It Takes a Tribe

A tiny Indian community struggles to educate its young

Unemployment rates, before gambling, climbed to 60 percent.

Just 25 years ago, annual per capita income was $1,560 on the reservation, a third of the rate for the state of Arizona at that time. Half of the 53 homes on the reservation then were classified as dilapidated. Eight more were in disrepair.

As recently as 10 years ago, a visitor to a Fort McDowell home traveled a dirt road to find a small 30-year-old wooden structure one of its occupants frankly called a shack. Water came from an outdoor spigot. A haphazard arrangement of chairs under an outdoor tree served as a gathering area. Indoors, 14 people shared three rooms.

Finishing preschool and kindergarten are accomplishments to be celebrated, as evidenced by these symbols hanging from the mirror of a truck on the reservation.
Finishing preschool and kindergarten are accomplishments to be celebrated, as evidenced by these symbols hanging from the mirror of a truck on the reservation.
Clinton Pattea, tribal president, believes education is the key to the survival of the Fort McDowell Yavapais.
Erik Guzowski
Clinton Pattea, tribal president, believes education is the key to the survival of the Fort McDowell Yavapais.

For decades, the community had no recreation hall, no library, no place to vote, no health facility, no school. And the tribal government — which operated on a $30,000 annual budget before it got involved in gaming — was virtually powerless to make improvements.

In annual surveys by the Arizona Commission on Indian Affairs, tribal leaders filled in typed responses to questions asking them to describe programs for helping members become educated and employed. Year after year, the answers rang with a sense of defeat:

"None. Don't have any money."

"None. Lack of funds."

"Lack of funds makes tribal help impossible."

Permeating the community was a feeling of hopelessness.

What was the point of getting an education when there were no opportunities for employment on the reservation, no way to get to jobs off the reservation?

In 1973, the tribe applied for a federal grant to begin an early childhood education program aimed at curbing what at that time was an astonishing dropout rate — 50 percent in grade school and 99 percent in high school.

In the grant application, tribal officials said the Yavapai people were living "lonely, isolated and depressed lives."

Vada Gates, a teacher hired as part of the early childhood education efforts that eventually evolved into today's tribal school, says when she arrived on the reservation just 20 years ago, she saw Third World conditions.

"Many people were on welfare. But they couldn't afford cars to go try and get a job. It was just a terrible situation."

On their kindergarten graduation gowns, Fort McDowell children wear turquoise ribbons, a decorative touch reserved for special tribal occasions. On their mortarboards, they have eagle fluffs, small downy puffs from the inside layer of the birds' feathers.

The feathers — which mark a first milestone in education — can be worn for years to come in ceremonies, dances and future graduations.

The tribe is banking on the boys and girls donning more graduation caps and earning more feathers.

Growing up in an unfamiliar era of casino-funded affluence, these children are being nurtured in a community-wide atmosphere of support, pride and encouragement.

They are attending tribally funded programs aimed at keeping them in school, instilling in them an appreciation for their heritage and inspiring them to become leaders of their nation.

Without these intense efforts, tribal leaders fear, these youngest Yavapais would repeat the history of dissipation in spite of gaming revenues.

Many of the older children in the community — handed too much money, too fast — have been lured into the worlds of drugs and alcohol. Tribal officials have started educational programs, called community meetings and formed a committee to stem growing substance-abuse problems.

Tribal president Clinton Pattea says not only is drug abuse a new problem for the tribe, but alcohol abuse, an ever-present problem in tribal history, also is on the increase. Over the last 10 years, he said, the rate of alcohol abuse has risen from 15 percent of the population to 23 percent — meaning nearly one in four tribal members has a drinking problem.

Another study showed 16 percent of visitors to the tribal health center have alcohol- or drug-related problems, a rate 32 times higher than the one found in the general population in a similar study of U.S. hospitals.

The figures help explain why the tribe's children are in need of official programs and incentives to help nurture and teach them. Many come from homes where mom, dad or their grandparents are not sober enough to help them succeed in school.

Pattea said the tribe is pushing prevention these days, hoping the youngest generation can avoid the lure of substance abuse, excessive spending and laziness — pitfalls made slipperier with easy money.

In the 10 years the tribe has been able to expand its casino just north of Shea Boulevard on the Beeline Highway, changes on the reservation have been dramatic.

Substandard homes have been replaced with modern stucco residences complete with tile roofs and wide, paved driveways. More than 80 of these $100,000 homes have been erected courtesy of the tribal government. In front of each of those houses are several cars, economy vehicles parked next to impressive new trucks, SUVs and boats.

On their roofs are satellite dishes. Inside are big-screen TVs and tribal-issued computers. And on every residential lot is an attractive tribe-provided storage shed aimed at keeping yards neat.

Blacktopped roads lead to new facilities offering a variety of services — a recreation complex, a day-care center, a health center, an expanded tribal government complex, improved police and fire departments and the new We-Ko-Pa golf course.

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