A Tribe on the Threshold

Haunted by drugs, alcohol and unemployment, the Hualapai Indians look for a savior in uranium

But more significant for the future of the tribe than the state-of-the-art technology is the school's language program. Until Watahomigie and Reed arrived at the school in the mid-1970s, it seemed likely that the Hualapai language would have been lost to all but scholars in a generation or two. That would have been a devastating blow to tribal identity; language is how a people preserves its sense of self, even as it adopts some of its conquerors' ways. Without a language to call its own, a tribe is hardly a tribe anymore.

The Hualapai language was falling into disuse because of a century-long government policy of assimilation that held sway until a generation ago. Until native tongues were granted official legitimacy as a result of Indian activism in the early Seventies, most Hualapai--and members of other tribes as well--were sent to Indian boarding schools and forbidden from speaking their own language.

"They used to take the paddle to us for speaking Hualapai," recalls Peach Springs school board president Grant Tapija, a high school dropout and father of eight who works for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. "I think about that now. `Why did they do that to us?'" Now, he says, "We're coming back with all these computers, and with our language, all these things."

Eight of the school's sixteen certified teachers are Hualapai, and Watahomigie says almost two thirds of the students now are able to speak fluent Hualapai. (All of them speak English.) And, backed by federal funding, the school has published a series of bilingual books and pamphlets that shows aspects of Hualapai life. One is called Nya Hwalbay Yivch Yu--"I Am a Hualapai"--which includes numerous photos and a text in Hualapai and English. The self-published Hualapai books are part of the Peach Springs School's curriculum.

Principal Lucille Watahomigie has been one of the guiding forces behind these changes. The oldest of ten children, Watahomigie was raised in nearby Milkweed Canyon--"in the center of the middle of nowhere," she says with a laugh. Her ambition took her to Tucson where she earned her master's degree in education from the University of Arizona; her concern for her people brought her back to Peach Springs in 1975, where she lives with her husband, Philbert, who teaches seventh grade at the school, and their four children.

A year after Watahomigie arrived, the school hired Reed--a white northern Arizona native who lives in Kingman. The school then was ramshackle and outmoded, but the pair soon tapped into state and federal grant monies and turned things around.

While Indians have the highest dropout rate of any ethnic group--only two out of three complete high school, according to the U.S. Department of Education--three out of four students who have attended the Peach Springs School graduate from high school. (After the Hualapai children finish eighth grade, they have the choice of attending Kingman or Seligman High Schools. Many once attended Phoenix Indian School, but it's scheduled to close in May 1990.) Almost half of those onetime Peach Springs students who finish high school continue their educations--in college, Job Corps or vocational school. The school can't provide statistics on how many of those students complete those curricula. "We're saving a language," Watahomigie says, "and we're trying to educate our kids so they'll at least have a chance. That should be worth any amount."

What Watahomigie and superintendent Reed can't guarantee, however, is work in Peach Springs after their students complete their schooling.

"Something has to happen in this town to get people work," Reed says. "If you want to work, you basically go somewhere else. Our job is to try to attack these kids with education before the cycle starts. I mean, the booze cycle, drugs, the whole thing. That's our job."

One of the lures of the uranium mining project is the opportunity it may provide to find work at home. The Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates that about 90 percent of the Hualapai live on the reservation, most of them in Peach Springs.

As Watahomigie says, "The ideal for us is to get an education, get experience, then come home. Home is always going to be here--the land, the culture, the tribe."

What returning Hualapai find waiting for them, however, is often the kind of life exemplified by Charmaine Cordova, whose eight- and six-year-olds attend the Peach Springs School.

A Phoenix Indian School dropout now in her mid-twenties, Charmaine spends her days huddled next to a wood stove in a government-built tract house. Although the look-alike structures--dubbed "gingerbread houses" by one local--that federal authorities have built in Peach Springs over the past two decades are equipped with electric heat, most Hualapai have installed wood stoves because electricity is too expensive and inefficient.

Charmaine's husband, Frank, is an unemployed Hispanic from Phoenix who has a problem with liquor and drugs--mostly booze, he says, because it's cheaper. The couple scrapes by on poverty-level welfare payments, and on the money Frank occasionally makes by cutting up firewood on the reservation.

Charmaine takes care of her two-year-old son, Aling, during the day. While neat enough on the outside, the house inside is a litter of dirty diapers, dirty dishes and dirty clothes. Charmaine picks up a handful of cold mush off a filthy living-room floor. She dumps the mush into a small bowl and hands it to her dirty-faced tot, who stuffs some in his mouth.

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