It Takes a Tribe

A tiny Indian community struggles to educate its young

Those with perfect attendance records at any grade level receive new bicycles from the Fort McDowell Kiwanis Club, whose members include tribal president Pattea and education head Torres.

And every summer the tribe sponsors the Education Department banquet, where generations of tribal members jam a casino hall to honor achievements by students of all ages from any of the 100-plus schools they attend.

Gift certificates to malls and eateries accompany the awards, which are handed out for academic achievement, academic improvement, participating in extracurricular activities and perfect attendance.

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.

The lure of special commendations for their kids is, quite simply, working.

Tribal members turn out in large numbers to celebrate the students' accomplishments. Even with the wealth that the casino has brought to formerly poor families, the promise of a reward still brings out the parents and relatives to celebrate.

One mom, Charlene Corbins, flew in from northern California to bring her three children, aged 10, 11 and 12, to last year's banquet. They had received an invitation notifying them that their good grades had earned them awards. One boy had earned the top Wassaja prize for getting all A's in core subjects.

"This was the first time we've been invited," Corbins said. "I thought it was a good time for them to see how the tribal education program is and appreciate what they have."

It was direct proof that Torres' monitoring efforts were paying off. With her database of Fort McDowell students, she could track how these tribal children were doing in their Fremont, California, schools. And then she could invite them to celebrate their accomplishments with their own people.

At these large gatherings, Torres takes every opportunity to not only praise the children, but to boost the self-esteem of their parents and elders as well. Many of them may not have had formal educations, but she commends them for supporting the younger generation's efforts.

"We are proud of you, all of you," she told the crowd at last year's banquet. "We are proud of your parents. We are proud of the elders."

Later, she reminds them that the Yavapai never gave up during a troubled history. She urges tribal members to keep that spirit as their children go through school.

"Be smart," she says. "If you need help, come to us. Let us help you. Come and participate in the programs we offer. Be proud of who you are. Never forget who you are."

Torres says these banquets and ceremonies are accomplishing what is intended: Kids are proud of themselves, and the community is embracing their success.

"Look," she said recently as she poured punch at this year's awards ceremony and graduation for 3- and 4-year-olds. "We had about 150 people show up today to celebrate 41 graduates."

It was nearly triple the turnout for the same ceremony last year.

Everywhere there are signs these new tactics are paying off.

Many students are leaving the 'Hman 'shawa tribal school well prepared for any public school. Several third-graders have placed in gifted fourth-grade programs off the reservation in public schools. And kindergartners who have started first grade in the Mesa Public Schools District are so advanced that teachers paid Fort McDowell's tribal school a visit to observe and learn from its kindergarten program.

This year's Stanford 9 test results for the grade school, according to Torres, showed "significant increases" in every subject in each grade.

And this year, more Fort McDowell high school students than ever graduated. That's only 14 kids, but it's a tribal record and represents 52 percent of those eligible to graduate this year. This is a phenomenal improvement over the 99 percent high school dropout rate that preceded casino revenues.

This year, 49 members of the Fort McDowell reservation graduated from grade school, high school, college or vocational school.

Larry Doka, tribal council member, told the assembled graduates at a dinner that they needed advanced degrees.

"Nowadays, a regular college degree is not enough."

Doka's parents and grandparents would be amazed to hear him say that.

When he was growing up on the reservation, children weren't expected even to finish high school. The common, acceptable course of education was to get through ninth grade, then drop out and learn a trade. That way, should an occasional brick-laying or carpet installation job come along, the tribal member would be ready for it.

Now a tribal elder with a stern-looking face that breaks often into a wide, boyish smile, Doka says he made it through college out of sheer determination.

His family had sent him to boarding school in Tucson, and when he decided to continue on at the university, no one believed he could do it.

"It was a challenge," he says. "And I guess I was stubborn."

Doka says he was one of a half-dozen Indian students on campus, and two of those lived with him at a professor's house. (He later learned the teacher was tracking his success, as well as that of two Apache boarders, for a research project.)

He had no special Indian programs or study centers like those available now at all three Arizona universities. Counselors didn't really help him. And for assistance in English, his toughest subject, he relied on his landlord's wife.

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