History Lessons

Yavapai children used to call themselves "dumb Indians." Now they know better.

On Friday night, May 31, Ben Smith was sitting in the multipurpose room of the Fort McDowell Recreation Center. One of his young cousins was graduating from kindergarten and two more were being honored with school awards, and he was there to support them.

Just six days earlier, he had officially graduated from high school.

Finally.

Arianna Dorchester, 5, is getting cultural and language lessons at the 'Hman 'shawa elementary school.
Erik Guzowski
Arianna Dorchester, 5, is getting cultural and language lessons at the 'Hman 'shawa elementary school.
The Yavapai Trail — a guided nature trail at the 'Hman 'shawa elementary school — incorporates the study of plants and animals with the history of the Yavapai Indians.
Erik Guzowski
The Yavapai Trail — a guided nature trail at the 'Hman 'shawa elementary school — incorporates the study of plants and animals with the history of the Yavapai Indians.

At age 21.

He didn't show up for his own ceremony at Fountain Hills High School. But he had the diploma in his mobile home. He also had a trust account worth a quarter of a million dollars, his share of gaming profits the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation had invested for him until he graduated from high school or turned 23.

He is feeling confident these days.

"Now that I've got an education, the sky's the limit," he says.

Still, he is naive and unsure about his future plans (what he really wants to be is a pro golfer, but he may just go to massage school) and his finances (he exceeded his $500 limit on a credit card less than two weeks before he is to receive a $57,000 check from his trust account).

In some ways, he personifies some of the problems the tribe has faced in recent years. Smith's family provided little encouragement or guidance to help him get through school. And while he managed to make it through after many detours — truancy, drug and alcohol use, dropping out for three years — Smith's big monetary reward for his perseverance only complicates matters.

But Smith also represents part of the solution.

Last summer, at the urging of his summer school speech class teacher, he spoke to a group of high school kids in the tribe's summer program, urging them to stay in school and avoid the mistakes he made.

And in May, he was in the rec center to honor his little cousins. By joining the standing-room-only crowd in the facility, he was helping send a message his tribe is working hard to get across to its youngest members:

We are behind you. We are proud of you. And we want you to stay in school.

It's a message Smith, who skipped school for days on end, might have benefited from had he heard it earlier in his life.

On that Friday night, this newly wealthy high school graduate took the time to cheer and congratulate his relatives — a kindergarten graduate honored with a "Most Dramatic" medal, a third-grader called "a very good student" who finished his last year at the tribal school, and a first-grader who was awarded a new bike for — of all things — a perfect attendance record.

Awards ceremonies and monetary incentives for educational accomplishments — funded courtesy of casino gaming revenues — are only part of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation's grand efforts to secure a brighter future for its members.

The tribe wants its children to stay in school and earn degrees, despite a cash windfall (gaming proceeds put in trust) that awaits every child once he or she comes of age. Officials were making real progress with the tribe's littlest learners — particularly those who attend its own tribal elementary school — but there was a larger problem.

Students attending off-reservation schools were failing miserably, and very few were getting through high school. And while new gaming revenues provided enough money for the tribe to send all its children to college, the students simply weren't ready. Many weren't prepared academically and others couldn't handle the cultural shock that contributes to three out of every four Indian college students dropping out.

So the Fort McDowell Yavapais realized that while they had made great efforts over the years merely to get their children to attend school, they had neglected a critical part of education — their culture.

The tribe, it had to admit, had virtually lost its sense of identity. And its children were paying the price.

This group of 900 — whose relatives were forced from their homeland 125 years ago, threatened time and again by the federal government, and stripped of their history and their heritage via an erroneous naming of their people — is drafting its modern history itself.

The group's language — the very soul of a people — was not written down for generations and is nearly extinct. The tribe's history — documented early on from the biased perspective of the white men who nearly annihilated the tribe a century ago — wasn't available in any books or museums.

Not only have the Fort McDowell Yavapais persevered through generations of oppression and hardship, they have won some modern-day victories that the tribe celebrates as the core of Fort McDowell's new identity.

These people were not only strong enough to endure decades of misery, but courageous enough to stand up to the U.S. government and fight for their rights as a sovereign nation.

In 1981, the tribe defeated the Orme Dam project, a federal effort that would have flooded most of its reservation, and in 1992, its tough stance against armed federal agents protected its right to casino gaming. Thus, the Yavapai paved the way for tribes across the state and country to offer casino gaming.

Today, the tribe is using casino revenues to stress education for its people. The tribe wants a new, improved society rich with Yavapai culture and language.

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