History Lessons

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

About 10 years ago, she decided to try to write a story in Yavapai. When she searched for reference material to assist her, "there was nothing," she says.

So she began to educate herself.

She attended a program at the American Indian Language Development Institute at the University of Arizona aimed at helping Indian nations save their vanishing languages. One of the first things she was instructed to do was to return home and take a survey to see how many tribal members were fluent in Yavapai.

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.

Five percent — a little more than 40 people then— could speak the language, she found.

It was a distressing discovery.

"We were already in the death stage," she says. "If between 5 and 10 percent of the people speak the language, it is dying out. . . . That really got me motivated."

A personal interest for Ray turned into a crusade, then a paid position as tribal language coordinator.

Ray believes the Yavapai language is a critical component to her people retaining their identity and their culture.

Ray has mixed emotions about what the nearly billion dollars in casino revenue has meant to her tribe. On one hand, years of exploring the subject on her own were aided by the gaming money her tribe has shared with its members over the last 10 years.

"I didn't have to worry about paying the bills," she says.

But on the other hand, she believes the modern trappings seen today on the reservation have hastened the demise of the traditional language and the loss of the old values.

Mattson agrees.

"Children are watching TV instead of speaking to their elders," she says.

She says the tribe is in a race against time.

"Every time an elder passes away, you lose another part of the language, another part of the culture," Mattson says.

Dressed one day in a bright turquoise shirt with turquoise-studded silver dream-catcher earrings, Ray became clearly energized when talking about future plans for the language program.

She is hoping her computer-expert son can help her convert the computerized list of words to a program allowing a learner to click on a word, hear the pronunciation and see a picture of what it is.

There are inherent problems, however, such as translating simple colors.

In Yavapai, the colors represented things. "'Hwadi," commonly used for "red," means blood. So a phrase like "red apple" translated into Yavapai would mean "bloody apple." And the tribe's words for brown, orange and yellow are all the same — 'qwathi — which stands for earth.

Ray is working on a curriculum-based program for the 'Hman 'shawa tribal school, so that language and culture will be infused in the regular classwork — like math, reading or writing — not a separate lesson a couple of times a week.

She is trying to set up some after-school language classes so that the hundreds of Fort McDowell children who attend public schools around the Valley still can take language and culture lessons.

She is organizing an apprentice program which will pair up some of the tribe's fluent Yavapai speakers with other receptive learners. She hopes this will train helpers who can assist her in her efforts.

The tribe hopes to offer Yavapai as a college course right on the reservation within three years. It's an ambitious goal considering the language is in the process of being researched and written down.

But education head Torres says that timetable must be met.

"We cannot wait any longer," she says. "The language is dying."

As Ray teaches language lessons to the preschoolers through third-graders at 'Hman 'shawa and to cultural camp attendees, she also talks about lessons she learned as a child.

She says her parents, while not highly educated, taught her a lot.

Her father, a third-grade dropout, was a wise man, she says. He told her there were two paths to take — education or alcohol.

"That has always stuck with me," she says. "He said with an education and some of the white man's ways, think of what you can get."

Her mother was a Phoenix Indian School graduate who worked as a dorm mother there. The two parents encouraged and expected their children to finish high school, "no ifs, ands or buts."

One afternoon, Ray visited a 'Hman 'shawa classroom and was discussing "The Yavapai Way" — a list of seven tribal commandments posted on the wall:

• Honor your mother and father.

• Listen when elders speak.

• Be kind to others.

• Don't be selfish.

• Help others.

• Don't say bad things about anyone.

• Remember the Creator.

She was talking about not being selfish. She told the children that when she grew up, there were only about 30 families living on the reservation.

Men who went deer hunting would share their kill with everyone. The same would happen if a javelina or cow was killed, she said.

Stealing, she told the kids, goes against the Yavapai traditions.

"Do not steal," Ray told them. "That is the lowest, most disgraceful act."

She talked about getting up every morning when she was a young girl and running to the Verde River for a swim. All the children did that before the sun came up. Then they would "zoom back home" to get ready for school.

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