History Lessons

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

"Sometimes when you are angry or mad or upset, it' s a really good thing to run," she told the rapt group of 19 children. "It keeps your mind clear. . . . Always have a clear mind, open and ready to learn."

She also tries to pass on more modern lessons, like how to avoid blowing the gaming revenue share children will get when they graduate from high school.

"The message is getting out there," she says. "We tell the kids how it is."

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.

Ray — who also helps organize cultural camps that help children and adults learn Yavapai words and ways — says all these efforts won't show results for quite some time. And that's only if the instruction is consistent and continual, she says.

"Experts say it takes from one to seven years for the language to really sink in," she says. "Right now, we are still at about 5 percent [fluency]. But we are stable."

Ray says she hears community members speak common phrases, like "Hello, how are you," in Yavapai, "but only when they see me."

Brandi Mack was riding in a truck a month or so ago with her grandmother, grandfather and another man. The air conditioner in the vehicle was blowing right on her.

"Muu' nii'," Brandi said.

Her grandma, Leticia Osife, was stunned.

"Did you hear that?" she asked her husband and their friend.

Brandi, age 8, was saying, "It's cold."

But the fact that she chose to say it in Yavapai floored her elders. The girl, who just finished third grade at the 'Hman 'shawa tribal school, had been exposed to the Yavapai language not only during regular instructional sessions with Karen Ray, but nearly every day in her classroom.

Cindy Lewis, her teacher, incorporated the language into daily lessons and organized a remarkable two-year "ethnobotany" project that combined science and other topics with instruction about the Yavapai people.

It embodied all the goals the tribe is working toward: celebrating education, developing a knowledge of Yavapai history and culture, and bringing elders and young people together to help pass on important lessons.

Students in Lewis' class used natural resources right outside the classroom door — a magnificent saguaro cactus and a wide variety of desert plants and animals — as the inspiration for their project.

In the center of what the children named "The Yavapai Trail" is the cactus. According to the students' research and mathematical calculations, it may be the largest in Arizona. It stands 44 feet tall, has 24 arms and could be as old as 400 years. (One book cited on the Saguaro National Park Web site says the largest saguaro on record was 40 feet tall, but died in 1992.)

On May 24, the children invited tribal elders and dignitaries for the grand unveiling of the school's own educational nature trail. They led invited guests along the path, past 16 different stops, each professionally marked with a silver plaque. Reading from guidebooks they had written and illustrated, the students told about the plant or animal, revealed its English name, Latin scientific name and Yavapai name. They would then say how the Yavapai people used the plant in the past.

Brandi Mack proudly escorted her grandmother Leticia Osife and Osife's sister Helen Haynes down the trail. At each stop, she held the guidebook she helped write in two hands, read to her elders about a tree or a bush, told them the native uses, then pronounced the three names.

"What is the Yavapai name?" Osife or Haynes would ask, making her repeat it for practice.

Osife and Haynes, sisters of the late tribal leader Gilbert Jones, say they were not full-blooded Yavapai and were self-conscious about speaking the language as they were growing up. Now, Osife says, Brandi knows many words they do not.

"It sounds really good to hear the children telling the Yavapai words," Haynes says.

Osife was recently granted custody of Brandi. (The child of an alcoholic mother and an absent father, Brandi and several siblings were sent to temporary homes around Arizona. But conditions were so bad at the house where Brandi was placed that Osife adopted her to keep her safe.)

Brandi's grandmother wants her to learn the culture and the language as well as the importance of an education.

"I tell her, You have to go to college,'" says Osife, who recently cheered Brandi at her third-grade awards ceremony held May 31.

As Osife and Haynes went down the Yavapai trail a week earlier, the plants and animals they saw and the uses Brandi spoke about spurred memories from their childhood.

They remembered barefoot days hiking for hours to pick wild berries and onions. They told about using the jojoba plant (ikasu in Yavapai) for soap and shampoo. At the saguaro (a'a'h in Yavapai), they told Brandi how they would string a wire across the top of a cactus rib, then cut off the flowers high on top before the birds could get to them. Inside was a sweet red and black fruit similar to watermelon.

At the trail marker for the ironwood tree (jm quwilla), the women said that was the best wood for stoves because it burned so hot. They talked about having to get up at 4 a.m. when they were children, starting the wood-burning stove in their homes and cooking tortillas to bring with them to school in Mesa. They had to leave on a bus at 5 a.m. to travel for a three-hour trip over dirt roads to their school.

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