History Lessons

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

He was telling a group of teenaged girls about prerequisites needed to get into nursing school for either an RN or a BSN degree: 17 classes including four labs — chemistry, biology 201 or 202, microbiology, pathophysiology.

He said they could apply to the school after completing 13 classes provided their GPA in those courses was 2.75 or higher.

The girls stopped him. He lost them when he mentioned RN and GPA. "What do those letters mean?" one asked.

Brandi Mack, 8, reads from a guidebook her class wrote and illustrated for the Yavapai Trail. She led her grandmother Leticia Osife, right, and Osife's sister Helen Haynes down the trail.
Laura Laughlin
Brandi Mack, 8, reads from a guidebook her class wrote and illustrated for the Yavapai Trail. She led her grandmother Leticia Osife, right, and Osife's sister Helen Haynes down the trail.
Values of the Fort McDowell Indians — called "The Yavapai Way" — are posted on a classroom wall inside the tribal school.
Erik Guzowski
Values of the Fort McDowell Indians — called "The Yavapai Way" — are posted on a classroom wall inside the tribal school.

Nevertheless, the girls were impressed.

"I am definitely going here," said one.

Outsiders often have a misguided opinion of the Fort McDowell students — something that can help shape a child's self-image.

Gates, the kindergarten teacher, says she taught an after-school program not long ago in Fountain Hills. She asked the children one day if they ever came across the cattle guard to visit their neighbors on the reservation.

"Oh, no," the children said. "The Indians might kill us."

Gates asked what they thought the reservation was like.

"It's just a bunch of weeds," they replied.

History shows that without a strong sense of self-identity, Indian students can take such hurtful opinions to heart. A tribal document dated during the 1970s says young Yavapai students in off-reservation public schools had taken to calling themselves "dumb Indians" because that's how others referred to them.

Valencia Yazzie, a Navajo who teaches kindergarten at 'Hman 'shawa school, says Indian children can accept their minority status and endure teasing in larger public schools if they are proud of their race and their people.

She points to her own daughter, half Navajo and half Hopi, as an example.

A student at Coronado High School in Scottsdale — where Navajo-Hopi students are rare, indeed — she has flourished, is an honor student and was selected to travel to Washington, D.C., and New York City this summer to meet with an international teen leaders group.

Raised in an urban setting for the last six years, Yazzie's daughter makes trips back to her mother's and father's reservations during school breaks to participate in the tribes' most traditional ceremonies.

"You need a sense of who you are and where you came from," says Yazzie.

And several research studies in education journals support this idea — revealing a definite link between an Indian child's academic performance and his sense of self-identity.

Fort McDowell students have good reason for their lack of self-esteem. Their tribe as a whole has suffered from an identity crisis for more than 100 years.

It was 1865 when Fort McDowell was established on the Verde River, a U.S. military outpost to fight Indians and protect the area's mining interests.

The primary enemy those days was the Apache tribe, a tough people armed with guns. The Yavapai, unrelated to the Apaches, roamed a wide area of the state that did not include the Apache territory.

Their nomadic descendants, who once numbered 6,000, were hunters and gatherers who were equipped only with bows, arrows and clubs.

Historians believe U.S. soldiers may have first mistaken the Yavapais for Apaches when they asked them who they were. "A'baja," the Indians might have replied. In Yavapai, it means "I am a person." But to the English-speaking soldiers, their pronunciation — ah ba jay — sounded like "Apache."

For decades, the soldiers considered these misidentified Yavapais their enemies. They slaughtered hundreds of virtually helpless men, women and children at Arizona sites named for the blood baths that occurred there — Skull Valley, Skeleton Cave, Bloody Basin.

In 1875, the soldiers forced the surviving 1,400 Yavapais to march from the Verde Valley area to the San Carlos Apache reservation in the eastern mountains. During the two-week "Trail of Tears," hundreds more Yavapais died, many from the rigors of the trek. Yavapai tales say others perished after consuming poisoned drinks and meat, young ones who had trouble keeping up were choked to death and babies born en route were left on the trail to die. Legend has it that the tears cried along the way turned to stone — Yavapai Tears — which came erroneously to be called Apache Tears.

The military thought the Indians were returning to their own Apache people. But the Yavapais — who didn't speak Apache — called it imprisonment.

They stayed in San Carlos for 25 years — a generation — and were further misnamed. A tribal researcher says she has found 25 different names for the tribe. Apaches believed because they had come from the west, they must be part of the Mohave Indian tribe.

When the group was finally granted its own reservation in 1903 — at the present-day site near the Beeline Highway and Shea Boulevard — only 400 Yavapais remained.

By then, their culture and traditions had been diluted by living with and marrying the Apaches. Many of their children were sent away to boarding schools, never to be seen again.

Their erroneous identity became official when they were called the Fort McDowell Mohave-Apache Indian Community — a name that stuck for the next 97 years.

They were neither Mohaves nor Apaches. Their 25,000-acre homeland was a tiny slice of nine million square miles their ancestors roamed. And to add insult to injury, the very name of the reservation forever commemorated the headquarters of the soldiers who nearly obliterated their tribe.

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