Imagine having a Native American healing based on traditions so secret and private that a panel of tribal elders had to approve the course of treatment ahead of time. That’s the lure of the Aji Spa at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass, the only luxury resort in the U.S. located on an Indian reservation and designed by the tribe to showcase native arts, history and traditions.
Located on the Gila River Indian Community just 15 miles southeast of Phoenix, Arizona, the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass is deeply infused with the history of the Pima and Maricopa tribes who’ve long occupied this land and who created and run the resort. It’s a fasinating hybrid: A luxury hotel branded with the signature Sheraton service and attention to detail, yet run and managed by native people whose pride envelops you throughout every aspect of your stay.
The Pima and Maricopa were agricultural tribes that once farmed a verdant valley on the shores of the Gila River – until upstream ranchers dammed the river and diverted the water. After that bitter poverty descended, and the resort is a chance for the tribe – which won its water rights back after a decades-long lawsuit — to return dignity and economic stability to its children. (To represent the importance of this long-gone river, the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass is surrounded by a man-made replica, banked by willows and providing a home to ducks, birds and geese.)
My healing by Pima medicine woman Belen Stoneman starts with a simple conversation. Instead of lying on a massage table, we sit across from each other as she asks me about my life, focusing particularly on sources of stress, turning points, and life passages. Her manner is easy, but I sense a deep wisdom and connection, and find myself telling her about experiences that even my closest friends haven’t heard about thanks to my usual reticence.
The treatment, a two-hour combination of gentle massage, polarity therapy, and mysterious rituals (unseen by me since my eyes are covered by an herbal pillow) goes by remarkably fast. With sage smoke swirling around me and tribal chanting in the background, Belen works to ease tension and pockets of “black energy” from my body. The effect is remarkable; I feel a literal lightening, as if sorrow and worry are lifting out of my chest and floating away.
The guilt, anxiety, and sense of overwhelm that have assailed me during recent years as I’ve coped with the aftermath of a bitter divorce, the deaths of both my parents, and the vulnerabilities of raising teenagers, feel like layers of heavy blankets peeling away.
Afterwards it’s as if there are pockets of air where the sorrow and worry used to be, and my chronic back pain is gone. I can’t stop smiling. I arrived with a definite dose of skepticisim, since as a wellness writer I’ve experienced many groovy-sounding indigenous treatments that didn’t do anything more for me than a good strong massage. But the skepticism evaporated along with the other emotions that Belen banished. Not usually a purchaser of products, I leave with a candle and lotion from Aji’s Indigenous brand, with the hope that their presence will help me transfer a little of this newfound ease to my life back home.