It Takes a Tribe

A tiny Indian community struggles to educate its young

The audience stands out of respect as the first notes of "Pomp and Circumstance" are played on a piano.

As the graduates walk down the center aisle in brilliant red caps and gowns, they smile and seek out faces in the crowd. Parents and grandparents with cameras, sisters and brothers and cousins fill the room. Clutched in their hands are congratulatory balloons, fresh roses, stuffed bears wearing graduation caps.

The nation's president stands at the microphone.

Arianna Dorchester, 5, a graduate of the Fort McDowell kindergarten class, is the pride of her mother, Jessica.
Erik Guzowski
Arianna Dorchester, 5, a graduate of the Fort McDowell kindergarten class, is the pride of her mother, Jessica.
Arianna in her cap and gown.
Erik Guzowski
Arianna in her cap and gown.

"You are the youth of today, the leaders of tomorrow," he says. "This is a very proud moment."

Indeed it is.

Even if the graduates are only kindergartners.

Two classes — 19 boys and girls who sit patiently onstage at the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation's recreation center — represent a radically new future for the tribe.

After more than a century of grueling hardship, 900 Fort McDowell Yavapais — a fraction of the thousands of ancestors who once roamed a wide area of Arizona — remain. Only 700 live on the reservation. And most of them have a dim grasp of their cultural identity.

But what this tribe lacks in numbers and cultural strength, it makes up in guts.

Parents and grandparents of these kindergarten graduates defied government sharpshooters, FBI agents, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and the governor of Arizona in 1992 to protect their casino franchise in a battle to guarantee a future free of the extreme poverty that had been their legacy.

Today, gambling revenue and the Yavapai kindergartners are part of a bigger fight to educate Indians who have traditionally had nearly 100 percent dropout rates by the end of high school. The kids are also part of a revolutionary experiment in creating a modern history for a tribe that, in critical ways, does not remember clearly its own identity.

This remarkable effort began after their elders' struggle with armed lawmen.

Leticia Osife, a tribal member and grandmother who was in the graduation audience in May, was one of the first Indians to arrive on the scene of the historic standoff at the casino 10 years ago.

A friend called her early the morning of May 12, 1992, and said the government was seizing hundreds of video gaming slot machines from the casino.

The two hurried down there and confronted armed federal agents.

On orders of then-U.S. Attorney for Arizona Linda Akers, the agents had staged a predawn raid to prove a point — that such gambling was not legal in the absence of compacts with the state government.

Osife's friend got in the face of the first FBI agent she saw.

"You are not taking our machines. They are ours. And this is our land," she said.

The agent didn't respond.

While authorities cleaned out the casino's equipment, Osife called her brother, Gilbert Jones, then a tribal council member.

"He told me to phone [the tribe's] sand and gravel [operation] and have them send some trucks and bulldozers over. . . . Never in my wildest dreams did I think I was being a part of history."

The heavy equipment, and, later, tribal members' own vehicles, formed a blockade in the road leading out of the reservation so agents couldn't drive off with trucks full of video slot machines.

Osife says she saw a government sniper on the roof of the casino.

"I was frightened," she says. "I thought, Is it ever going to end?'"

After then-governor Fife Symington rushed by helicopter to the casino parking lot, he and tribal president Clinton Pattea agreed to a 10-day "cooling off" period in which the video machines would stay put. In the negotiations and court proceedings that followed, the Fort McDowell Indians emerged the victors.

On that May morning a decade ago, the feisty group of Yavapais — one of five Arizona tribes raided that day — was the only one to put up a fight.

The tense standoff in the desert became a dramatic, visible symbol of a larger dispute — not only over gaming rights, but Indian sovereignty. It made front-page news across the country and warranted network TV coverage.

Beyond Arizona, the legal and symbolic victory at Fort McDowell boosted other Indian efforts to offer or expand casino gaming.

Today, the industry provides more than $10 billion in annual revenue for hundreds of Indian tribes across the United States.

And the long-suffering Fort McDowell community, a small tribe on a rectangular patch of land northeast of Phoenix, is now a rich nation.

This year's graduates of the 'Hman 'shawa kindergarten are living in conditions their grandparents never imagined.

While their relatives grew up in ramshackle houses with no phones, indoor plumbing or electricity, these boys and girls have grown up in spacious, modern houses.

They are accustomed to traveling in brand-new cars, while their relatives remember childhoods with virtually no transportation.

They have started their education in an amazing tribal school where classes are small, teachers are happy and supplies are plentiful. Some of their relatives were sent away to boarding schools, some never to see their families again. Others spent more than six hours each school day bouncing over dirt roads on a bus that would take them to and from the nearest public school in Mesa.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets