History Lessons

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

Other tribal elders also shared stories with the children, tales triggered by a stop on the trail, like the mesquite tree or the packrat's nest.

Larry Doka, the tribe's treasurer, told how they used to chew on the mesquite beans like gum, hunt packrats for food and trade them at a nearby store for soda and candy.

He told them it was important that they had learned about the natural resources on the reservation, wrote the guidebook and published a professional-looking Yavapai Trail coloring book.

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.

"I grew up watching all the plants and animals, but I just took them for granted," he told students. "I never realized we have such a beautiful reservation. We have most everything here."

Tribal vice president Bernardine Boyd told the boys and girls they had learned a valuable lesson.

"The land we walk on is precious and has a lot of meaning to us," she said.

It was an institutional version of what used to go on for generations in the Yavapai tribe — elders spending time with younger ones teaching them the ways of the past.

The tribe has talked for years about building a larger education complex that can house more children up through fifth grade. Some would like to see it include middle-school grades and maybe even high school.

But while some officials hope it will happen within two years, others aren't sure. The community is divided about the wisdom of keeping its children secluded from the outside world for so long. Yes, the 'Hman 'shawa tribal school is doing great things with the younger children. But many believe the tribe would best serve its youngsters by forcing them to mingle with the outside world at an early age.

At 'Hman 'shawa, teachers concentrate on doing the best job they can with the children they see in their classrooms. They know that at any time during a child's education, parents may decide to move him or her to a public school, where larger classes and the lack of Indian students can come as a shock.

Cindy Lewis, the third-grade teacher who sees all her students head out into "the real world," says she knows they have a hard time adjusting to their new schools.

"What I try to do is to make sure they'll succeed academically so they don't have that barrier, too," she says.

Gates, the kindergarten teacher who is now instructing the children of students she once taught, says she can't help but worry about her little graduates as they venture off-reservation.

"We have a lot of sharp kids here," she says. "We're training future leaders. I just hope and pray that once they leave here, someone else will see it and not just see another brown face."

The tribe is trying to share its culture with surrounding communities so its children won't be misunderstood or ridiculed when they go off reservation.

Lewis plans to invite neighboring schools to visit "The Yavapai Trail" so they can learn not only about desert ecosystems, but the Indian people who live there.

The education department has also invited other schools to a powwow so they can see some of the Yavapai crafts and traditions.

And the tribe is again emphasizing a value that is central to its culture — its generosity. Even when its people were impoverished and downtrodden, they tried to live by the Yavapai Way of sharing with others and not being selfish.

Decades ago, that translated into sharing a hunted deer with every family in the community.

Now that the Fort McDowell Indians are wealthy, the tradition continues on a grander scale.

The Yavapai nation has spent millions funding scholarships at Arizona's three universities for hundreds of students other than its own — and it has included a stipulation that 20 percent of the money be used for non-Indian students. It is sponsoring additional programs at the Arizona university and community college levels aimed at helping Indian students succeed through closer monitoring and better communication.

The tribe once offered $5 million to endow a medical school at Arizona State University (a gift aimed at helping Indian students get medical degrees) but the state Board of Regents declined the offer, preferring to keep a sole college of medicine in Tucson.

The tribe has picked up sponsorship of the annual Fiesta Bowl parade. It has helped out other tribes not so flush with gaming money — a Hopi youth program, an Alaskan tribe fighting for its resources, the 240-member Kaibab Pauite tribe in northern Arizona, which needed assistance starting up some businesses.

Last fall, the Fort McDowell Indians contributed $50,000 to the families of firefighters killed in the World Trade Center attack and $50,000 to the families of police officers who lost their lives there.

Just recently, the tribe pledged $100,000 to help lure the genome project to downtown Phoenix.

It's also in the running as a site for the Arizona Cardinals stadium. And in the past, the community has tried to lure baseball teams to consider its location for spring training.

Even the formation of the Fort McDowell Kiwanis Club is an example of this. The first of its type on an Indian reservation, the service club sponsors projects — like the free bikes for perfect attendance in school — that go above and beyond programs the tribal government can provide.

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