History Lessons

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

The younger students are scoring high across the board on the Brigance Tests, a measure of learning readiness that proves the tribe's preschool efforts are working.

Primary students attending the tribe's elementary school are posting strong scores on standardized tests. Education officials are trying to figure out how to keep those scores high once they leave the reservation.

While for decades the tribe counted only a few college graduates, today the number is closer to 15.

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.

The conversational Yavapai language course for adults held twice a week is regularly attended by as many as 19 people.

The pilot community college math course offered on the reservation this summer had room for 15 students. And 15 signed up. (The tribe hopes to eventually have its own satellite community college campus on the reservation.)

Forty more adults with a high school diploma but without a job are participating in new career exploration programs, like an internship program that involves attending community college.

In 1989, only one Fort McDowell Yavapai was enrolled in college. Today, 47 tribal members attend college or vocational schools. One is working on a master's degree and another is in a doctoral program in psychology.

Although most of their ancestors never dreamed of attending college, many children at Fort McDowell today imagine a future in which higher education is a given.

Gates says years ago students who were asked what they wanted to be when they grow up would write things like "I want to work at Bashas'" or "I want to have a popover [frybread] stand."

Today, kids are responding that they want to be doctors, lawyers, teachers. They routinely mention college in their future plans.

Two essays written at Camp Yavapai last summer indicate that not only are the tribal children getting the message that they need to go to college, but — surrounded by affluence — they are grounded in the Yavapai traits of kindness and sharing.

Shawna Bear, 11, wrote in an essay at Camp Yavapai last summer that she wanted to go to ASU, play basketball and become a doctor.

"I want to be a doctor because they help people and take care of them," she said.

Another 12-year-old girl said she wanted to play basketball in the WNBA and be as good as Kobe Bryant.

"This kind of job pays a lot of money. I could help people and donate to the needy," she wrote.

Older kids are beginning to learn that dropping out and waiting for their share of the gaming profits is not fulfilling. While tribal members tell tales of teenagers quitting school and doing nothing, getting hooked on drugs, or carelessly spending huge sums of gaming proceeds, there are new stories circulating.

In the homework lab one day, an 18-year-old says she dropped out but got bored and came back to school. Another 15-year-old can't figure out the appeal of quitting school. Her sister left high school, she says, "And she just stays home and cleans the house all day."

Others talk about friends, daughters, sons, grandchildren who have decided to return to school and complete their education.

And there are reports that kids are learning from the mistakes of their peers, choosing to take only a portion of their gaming money when they come of age and investing the rest.

Amy Torres, education head for the tribe and its 483 students, made an amazing pronouncement earlier this year. On that particular day, she said, all the tribe's students were attending school. Some were right next door in 'Hman 'shawa classrooms, in the comfort of small classes filled with familiar faces. Some were across the cattle guard, in public schools, charter schools and even incarcerated settings. Some were in boarding schools, private schools, vocational schools and colleges. Some were enrolled in correspondence courses.

"Everyone who should be in school is in school," she said.

For a tribe with dropout rates approaching 100 percent just 30 years ago, it was an incredible achievement.

Still, the tribe is not resting on these indicators of success. President Pattea notes that last year, six tribal members earned new bikes for perfect school attendance throughout the year. This year, only two received the awards.

"We're going to have to work on that," he says.

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