Pot of Gold

Arizona's tribes use casino revenue to provide scholarships for every college-bound Indian. Where are the graduates?

Clinton Pattea, president of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, tells with reverence the legendary story of Wassaja, the greatest of the tribe.

Wassaja was a young boy, no more than 7, when he survived a bloody battle near the Superstition Mountains between his own tribe and the Pima Indians. Captured by the Pimas, the boy was sold to a white photographer, who christened him Carlos Montezuma and took him from his homeland. Montezuma was educated in the East and eventually completed medical school in Chicago. A practicing physician, he earned a national reputation as an outspoken advocate for Indian rights. He campaigned for the abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, urging tribes to become self-sufficient. The only way to do this, he said, was to venture outside the "bondage" of the reservation and become educated.

"This has never failed to improve any nation," he once wrote. "The Indians of today can never prosper or grow great, if they are hid away from the outer world and its sunshine of enlightenment."

Clinton Pattea, president of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, hopes to boost grim high school graduation rates in his own community and motivate teenagers to attend college.
Leah Fasten
Clinton Pattea, president of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, hopes to boost grim high school graduation rates in his own community and motivate teenagers to attend college.

After a prominent career as a doctor, human rights spokesman and author, Montezuma returned to Arizona, helping his tribe fight for its land and water rights on the reservation northeast of Phoenix. Suffering from diabetes and tuberculosis, he died among his own people. In the middle of the tribal cemetery, a short distance from the road and medical center named in his honor, Wassaja is buried.Fort McDowell Indians are proud of Wassaja, whose name means "signal" or "beckon" in Yavapai. Not only does his name grace their properties, his story is taught to their children in school. A coloring book aimed at preserving the Yavapai language and culture contains only one individual name in its recounting of tribal history: Carlos Montezuma. And it suggests children heed his words: "You, too, can become what you will yourself and work to be."

But there is a gnawing irony to Wassaja's tale.

It's been more than 100 years since Montezuma graduated from medical school at Northwestern University -- an accomplishment made possible only when he was taken far from his homeland and raised by Anglos.

Despite a century of progress and nearly 10 years of full scholarship opportunities provided by lucrative gaming revenues, no Fort McDowell Yavapai has matched Wassaja's educational achievement. This saddens and frustrates the tribe's leader, himself a graduate of Northern Arizona University.

"We haven't produced another Dr. Carlos Montezuma," Pattea says. "Since that time, we haven't had another person with that type of accomplishment."

Arizona Indian tribes, which began signing compacts with state officials in 1993 giving them the right to operate casinos on their land, have discovered the proverbial pot of gold: the white man's love of gambling.

Funds from the casinos have financed a revolutionary attempt to educate young and old and send them off to college. But with unprecedented possibilities, plenty of new jobs, and limitless funding as well as good intentions, tribal leaders have found no easy answers. Challenge looms larger than immediate success.

Fifteen of the state's 21 Indian tribes are involved in gaming, generating hundreds of millions of dollars a year that are providing hope and opportunities for them. The new revenues are creating jobs for Indians, improving conditions on the reservation, and funding new businesses to generate income for the future.

With unimagined wealth accumulating, the tribes have made education an immediate priority.

The tribes want to pave the way for a brighter future by improving reservation schools and sending their members to college, turning them into lawyers, judges, executives and leaders.

Because about 40 percent of Indians are under 20 years old, tribal officials say it is particularly important that the current generation becomes educated -- both to lead the tribes into the future and preserve the native languages and culture that, in some cases, are in danger of being lost.

"Everyone has to pitch in or the culture will die, the tribe will die," says Amy Torres, who heads the Fort McDowell Indian Community's education department.

Gilbert Innis, tribal education director of the Gila River reservation just south of the Valley, says his people lack an identity. He was one of many who were sent to BIA schools that specifically aimed to strip the students of their Indian ways (students were beaten for lapsing into their native language). As a result of that kind of cultural purging as well as little educational opportunity, he says, Gila River Indians have no body of literature -- poetry, fiction, nonfiction works -- to define their own culture. He said Anglos may not be able to fully understand what a void this creates. But he says the tribe is pinning its hopes on legions of its young members becoming educated (courtesy of gaming money) and being able to chronicle the history and character of its people.

Innis says that tribe's recent wealth has provided enough money to guarantee scholarships for every student who wants to go to a university, community college or vocational school.

But first, tribal members need to clear some tough hurdles.

After generations of poverty, isolation and unemployment, community members are not academically prepared or emotionally ready to enter the off-reservation halls of higher learning. In the past, the idea of finishing high school and going to college was hardly considered, Innis says, because there were few jobs.

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