History Lessons

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

The tribe is nurturing the latest generation of Yavapais to become educated leaders who can return home and serve their people. It is helping those in older grades stay in school and pushing them to graduate. It is encouraging older, unemployed tribal members to explore careers.

It's a huge agenda.

But the tribe is attempting to accomplish its goals on every front, trying to get tribal members at every age level involved.

Amy Torres, who heads Fort McDowell's education efforts, inspires "a community of learners."
Erik Guzowski
Amy Torres, who heads Fort McDowell's education efforts, inspires "a community of learners."
Third-grader Sergio Kill touches a saguaro cactus along the nature trail outside his classroom.
Erik Guzowski
Third-grader Sergio Kill touches a saguaro cactus along the nature trail outside his classroom.

"We are a community of learners," says Amy Torres, hired two years ago to head the tribal elementary school and the larger educational efforts.

During the summers, the tribe offers youth programs that are infused not only with academic instruction, but lessons about higher education, careers, and the Yavapai culture and language.

Combining efforts of 15 different tribal departments, the camps were honored not long ago by the Arizona Parks and Recreation Association as a shining example of interagency cooperation. Children from ages 3 to 18 can attend Itty Bitty preschool camp, Camp Yavapai or the Summer Youth program each summer.

During one kindergarten session, children studied maps of the Fort McDowell reservation and pictures of five members of the tribal council. Teacher Deanne Wyrick pointed to the two members who are college graduates. She told the six pupils that to serve on the council, you had to be a high school graduate. She told them their tribal president, Clinton Pattea, walked nearly 30 miles to the downtown Phoenix train station so he could catch a ride to college in Flagstaff. (True, Pattea says, but it was just one time, when he was visiting the school before he enrolled there.)

Middle-school kids, called counselors-in-training, help out with the younger children in the summer program. They take field trips to learn about tribal businesses and operations, and are trained in baby-sitting and food service — to prepare them for the types of jobs they could be getting as teens.

Teenagers combine academic studies with training in such topics as careers, higher education and résumé writing. Field trips to job fairs and Arizona State University are mixed in with trips to bowling alleys and the movies. They are paid minimum wage for the hours spent on projects that will help the tribe. This summer, with the help of a mobile ASU video laboratory, the teens will work on producing a movie to capture the tribe's history in anticipation of the community's 100th anniversary on September 15 next year.

During the school year, the tribe uses educational specialists to help bridge the cultural gap between life on and off the reservation. Certified teachers employed by the Fort McDowell nation, the specialists are stationed at public schools off reservation and act as tutors or assistants for the tribe's children and parents.

This year, the tribe hired Fountain Hills teacher Dawn Oester to teach a special English class on the reservation that was more relevant to Indian high school students.

Held after school at the 'Hman 'shawa tribal elementary school, the class began with four girls of various grade levels. They had asked to study a book by an Indian author — something they couldn't request in public school.

The two girls in the class one afternoon were obviously fascinated by the book they had selected: House Made of Dawn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by N. Scott Momaday. As they read passages rich with Indian traditions, the girls were quick to offer their own similar experiences.

One student, who had just arrived at Fort McDowell to live with a relative, had been raised on another Arizona reservation. During a passage about a boy trying to get an eagle feather, she told of using such symbols "when I did my ceremony" — a coming-of-age ritual for girls.

The other girl talked about her sister carrying her feather plume when she was Miss Fort McDowell. They all discussed watching an eagle fly down by the Verde River on the reservation.

When a selection from the book made a reference to the eagle's talons, Oester interrupted. "What are talons?"

"I don't know," said one of the girls.

"They are long claws," Oester said, then resumed the lesson.

The students were constantly engaged, asking and answering questions and discussing the book as they read it. It was more of a personal dialogue with a teacher than a class.

For children who are having trouble inside or out of school, the tribe is starting a new Wellness Court — a problem-solving arena steeped in tribal philosophy.

It is aimed at solving problems before they result in a student dropping out of school or getting arrested and subject to the criminal justice system. Officials will use repeated school suspensions as a signal that something is wrong with a child or his family (although other referrals are possible). The student, parents and tribal elders will then meet to come up with a plan — not a legal document — to address the situation.

Why do so many of Fort McDowell's children do so poorly in school?

Decades of poverty and lack of opportunities played a large role in dooming most tribal students years ago. But today, when generous casino gaming revenues have fundamentally changed the possibilities on the reservation, many students still struggle academically.

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