries an annual payroll of more than six million dollars. Mary was proud of the fact that creation of the timber company was not a government “handout,” but that the money had been borrowed and paid back before the due date.
Another successful economic venture for the tribe was development of a recreational enterprise which attracts thousands of vacationers to the White Mountains every year. The tribe oversees twenty-six lakes, more than 1000 campsites along 420 miles of stocked stream, a casino, and the Sunrise Ski Area.
Mary Riley was a religious woman whose personal philosophy enabled her to get along with all people. Mary said, “All human beings are the same to me … I was taught never to look down on people, to go on ahead and talk nice about people. I like people. We can get somewhere if we all stick together. That’s what I want.” It was Mary’s custom to pray under the huge pine tree in her front yard, praying “in the Indian way and in the Catholic way,” and never for herself, but “everybody in the whole world.”
White-haired in her old age and “beautiful with the wisdom of her people,” Mary Velasquez Riley was an inspiration to those who knew her. The extent of her influence is evident in a sentiment often heard since her death: “I feel fortunate to have known Mary Riley.”