History Lessons

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

One tribal education administrator who used to work for the Fountain Hills Unified School District said Fort McDowell children would visibly begin to withdraw shortly after they began at the public school.

Bright, happy, outgoing kids would get quieter and quieter, gravitate toward the back of the classrooms and pretty soon stop participating in class.

Another tribal education specialist said the Fort McDowell middle-school students he worked with were no different from other kids, "except for all the Fs."

Crop foreman Jay Martinez, right, explains tribal farm operations to teenagers enrolled in a summer program. Jayson Jones, left, was among the group visiting the tribe's businesses.
Kevin Scanlon
Crop foreman Jay Martinez, right, explains tribal farm operations to teenagers enrolled in a summer program. Jayson Jones, left, was among the group visiting the tribe's businesses.
Teacher Cindy Lewis let her children suggest names for the trail that served as a lesson in ethnobotany — the study of plants and how they were used by native people.
Erik Guzowski
Teacher Cindy Lewis let her children suggest names for the trail that served as a lesson in ethnobotany — the study of plants and how they were used by native people.

Teachers say these children are capable of much more. But when they go "over the cattle guard" — a literal and symbolic step that describes the border between the reservation and the rest of the world — many begin a downward spiral in school. And for too many years, this has translated into academic failure for a majority of the tribe's children. Thirty years ago, the high school dropout rate was 99 percent. Ten years ago, it was still 70 or 80 percent.

Ask any Fort McDowell educator why this is happening and you'll get a common response — the children need a better self-image.

It sounds like so much pop psychology, but there are solid reasons Fort McDowell's children could benefit from a boost in their self-esteem. The more obvious obstacles — and there are many — could be handled more easily if Fort McDowell's kids had a better knowledge of their tribe and a sense of pride in themselves, educators say.

Among those obstacles: the number of Fort McDowell children.

Fort McDowell kids grow up in a small community where nearly everyone is related to everyone else. Some of them begin their education at the 'Hman 'shawa tribal school, which features a 5-to-1 student-teacher ratio and ends at third grade. Then, they are usually sent to Mesa or Fountain Hills schools that are as big or bigger than their entire nation.

In a setting where 80 or 90 percent of the population is white, Fort McDowell children are often not placed in the classrooms with Fort McDowell friends. One story tells of a group of tribal teenaged girls at a Fountain Hills school who got in trouble for meeting in the rest room. School officials suspected they were forming a gang; in reality they were seeking the solace of familiar faces.

The isolation is amplified in those schools attended by only one or two of the tribe's children. Torres, the head of the tribe's educational efforts, has a list of 111 schools attended by Fort McDowell students all around the country — the vast majority show only one or two of the tribe's children in a particular grade level.

But those reasons don't explain fully why the tribal students falter in public schools. There are many cases of Asian or black children who succeed in classes where they are the only minority children. Vada Gates, who has taught at Fort McDowell for 20 years, says those children — even if they come from downtrodden or oppressive backgrounds — have a grounded sense of culture. They have a language, history and spirituality that shapes them and can help them persevere.

For the Fort McDowell students, cultural differences also play a part and can hinder education. Officials say an Indian student who looks down while a teacher is talking to him or her would be considered disrespectful. But in the Yavapai culture, that is exactly how a child shows respect to an elder.

And parents — who ordinarily would help bolster their children's performance — may be incapable of helping.

Many of them have had little or no experience in public schools, have bad memories and are not comfortable challenging teachers or administrators so their children can get through tough times.

One of the precepts of "The Yavapai Way" — rules to live by that the tribe is trying to teach its children — is to not speak ill of others. Indeed, tribal members are urged to find the good in everyone.

So complaining about or to a teacher wouldn't seem right. Education administrators are trying to get parents to speak up for their children and their rights without offending their cultural instincts.

"We are teaching the parents to be squeaky wheels," says a former education department manager.

Torres says she hopes to train children to request a different method of instruction if a universal one isn't working.

"If a student doesn't understand something the first time we teach it, what do we do? We teach it the same way we explained it the first time, only louder or slower. We should teach it differently," she says.

Isolation also has contributed to the difficulties children face off reservation. While it seems like their home adjacent to Fountain Hills, just east of Scottsdale and about 20 miles north of Mesa, is accessible to urban areas, transportation problems kept the Indians virtually confined to their own land for decades.

Even today, with gaming revenue providing more money for vehicles and tribally funded field trips, some Fort McDowell students demonstrate a striking naiveté about the world around them. They've been to schools, malls and sporting venues around the Valley and are most familiar with Mesa and downtown Phoenix.

During a field trip to the Arizona Science Center, teenagers were most intrigued with the elevator. And another outing to ASU was a first for most of them. Some were amazed by the "A" on A Mountain and mystified by basic terms used by an Indian adviser at the School of Nursing.

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