It Takes a Tribe

A tiny Indian community struggles to educate its young

Tribal officials amended the law to spread out the funds over a decade and to require a high school diploma (not a GED) before a student can get the money at 18. With a GED, a student is entitled to the money at age 21. And without a diploma, tribal members still get their funds when they turn 23.

"To me, [that new law] is not really helping," says Leticia Osife, who is raising three grandchildren. "They can just quit school, stay at home and wait for their money."

You might say that Osife is something of an expert witness.

Cambria Gates, then aged 3, raises her hands as she sings during her preschool graduation ceremony last year. On her neck is a medal she earned for reading more than 100 books.
Erik Guzowski
Cambria Gates, then aged 3, raises her hands as she sings during her preschool graduation ceremony last year. On her neck is a medal she earned for reading more than 100 books.
Children at the 'Hman 'shawa tribal school enjoy small classes and a quiet learning environment.
Erik Guzowski
Children at the 'Hman 'shawa tribal school enjoy small classes and a quiet learning environment.

Osife says her extended family is so large that it seems as if nearly all the children on the reservation are somehow related to her. She calls most of them her grandchildren to simplify their family ties.

The tribe has attempted to counterbalance the influence of easy money by instilling a sense of accomplishment for academic excellence as well as a sense of pride in elders who are encouraged to nurture learning in the young.

At the recent kindergarten graduation ceremony — which also included awards for students from grades 1 through 3 — Osife was in the audience, sitting next to tribal president Pattea, clapping for many of her young relatives.

She is the assistant to Pattea, a man she has worked for for 27 years. And she is the sister of Gilbert Jones, the late tribal leader who told her to call out the bulldozers during the casino confrontation 10 years ago.

On the one hand, she knows tribal officials are doing all they can to help young people succeed and to address the growing problems of alcohol and substance abuse.

But on the other hand, she is intimately aware of how the easy gaming money can corrupt the tribe's youth.

One morning she sat at her desk outside Pattea's office and looked at a clock. At about that time, she said, her 16-year-old granddaughter was boarding a plane — with a police escort — to enroll in a residential drug rehabilitation facility in Utah.

The girl had been using glass (a smokable methamphetamine) and marijuana without Osife's knowledge. By the time Osife discovered what was happening, it was too late. The girl was addicted.

Osife and others in her generation say they are so unfamiliar with drugs that they miss the signs of abuse going on in their own homes. At the same time, they are anguished that the tribal youth are destroying their bodies — and in some cases, ending their lives — with drugs and alcohol.

Osife says because of their guaranteed share of gaming money, kids on the reservation don't even have to pay for drugs. The sellers (tribal members) know that once a customer comes of age, he will get a large sum of cash and pay off the tab.

Whether they are involved in drugs, Osife says, too many teenagers are counting on their gaming money rather than planning to get their education.

"That's all they wait for is that day that they turn 18 or 23," she says.

Two years ago — when this year's kindergarten class was ready to start preschool — president Pattea issued an executive order outlining a program designed to turn around the tribe's dismal educational record. Included were plans for the tribe to install a computer in every home and to carefully monitor each of the community's nearly 500 students to help them get through grade school, high school and college.

It was a huge assignment considering parents can send their children anywhere they choose and often switch them from school to school when things don't work out. About a hundred pupils attend preschool through third grade classes at the 'Hman 'shawa school on the reservation. Nearly 400 more are scattered among 110 more public, private and boarding schools around the Valley and beyond.

The tribal council hired educator Amy Torres to serve as principal of the elementary school and oversee broader educational efforts.

A former Mesa high school teacher, charter school administrator and employee of a technology-based educational company, one of Torres' primary jobs was to find a way to track all the students at Fort McDowell. That involved contacting more than 100 schools, researching family living situations and setting up a database of all the tribe's 483 students. And it entailed convincing schools to send her report cards and notify her about disciplinary actions so she can monitor how the kids are doing, not just where they are.

This year she and other tribal educational specialists intensified efforts with high school seniors, holding weekly meetings beginning in January to help guide them through their final semester. And they began file folders on all the other high school students — sort of a dossier with a four-year plan for each child.

Parents are kept informed along the way.

"We're not spies," she says. "We care about them."

'Hman 'shawa, the tribal school, sits on a bluff facing the Four Peaks mountains, an ancestral home of the Yavapais. Its entryway is lined with boulders imprinted with petroglyphs etched by their people thousands of years ago.

The school's name means "for the little ones" in Yavapai, although the work that goes on there involves even the oldest members of the community.

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