Royce Manuel is a member of the Akimel O'odham tribe and lives in the Salt River Community with his wife, Debbie Nez Manuel and their children. He is well known and loved within the community as a family man, first responder, youth mentor, educator and artist.
To know Royce is to know compassion in human form. Throughout his life, Royce has dedicated his life to community service beginning in his teenage years as a lifeguard and peer counselor. He tells a story of a time when he was 19 years old leaving at the end of his lifeguard shift and saw a baby get hit by a car. Although he was trained in CPR, he didn’t know what to do to help the baby except to get the police who called an ambulance. The baby passed away later and Royce hated that he didn’t know what to do in that situation so he began to train in CPR and First Aid so he would know what to do if he found himself in a similar situation. His reaction to this traumatic situation tells so much about who he is, his compassion, and dedication to his community.
After learning CPR and First Aid, he eventually became an instructor for the Red Cross, the American Heart Association, and the National Safety Council. He did this for about 30 years. When he was about 20, he worked as a wildland firefighter and he did that for a few summers because it gave him an opportunity to be outdoors and he enjoyed it. After about 3 years of that, returned to lifeguarding. Royce decided it was time to get serious about a career and so he worked at a landfill for a while. Around that time, Royce attended a senior workshop where an elderly gentleman shared with him the stages of your life in seven year increments and what your roles and responsibilities are in each stage.
|0-7||Learn everything you can from your mom.|
|8-15||Learn from your aunts, uncles & grandparents and let them enjoy your company.|
|16-23||This stage may be rough but you have people to quide & lead you. You're becoming an adult and will have more responsibility.|
|34-31||You become an aunt or uncle|
|32-39||You have a lot of things to say but no one listens to you|
|40-47||You become more of a leader, people come to talk to you and you help make decisions|
|48 & up||You become an elder and no one can tell you what to do. Everyone comes to you for advice.|
Royce heard this message and took it to heart. He realized he was at the “uncle stage” and took it upon himself to start coaching t-ball, softball, and basketball. He also started working at a group home where he became the acting director and moved on from there to his career as a firefighter. As a firefighter, he was one of nine full-time paid firefighters that covered the same area that four stations would cover today by 120 firefighters. There was no official training, he had to learn through on the job training.
The first fire that Royce had to put out was after only a month and compares that experience to the movie Backdraft. During this time, entering fires alone was not restricted and Royce did so many times including a time where he pulled the blankets back only to find Cabbage Patch Dolls where he thought there were twins.
Being respected in the community, some people would call the station to see if he was working and would request him personally because of the care he gave to people. He considered everyone in his community a relative and treated everyone with the same compassion. He trained at all the fire academies including Phoenix and Tucson, did rope rescue, and became an expert in extrication. He shared that some people just wanted to wear the uniform but for him, he wanted to be the best. When he trained new recruits, he would tell them that when you are helping someone on their worst day, you better make sure it’s your best day on the job. For over 22 years, he served as a firefighter until he retired because of shoulder and knee injuries in 2009.
After retiring, Royce dedicated his time to cultural education and working with youth which led to him being recognized by the Heard Museum with the Spirit of the Heard award in 2013. All of the work that he did with youth in the community with his wife, Debbie Nez-Manuel, led to the start of Morning Star Leaders which is a local community initiative aimed at getting Native youth college-ready by providing community service experience through organized events, donation drives, and regular youth group meetings. The youth group would work on a backpack drive every year and Royce's favorite part was to deliver the bags that were filled with supplies. He loved seeing the look on the faces of the children when they looked in the backpacks.
Debbie lovingly shares that she loves to hear stories of how her husband made a difference in the lives of young people. When people stop by to visit them, they enjoy talking about things they did with him. A favorite memory is of a young man who stopped by to thank Royce for all that he had done for him. He recalled that Royce never gave up on them and was persistent in reminding them to tuck in their shirts, wear a belt, and change their shoes because they were representing their community. He showed them that there are opportunities out there for them, but it’s up to them to figure out how to take advantage of them.
When being out in the community, Royce loves to be recognized and hear things like “I still have the bow that you gave me!” It meant a lot to him that someone kept the bow and took care of it. The Heard Museum also recognized Royce with the 2013 Spirit of the Heard Award for his work with youth. He says that it meant a lot to him and was honored to accept the recognition because he had been working with youth for a long time.
As an artist, Royce makes carvings, makes bows and arrows, draws and enjoys making miniature art because of the intricacy. Royce is also known for reviving the art of making the traditional Akimel O'odham kiaha (burden basket), a process which took him 15 years to learn. He learned from his grandmother when he was about 13 that it was the men who made burden baskets. She taught him that when a man makes a burden basket, he puts a part of himself into it so when a woman wears it on her back, a part of him is protecting her. As his grandmother aged, it became difficult for her to start the baskets so Royce would start them for her and then she would complete them.
His research began by pulling an agave leaf from a neighbor’s plant to figure out how to process. Unfortunately, he found out that there is an irritant in the agave that he reacted to for 10 days so first he had to learn how to extract the irritant so that he could move forward with processing the plant. This is done by cooking the agave underground with hot coal above it and leaving it there for 3 days. After it’s removed, the irritant is gone and the leaves can be pounded to get the fibers. The heart of the agave can be eaten, it tastes similar to papaya.
In his research to learn how to harvest the fibers and weave the basket, Royce studied baskets from other tribes, different techniques of weaving and various books. He started practicing with a book about Pima & Papago basketry and knotless weaving, which is also known as lace coiling, and trying to follow along with some yarn or cotton string. He couldn’t figure it out at first but then he realized that it made more sense when he looked at the photo upside down. As he started learning the process, he started making smaller items until he was able to make full size baskets. To complete a full-size basket from start to finish takes from 7 months to a year.
Royce eventually completed full size baskets that have been displayed at museums. One of the baskets was entered into a contest at the Heard Museum and when a curator heard about it, he flew in from Santa Fe just to see it. With so much competition, Royce didn’t think that he stood a chance of winning but ended up getting first place. People have been amazed at the time, talent and techniques he uses to create these beautiful baskets.
In recent months, the community has showered Royce with the same kindness that he has given them over the years. People have traveled from all over to visit with him, bring gifts, say prayers, and reminisce. I’ve known him for many years and have admired the love he has for his culture and family. Royce has played so many roles in our community and is a superhero without a cape for many people and I know they are all as grateful as I am to have had conversations and learned from him. Let’s continue to pray for him and his family.