It Takes a Tribe

A tiny Indian community struggles to educate its young

On a gorgeous patch of desert at the confluence of the Verde and the Salt rivers, where there once were no jobs at all, the Fort McDowell nation oversees tribal industries and agencies with about 1,300 employees — more than triple the community's work force of 400 people. (Some 300 tribal members now work for the tribal government and its enterprises.)

Members get annual payments of about $30,000 each. And the tribe's budget averages between $80 million and $100 million a year.

Pattea, the tribal leader who spoke at the kindergarten graduation, says education is the key to Fort McDowell's future. He has a vision of a sovereign, self-reliant community that blends traditional values and modern ways to ensure its success and continued existence.

Jayson Jones, 18, says many of his peers are more concerned with getting their share of gaming money than going to school.
Kevin Scanlon
Jayson Jones, 18, says many of his peers are more concerned with getting their share of gaming money than going to school.
Third-grader Ronnie Doka turns to look at classmate Ian Lewis.
Erik Guzowski
Third-grader Ronnie Doka turns to look at classmate Ian Lewis.

But that vision includes Fort McDowell Indians heading up those efforts — a picture that today is wildly out of focus.

Tribal leaders take heat for filling top business and government positions with non-Yavapai and non-Indian employees. Out of about 30 tribal departments and businesses, only three tribal members hold top positions. And two of those, the head of the sand and gravel operation and the acting general manager of the tribe, were appointed after a shakeup late last year cost three non-Yavapais their jobs.

Some are angry that Yavapais are not considered good enough for the community's most important positions.

A flier posted around the reservation last year implored the tribal council to "trust us with tribal jobs and have faith in our intelligence."

But tribal leaders who agree that Yavapai people should be in charge say there simply are not enough tribal members with the experience and education to head departments and multimillion-dollar enterprises.

Pattea, who survived a recall attempt over this very issue last fall, said the tribe needs qualified people to manage not only the government departments and the casino, but new and expanded enterprises like the tribal farm, the golf course, the service station, a wilderness adventure business and a resort hotel that is in the planning stages.

For now, that means bringing in outsiders to run those enterprises.

"We need the experienced and professional officers to come and more or less introduce new programs and run them for five years or so, then move on to other careers. By that time, more of our young people will have college degrees. And they can take over. But we're looking at five, 10, or even 20 years down the road."

The tribe is trying to prepare some of its members to step into those executive roles sooner rather than later.

Six employees are in managerial positions within the government and are being groomed for higher-level jobs in career development programs. Another six are attending four-year colleges. Pattea says the tribe's plan is to make sure they graduate, work for a few years off the reservation, then return to Fort McDowell to begin working for the tribe — hopefully in key roles.

The tribe allocates $2.5 million annually for its education budget.

With only 483 students from preschool to college, the amount equals nearly $5,200 per student. That's $1,000 a year higher than the state average for K-12 students.

Fort McDowell's educational spending is even more impressive considering about 300 of its students attend public schools in the Valley, where their educational costs are already covered.

The same gaming money, however, that can pay for the best education for Fort McDowell's children can also serve as a disincentive. The old community apathy toward education — based on few employment opportunities — is being partially supplanted by a new type of apathy fueled by impending wealth.

Kids who are urged to finish high school and head to college have a six-figure chunk of gaming profits waiting for them when they become adults — their amount of monthly payments held in trust. On top of that, they know that, like their parents, they'll be receiving monthly per capita payments — between $2,000 and $3,000 — that can easily afford them a comfortable living without them ever having to get a job.

Tribal teenagers wear the latest, priciest fashions: Phat Farm, Sean John, FUBU and Tommy Hilfiger. They carry cell phones and wear Walkmans.

At a session of the summer youth program last year, one boy tried to take a picture with his camera but it wouldn't work. He teased that the guy he was aiming at broke the camera — an old joke.

"You're from Fort McDowell; just buy another one," said Jayson Jones.

Everyone laughed.

Jones, then entering his senior year in high school, was the oldest in the group of 18 teens. He got annoyed watching many of the younger kids messing around, not listening to teachers. He says few of them are seriously looking past their share of the gaming money that they will be entitled to after they become adults.

"They think gaming's going to be around forever, but it's not," he says.

The tribe has altered its gaming revenue disbursement system for kids to try to encourage them to stay in school and get a diploma. At first, students were given the entire amount when they turned 18. And there are plenty of stories illustrating how kids squandered this money. Several merely dropped out of school as soon as they turned 18. One girl blew $300,000 in three months, buying new cars, drugs and gifts for her friends before landing in a rehabilitation facility.

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