Now Reading
Pride of the Yavapai
Dark Light

Pride of the Yavapai

In a project that brought state-of-the-art watershape technology together with a design that drew its aesthetic cues from the Sonoran Desert and the cultural heritage of the Yavapai Nation, the staff at Shasta Pools of Phoenix, Ariz., found themselves caught up in the trend toward greater creativity and intricacy in aquatic designs. Here, Bill Gullekson and Chris Doyle discuss how a complex set of relationships led to artfully spectacular results.

In a project that brought state-of-the-art watershape technology together with a design that drew its aesthetic cues from the Sonoran Desert and the cultural heritage of the Yavapai Nation, the staff at Shasta Pools of Phoenix, Ariz., found themselves caught up in the trend toward greater creativity and intricacy in aquatic designs. Here, Bill Gullekson and Chris Doyle discuss how a complex set of relationships led to artfully spectacular results.

The area surrounding Phoenix is graced by the presence of numerous Native American tribes and nations. In fact, Maricopa County hosts one of the largest concentrations of such communities in the United States.

As Phoenix and its suburbs have sprawled in recent years, several communities have had to forge constructive relationships with these sovereign nations to make continued growth possible. At first, there was often tension and conflict, but now relative tranquility and cooperation flourish to the point where it’s a cultural environment that defines the character and charm of

many communities in the region – on both sides of the tribal borders.

A case in point is the relationship between the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and the city of Fountain Hills, Ariz. – situated next to one another about 23 miles northeast of Phoenix. Theirs may be said to be a model of cooperation between civic and tribal governments: Through the years, the two entities have managed to forge a remarkable synergy that has boosted the local economy while respecting the cultural and national sovereignty of the Yavapai.


The 400-square mile reservation is home to some 600 tribal members and is just part of the ancestral territory of the formerly nomadic Yavapai people, who hunted and gathered food in Arizona’s desert lowlands and mountainous Mogollon Rim country.

Not long ago, the Yavapai became one of the first Native American communities to embrace gaming, a phenomenon that has since resulted in an explosion of wealth on Native American soil across the country. One of the centerpieces of the Yavapai’s remarkable affluence is the newly refurbished Fort McDowell Casino & Resort, which is where we at Shasta Pools, a Phoenix-based watershaping firm, entered the picture.


The outdoor recreational space is bisected by a feature called The Walk of Life, a ‘dry riverbed’ that flows symbolically for 450 feet through a landscape filled with water, Yavapai decorative motifs, grassy areas and desert plants and gives visitors a relaxing break from the action inside the casino.

Located on tribal lands, the resort includes a beautiful, 250-room Radisson hotel and big casino that were re-dedicated after extensive renovations on November 30, 2005. The site also boasts a PGA championship golf course and a variety of other outdoor attractions nestled in the stunning Sonoran Desert landscape.

The arid surroundings are contrasted by the comparatively lush vegetation along the shores of the nearby Verde River, which flows north to south through the reservation. East of Fort McDowell by about 30 miles, the Four Peaks rise from the desert floor to elevations of more than 7,000 feet.

It’s a beautiful and unique setting – one that called for an appropriate set of watershapes and landscape treatments. It would fall to our firm to develop and install a set of beautifully designed systems and play a role in expressing the rich cultural history that continues to unfold and define this region of the southwest.


The walkways and decks and even the splashpad all feature asymmetrical patterns borrowed from Yavapai pottery, and every single color we developed and used had to pass review by the tribal council for consistency with their traditions.

We were sent a request for proposal by the general contractor, W.E. O’Neil, based on conceptual plans devised by Viet Dam of the well-known Phoenix landscape-architecture firm, Leo A. Daly. The plans called for two large, free-form swimming pools and spas, a grand architectural waterfall feature, a splash pad, a fire pit, an elaborate water/fire system at the entrance to the hotel and an interesting set of hardscape treatments including a winding pathway dubbed the “Walk of Life.”

From the start, the project ran through our Semi-Commercial Pool Division, a group within our large company that focuses entirely on the construction of pools that are not open to the general public but are still built to commercial standards mandated by local health departments.


In recent years, we at Shasta Pools have seen a dramatic increase in the number of truly creative watershape environments in both commercial and residential environments. The project we’re describing here is certainly right in line with that trend and bears ready witness to increased complexity as well as the desire on the parts of owners and designers to integrate every element of entire settings into consistent, coherent packages.

For us, the opportunity to work with O’Neil’s terrific staff, with the talented professionals at Daly’s firm and with the Yavapai Tribal Council was intriguing and, ultimately, quite rewarding. From start to finish, the project unfolded with high levels of cooperation and precision.

Performance Based

The artistry of the aesthetic design discussed in the accompanying text is backed up by watershape systems designed to provide high water quality and reliable performance.

The pools, for example, are designed to exceed the required six-hour turnover and feature pumps and a bank of gas heaters from Hayward Pool Products (Elizabeth, N.J.), sand filters from Pentair Water Pool & Spa (Sanford, N.C.), and a chemical-treatment system featuring ORP and pH controllers from USFilter Stranco Products (Bradley, Ill.) that feeds acid and liquid chlorine via a set of peristaltic chemical pumps from G.H. Stenner & Co. (Jacksonville, Fla.).

The plumbing is large, ranging from three to six inches, and is configured in a loop to ensure even distribution of water and overall hydraulic efficiency. Our firm is unique in that Shasta Pools has its own in-house manufacturing firm, A&A Manufacturing (Phoenix, Ariz.). The entire plumbing system, including skimmers, valves, main drains, return fittings and water levelers, were all developed and manufactured by A&A, which also provided a series of customized valves, fittings and wireless switches for use in the splash pads and the waterfall feature.

The health department required the interior finish of the pools to be white plaster, but we achieved more individuality with the waterline tile, which features an earth-tone pattern based in the Yavapai design tradition.

— B.G. & C.D.

Particularly exciting (and challenging) was the mandate for cultural authenticity embodied in the design. As is true of Native American peoples, the Yavapai are enormously proud of their heritage and intensely interested in celebrating and honoring their roots. Accordingly, the entire resort, inside and out, highlights themes and design elements that reinforce the tribe’s cultural uniqueness.

The hardscape, for example, includes a variety of symbols and icons that are directly rooted in Yavapai rituals and beliefs. On a broader scale, the use of earth tones, natural stone and native plant materials all work together in creating spaces that blend seamlessly with the vast desert beyond.

One of the recurring themes in Yavapai arts and crafts is an asymmetrical geometric pattern found in their basketry, an art form for the Yavapai are widely known. The windows of the hotel are all offset to reflect this traditional pattern, and the same woven motif is picked up in much of the hardscape, including the pool decking and in the striking details of the Walk of Life area, the waterfall and the water/fire feature.

As we worked with the conceptual plans and fleshed out a number of details, all of the key aesthetic decisions had to be submitted to and approved by the tribal council – a fascinating process that gave us the pleasure of working with a number of tribal officials including Rafael Bear, council president and current leader of the Yavapai Nation.


As is true of most conceptual designs, the plans we received required a great deal of work in creating a good set of construction drawings. Our team spent hundreds of hours in developing drawings for everything from the the plumbing and electrical systems to specific architectural details and equipment sets.

The asymmetry running through the designs brought interesting challenges to us as pool builders: The free-form swimming pools, for instance, feature a series of irregular radii that robbed us of the usual contours and points of reference and ultimately required intricate dimensioning of the gunite shells.

We also had to design a custom detail in which the two pools appear to be the same body of water but are, in fact, separated from one another by decking beneath a large wooden bridge that crosses over the “junction” between the two vessels.


Many of the configurations and contours we worked with followed the traditional Yavapai asymmetry, including the unconventional sweep of the pool’s perimeters and the fact that the four waterfall towers at water’s edge are all different heights with varying dimensions at their bases.

Asymmetry was also an issue with the waterfall feature we installed on the edge of the smaller of the two pools. It’s a stone-covered architectural feature consisting of four tapered spires at heights ranging between eight and 12 feet with varying dimensions at the base. Although it’s a single feature, each tower required a separate design as a result.

The pool complex also includes more than 12,000 square feet of decking. This was topped by our company’s Shasta Deck finish, which we customized to include a variety of authentic patterns in five interwoven colors – each of which had to be approved by the tribal council. The same review-and-approval process applied to application of the rubberized surface used with the interactive splash pads. Even these utilitarian surfaces are emblazoned with elaborate Yavapai symbols.

Of all the features and details we worked on, however, perhaps the most unusual and spectacular in the entire program is the water/fire feature we installed at the hotel’s entrance. Here in particular, it was all about the historic culture of the Yavapai meeting the modernity of contemporary watershaping.


This feature is really something special: The water portion of the design consists of a circular, vanishing-edge pool measuring some 30 feet across surmounted by an upper pool of the same description, but just 25 feet across.


The fire-on-water feature we developed for the hotel’s entrance is the culmination of the design program, with the fire basket’s surface prominently featuring the Yavapai’s asymmetrical weaving patterns over two tiers of flowing water. At night, subtle turns to spectacular with the fire becoming a beacon that can be seen for miles.

Faced in ledger stone of a sort found throughout the entire design (including the aforementioned waterfall feature), the pools’ water flows gently over the edges to create a mesmerizing aural experience along with dancing reflections of the incendiary element.

Mounted atop the tiered pools is a 12-foot-diameter copper basket that glows at night with an intimidating gas-fired inferno. The basket itself is a work of art, again featuring the Yavapai’s asymmetrical basket-weave design. The enormous burner system is fed by a four-inch gas line and generates a flame that can, at night, be seen from miles away.

From Conflict to Cooperation

The Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation was created by Executive Order on September 15, 1903, with the name derived from the once-remote outpost that served as a center for trade between local Native Americans and white settlers.

Today the nation and its surrounding communities exist in economic and cultural harmony, but that was not always the case: As is true for many native peoples in the American west, the Yavapai had to fight for their land and their cultural identity – struggles that extended well into the 20th Century.

In the early 1970s, for example, construction of the Orme Dam was proposed at the confluence of the Verde and Salt rivers a short distance from the reservation’s southern border. Had the project proceeded as proposed, the reservation would have been flooded and its people displaced from what was left of their ancestral homeland.

With scant financial resources, the community spearheaded an opposition movement that rallied other local tribes and non-native groups. On November 12, 1981, after consulting with the Yavapai Tribal Council and the Arizona Governor’s Advisory Committee, then-Interior Secretary James Watt announced the cancellation of the Orme Dam project. To this day, a tribal fair and rodeo are held to commemorate the event.

The Yavapai squared off against the federal government again in 1992, when a dispute over gaming laws prompted the U.S. Justice Department to send in federal agents to shut down the Yavapai’s casino and four others in the area. Agents blockaded the casinos in a three-week stand-off that occasionally erupted into violence.

The state government moved quickly, ratifying a gaming pact with the Native American Nations and ushering in the state’s era of “Indian gaming.” The now flourishing relationship between the Yavapai and surrounding communities – not to mention a thriving resort – are living testament to the tremendous progress that’s been in made in a relatively short period of time.

— B.G. & C.D.

Fountain lights supplied by Crystal Fountains (Toronto, Canada) were arrayed inside the pools to light the walls and basket from below. The structure is serene and sculptural by day, but at night, when it erupts as a column of flame, it creates a dynamic focal point that suggests a great gathering is taking place just inside the casino doors.

By way of stark contrast, the Walk of Life pathway is a study in subtlety. Winding on for 450 feet, the path represents a dry riverbed – a common feature of the Sonoran Desert landscape. It’s finished with an imported Italian tile that contains flat, smooth river rocks, and the surrounding landscape is filled with traditional artistic details, grassy areas, rolling desert landscaping and numerous benches designed to give visitors a means of escaping the casino and taking in the desert’s natural beauty.

As was mentioned at the outset, watershaping projects in our area are getting more ambitious – and more adventurous – with each passing day. From our perspective as designers, engineers and builders, it’s a great time to be in this business, and projects such as this one are rewarding on more than financial terms.

Indeed, our work with the Yavapai has reinforced our awareness of local history and culture while giving all of us the opportunity to create works of art. We’ve certainly installed systems of equal or greater technical complexity, but given the intangible resonances of the design and the uniqueness of the setting, we consider ourselves fortunate indeed to have participated in this rare and unique project.

Bill Gullekson is director of sales and design director for the semi-commercial and custom-pool divisions at Shasta Pools and Spas in Phoenix, Ariz. – and also serves as the company’s media spokesperson. He began his career in the pool and spa industry with Shasta in 1980 and has since designed more than 1,800 pools, including a range of award-winning designs and highly complex custom projects for a variety of high-end residential and commercial clients. Chris Doyle is project manager for Shasta Pools. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., he started in the pool business there in 1980 and worked his way up the construction ladder, ultimately building high-end residential pools and spas in the area and becoming a member of the Master Pools Guild. He later moved to Florida, where he was a project manager for a commercial pool company that built resort pools and spas, fountains, waterparks and high-rise pools. He now manages projects for Shasta’s semi-commercial pools division.

© 2021 WaterShapes. All Rights Reserved. Designed Powered By GrossiWeb

Scroll To Top