History Lessons

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

Fort McDowell Yavapais fought numerous attempts to relocate them again after they returned to their homeland. The federal government — realizing too late the appeal of the water-rich land near the confluence of the Verde and Salt rivers — tried several times to claim water rights and move the Yavapais off the land.

In 1918, the tribe was decimated by influenza. Half of its 400 members died from the disease.

Beginning in the 1940s, the U.S. government put together the plan for the Central Arizona Project, the pipeline that would divert water from the Colorado River to Arizona. The Fort McDowell Yavapais — not consulted for decades — got vocal during the 1970s when they realized the Orme Dam portion of the project would flood 75 percent of their land. In late 1972 and during 1973, the tribe held a series of meetings with its members and federal officials regarding the dam. Many of the tribal members opposed the plan, which would have paid each of them $125,000 for their land.

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.

After years of debate and public hearings, the tribe held a pivotal election in September 1976. The vote — 144 to 57 against selling their land to the government — brought the national spotlight to the tribe, with a national TV news crew, the Washington Post and the front page of the Arizona Republic marking the defiant stand taken by the small group of Indians.

In 1981, the government announced it had abandoned the Orme Dam plans.

In 1992, less than a decade after that battle was won, the government sent armed agents to seize the electronic video games the tribe had added to its bingo hall. Again, the tribe was in the national spotlight. And again, the Fort McDowell Yavapais emerged victorious, protecting their rights to conduct gaming at their casino.

While these recent accomplishments have instilled pride in the community, the gradual improvements to the reservation — improved housing, electricity, even satellite television and sudden wealth — have served to erode traditional ways and language.

"I blame single-family housing and HUD housing," says Karen Ray, Fort McDowell's language specialist who tries to teach traditional lessons to the MTV and Pokémon generations. "A whole generation grew up without speaking the language. My generation learned from grandma and aunts and uncles who all lived with us in our home. Now grandma lives three blocks away."

At Fort McDowell, that's a long distance.

The new prosperity that allowed the tribe to build those new single-family homes — and separate families that were in crowded, but culturally richer, conditions — is also a new source of teasing for the tribe's students.

Parents say their children are needled at public school about how rich they are, how Fort McDowell Indians don't have to work for their income. (The tribe is one of three in the state that directly shares gaming revenues with members. Because it is the smallest of the three, the amounts doled out per capita — around $30,000 a year — are far higher than other tribes' payouts.)

One mother said kids at public schools often try to force the tribal kids to buy them things or give them money.

"It got so bad, my daughter didn't even want to go to school," she said.

Karen Ray opens a page on the computer inside her classroom at the ¹Hman ¹shawa tribal school.

On the screen are columns and columns of Yavapai words, complete with foreign-looking accent marks and phonetic pronunciations.

"There are 36 more pages just like this," she says.

The compilation of vocabulary words represents recent years of research into documenting the Yavapai language once spoken by three different families of Indians in Arizona.

User-friendly, it isn't.

The lists are voluminous. They give only phonetic pronunciations and can't accurately portray the language's unusual sounds. Also, there are no English translations.

But they represent a start — the beginning of documenting a language that still is largely an oral tradition.

The Yavapai language wasn't written at all until 1985, when a researcher put together an elementary vocabulary list as part of a Fort McDowell coloring book for children.

Four years ago, a member of the Yavapai Prescott tribe began interviewing elders, compiling the word list that appears on Ray's computer screen.

But because different bands of Yavapais and even different families among those bands had variant ways of saying things, trying to codify the Fort McDowell Yavapai language is a daunting, evolving task.

Marcy-Jean Mattson, the tribe's cultural director, says her department sponsors twice-a-week language classes for adult tribal members or employees.

She said the older a person is, the more difficult it is to get them to learn a new language, particularly one that has sounds as unique as the Yavapai language does.

"Every child is born with the ability to learn every language," she says. But over time, she says, as they become accustomed to pronouncing things a certain way, that ability diminishes.

"Some Yavapai sounds come from a different part of the throat than we are used to using," says Mattson, an Anglo. "I'm not sure I will ever be able to make those sounds."

Ray, a Yavapai raised on the Fort McDowell reservation, says she heard the language spoken around the house as she grew up. She was, she now knows, a receptive learner, someone with an understanding of the language who didn't actually speak it.

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