History Lessons

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

Next year, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation will mark the 100th anniversary of its reservation with a series of monthly cultural events and gala celebrations.

Mattson, director of the tribe's cultural department which is planning the events, says not many tribes celebrate the anniversary of their confinement to a parcel of land.

"For many, the establishment of the reservation is a message of sorrow," she says. "But Fort McDowell has gone through just incredible challenges over the years. They were given the land in 1903 and by 1906 the government was trying to get them off."

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.

The series of celebrations is the tribe's way of saying "We're still here," she says.

"And look at the progress we've made in 100 years," adds president Pattea, who at age 70 has served in tribal government for 44 years.

"How many people do you know can say they fought the U.S. government and won?"

The little band of Yavapais — in the process of writing its history and language — also is creating its modern legacy.

Two years ago, the tribe finally corrected its mistaken identity by implementing a new constitution that, in addition to reorganizing its government structure, formally pronounces itself "The Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation."

The preamble to the constitution — which replaces one adopted in 1936 — talks about the tribe's "inherent sovereignty," "continued self-government" and the desire to "improve, promote, and maintain our culture, customs and independence of our people."

Compared to the previous constitution's preamble, the new one is a heady declaration of independence. The old one began, "We, the people of the Fort McDowell Band of Mohave-Apache Indians . . ." and talked about wanting to "improve and promote our general welfare and to provide means for the orderly transaction of tribal business and free expression of tribal will."

Closely tied with the new spirit of determination and pride is the tribe's efforts to teach its members and the outside world about its history and culture.

Its major victories as a tribe — the defeat of the Orme Dam project in 1981 and the standoff against federal agents at the casino in 1992 —are commemorated every year as tribal holidays.

The Orme Dam Victory Days each November include intertribal games, a rodeo, cultural entertainment and a "Yavapai Village" — a replica of a traditional community complete with arts and crafts.

And Sovereignty Day — the anniversary of the day the Fort McDowell Indians defied the federal government and, as a result, secured their right to gaming — is celebrated with an annual march, commemorative tee shirts and public tributes to the concept of Indian sovereignty.

In culture camps for children along the Verde River, a "Cultural Immersion Camp" held in Peach Springs a couple of weeks ago for older youth and special cultural events, the Fort McDowell Indians join with related tribes — Yavapais from Camp Verde, Prescott and Payson and cousins from the Hualapai and Havasupai — to share the language and the customs of their ancestors.

At a "Culture Day" held this spring, 150 Yavapais gathered to teach each other things like how to make bows and arrows, how to sew traditional dresses and how to weave baskets.

Mattson is working on updating the 1985 tribal coloring book that included the first written Yavapai words and some of the tribe's history. For the past four years, she has been collecting artifacts, studying historical documents and meeting with elders to piece together the tribe's customs and history.

Eventually, she hopes, the tribe will have its own cultural center to showcase its traditions for its own people and visitors.

Can a community reinvent itself, replacing hopelessness with pride, discord with unity, a lost culture with a renewed sense of identity?

At Fort McDowell, there are signs that these things are not only possible, they are happening. There is a palpable sense of community pride and culture and many measures of a new type of educational success.

Yavapai children sing their own national anthem now, one that includes the words: "We are proud people, we are Yavapai."

At their school awards ceremonies, they sing a welcome song that says "hello" in English and Yavapai: "Guh'm huu' ha, everybody, Guh'm huu' ha."

Students at the 'Hman 'shawa school are writing paragraphs in Yavapai and English by the third grade.

Community members are supporting the educational reforms that the tribe has instituted to save itself, packing functions to applaud the smallest and greatest accomplishments and signing up their kids for the summer camps and cultural immersion programs that will help them get ahead in school and learn about their heritage.

More tribal members than ever graduated from high school this year, part of a definite trend in increasing success rates at all levels. Last year, about 62 percent of those eligible graduated from eighth grade. This year, nearly 90 percent did. This year, about 52 percent of those eligible got their high school diplomas, compared to 47 percent last year.

And 100 percent of those eligible to graduate from college and vocational schools did so this year, an increase from the 71 percent who made it last year.

Truancy problems were cut in half after a new anti-truancy ordinance — one that levied daily fines against parents of truants — went into effect.

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