On Friday night, May 31, Ben Smith was sitting in the multipurpose room of the Fort McDowell Recreation Center. One of his young cousins was graduating from kindergarten and two more were being honored with school awards, and he was there to support them.
Just six days earlier, he had officially graduated from high school.
At age 21.
He didn't show up for his own ceremony at Fountain Hills High School. But he had the diploma in his mobile home. He also had a trust account worth a quarter of a million dollars, his share of gaming profits the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation had invested for him until he graduated from high school or turned 23.
He is feeling confident these days.
"Now that I've got an education, the sky's the limit," he says.
Still, he is naive and unsure about his future plans (what he really wants to be is a pro golfer, but he may just go to massage school) and his finances (he exceeded his $500 limit on a credit card less than two weeks before he is to receive a $57,000 check from his trust account).
In some ways, he personifies some of the problems the tribe has faced in recent years. Smith's family provided little encouragement or guidance to help him get through school. And while he managed to make it through after many detours truancy, drug and alcohol use, dropping out for three years Smith's big monetary reward for his perseverance only complicates matters.
But Smith also represents part of the solution.
Last summer, at the urging of his summer school speech class teacher, he spoke to a group of high school kids in the tribe's summer program, urging them to stay in school and avoid the mistakes he made.
And in May, he was in the rec center to honor his little cousins. By joining the standing-room-only crowd in the facility, he was helping send a message his tribe is working hard to get across to its youngest members:
We are behind you. We are proud of you. And we want you to stay in school.
It's a message Smith, who skipped school for days on end, might have benefited from had he heard it earlier in his life.
On that Friday night, this newly wealthy high school graduate took the time to cheer and congratulate his relatives a kindergarten graduate honored with a "Most Dramatic" medal, a third-grader called "a very good student" who finished his last year at the tribal school, and a first-grader who was awarded a new bike for of all things a perfect attendance record.
Awards ceremonies and monetary incentives for educational accomplishments funded courtesy of casino gaming revenues are only part of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation's grand efforts to secure a brighter future for its members.
The tribe wants its children to stay in school and earn degrees, despite a cash windfall (gaming proceeds put in trust) that awaits every child once he or she comes of age. Officials were making real progress with the tribe's littlest learners particularly those who attend its own tribal elementary school but there was a larger problem.
Students attending off-reservation schools were failing miserably, and very few were getting through high school. And while new gaming revenues provided enough money for the tribe to send all its children to college, the students simply weren't ready. Many weren't prepared academically and others couldn't handle the cultural shock that contributes to three out of every four Indian college students dropping out.
So the Fort McDowell Yavapais realized that while they had made great efforts over the years merely to get their children to attend school, they had neglected a critical part of education their culture.
The tribe, it had to admit, had virtually lost its sense of identity. And its children were paying the price.
This group of 900 whose relatives were forced from their homeland 125 years ago, threatened time and again by the federal government, and stripped of their history and their heritage via an erroneous naming of their people is drafting its modern history itself.
The group's language the very soul of a people was not written down for generations and is nearly extinct. The tribe's history documented early on from the biased perspective of the white men who nearly annihilated the tribe a century ago wasn't available in any books or museums.
Not only have the Fort McDowell Yavapais persevered through generations of oppression and hardship, they have won some modern-day victories that the tribe celebrates as the core of Fort McDowell's new identity.
These people were not only strong enough to endure decades of misery, but courageous enough to stand up to the U.S. government and fight for their rights as a sovereign nation.
In 1981, the tribe defeated the Orme Dam project, a federal effort that would have flooded most of its reservation, and in 1992, its tough stance against armed federal agents protected its right to casino gaming. Thus, the Yavapai paved the way for tribes across the state and country to offer casino gaming.
Today, the tribe is using casino revenues to stress education for its people. The tribe wants a new, improved society rich with Yavapai culture and language.
The tribe is nurturing the latest generation of Yavapais to become educated leaders who can return home and serve their people. It is helping those in older grades stay in school and pushing them to graduate. It is encouraging older, unemployed tribal members to explore careers.
It's a huge agenda.
But the tribe is attempting to accomplish its goals on every front, trying to get tribal members at every age level involved.
"We are a community of learners," says Amy Torres, hired two years ago to head the tribal elementary school and the larger educational efforts.
During the summers, the tribe offers youth programs that are infused not only with academic instruction, but lessons about higher education, careers, and the Yavapai culture and language.
Combining efforts of 15 different tribal departments, the camps were honored not long ago by the Arizona Parks and Recreation Association as a shining example of interagency cooperation. Children from ages 3 to 18 can attend Itty Bitty preschool camp, Camp Yavapai or the Summer Youth program each summer.
During one kindergarten session, children studied maps of the Fort McDowell reservation and pictures of five members of the tribal council. Teacher Deanne Wyrick pointed to the two members who are college graduates. She told the six pupils that to serve on the council, you had to be a high school graduate. She told them their tribal president, Clinton Pattea, walked nearly 30 miles to the downtown Phoenix train station so he could catch a ride to college in Flagstaff. (True, Pattea says, but it was just one time, when he was visiting the school before he enrolled there.)
Middle-school kids, called counselors-in-training, help out with the younger children in the summer program. They take field trips to learn about tribal businesses and operations, and are trained in baby-sitting and food service to prepare them for the types of jobs they could be getting as teens.
Teenagers combine academic studies with training in such topics as careers, higher education and résumé writing. Field trips to job fairs and Arizona State University are mixed in with trips to bowling alleys and the movies. They are paid minimum wage for the hours spent on projects that will help the tribe. This summer, with the help of a mobile ASU video laboratory, the teens will work on producing a movie to capture the tribe's history in anticipation of the community's 100th anniversary on September 15 next year.
During the school year, the tribe uses educational specialists to help bridge the cultural gap between life on and off the reservation. Certified teachers employed by the Fort McDowell nation, the specialists are stationed at public schools off reservation and act as tutors or assistants for the tribe's children and parents.
This year, the tribe hired Fountain Hills teacher Dawn Oester to teach a special English class on the reservation that was more relevant to Indian high school students.
Held after school at the 'Hman 'shawa tribal elementary school, the class began with four girls of various grade levels. They had asked to study a book by an Indian author something they couldn't request in public school.
The two girls in the class one afternoon were obviously fascinated by the book they had selected: House Made of Dawn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by N. Scott Momaday. As they read passages rich with Indian traditions, the girls were quick to offer their own similar experiences.
One student, who had just arrived at Fort McDowell to live with a relative, had been raised on another Arizona reservation. During a passage about a boy trying to get an eagle feather, she told of using such symbols "when I did my ceremony" a coming-of-age ritual for girls.
The other girl talked about her sister carrying her feather plume when she was Miss Fort McDowell. They all discussed watching an eagle fly down by the Verde River on the reservation.
When a selection from the book made a reference to the eagle's talons, Oester interrupted. "What are talons?"
"I don't know," said one of the girls.
"They are long claws," Oester said, then resumed the lesson.
The students were constantly engaged, asking and answering questions and discussing the book as they read it. It was more of a personal dialogue with a teacher than a class.
For children who are having trouble inside or out of school, the tribe is starting a new Wellness Court a problem-solving arena steeped in tribal philosophy.
It is aimed at solving problems before they result in a student dropping out of school or getting arrested and subject to the criminal justice system. Officials will use repeated school suspensions as a signal that something is wrong with a child or his family (although other referrals are possible). The student, parents and tribal elders will then meet to come up with a plan not a legal document to address the situation.
Why do so many of Fort McDowell's children do so poorly in school?
Decades of poverty and lack of opportunities played a large role in dooming most tribal students years ago. But today, when generous casino gaming revenues have fundamentally changed the possibilities on the reservation, many students still struggle academically.
One tribal education administrator who used to work for the Fountain Hills Unified School District said Fort McDowell children would visibly begin to withdraw shortly after they began at the public school.
Bright, happy, outgoing kids would get quieter and quieter, gravitate toward the back of the classrooms and pretty soon stop participating in class.
Another tribal education specialist said the Fort McDowell middle-school students he worked with were no different from other kids, "except for all the Fs."
Teachers say these children are capable of much more. But when they go "over the cattle guard" a literal and symbolic step that describes the border between the reservation and the rest of the world many begin a downward spiral in school. And for too many years, this has translated into academic failure for a majority of the tribe's children. Thirty years ago, the high school dropout rate was 99 percent. Ten years ago, it was still 70 or 80 percent.
Ask any Fort McDowell educator why this is happening and you'll get a common response the children need a better self-image.
It sounds like so much pop psychology, but there are solid reasons Fort McDowell's children could benefit from a boost in their self-esteem. The more obvious obstacles and there are many could be handled more easily if Fort McDowell's kids had a better knowledge of their tribe and a sense of pride in themselves, educators say.
Among those obstacles: the number of Fort McDowell children.
Fort McDowell kids grow up in a small community where nearly everyone is related to everyone else. Some of them begin their education at the 'Hman 'shawa tribal school, which features a 5-to-1 student-teacher ratio and ends at third grade. Then, they are usually sent to Mesa or Fountain Hills schools that are as big or bigger than their entire nation.
In a setting where 80 or 90 percent of the population is white, Fort McDowell children are often not placed in the classrooms with Fort McDowell friends. One story tells of a group of tribal teenaged girls at a Fountain Hills school who got in trouble for meeting in the rest room. School officials suspected they were forming a gang; in reality they were seeking the solace of familiar faces.
The isolation is amplified in those schools attended by only one or two of the tribe's children. Torres, the head of the tribe's educational efforts, has a list of 111 schools attended by Fort McDowell students all around the country the vast majority show only one or two of the tribe's children in a particular grade level.
But those reasons don't explain fully why the tribal students falter in public schools. There are many cases of Asian or black children who succeed in classes where they are the only minority children. Vada Gates, who has taught at Fort McDowell for 20 years, says those children even if they come from downtrodden or oppressive backgrounds have a grounded sense of culture. They have a language, history and spirituality that shapes them and can help them persevere.
For the Fort McDowell students, cultural differences also play a part and can hinder education. Officials say an Indian student who looks down while a teacher is talking to him or her would be considered disrespectful. But in the Yavapai culture, that is exactly how a child shows respect to an elder.
And parents who ordinarily would help bolster their children's performance may be incapable of helping.
Many of them have had little or no experience in public schools, have bad memories and are not comfortable challenging teachers or administrators so their children can get through tough times.
One of the precepts of "The Yavapai Way" rules to live by that the tribe is trying to teach its children is to not speak ill of others. Indeed, tribal members are urged to find the good in everyone.
So complaining about or to a teacher wouldn't seem right. Education administrators are trying to get parents to speak up for their children and their rights without offending their cultural instincts.
"We are teaching the parents to be squeaky wheels," says a former education department manager.
Torres says she hopes to train children to request a different method of instruction if a universal one isn't working.
"If a student doesn't understand something the first time we teach it, what do we do? We teach it the same way we explained it the first time, only louder or slower. We should teach it differently," she says.
Isolation also has contributed to the difficulties children face off reservation. While it seems like their home adjacent to Fountain Hills, just east of Scottsdale and about 20 miles north of Mesa, is accessible to urban areas, transportation problems kept the Indians virtually confined to their own land for decades.
Even today, with gaming revenue providing more money for vehicles and tribally funded field trips, some Fort McDowell students demonstrate a striking naiveté about the world around them. They've been to schools, malls and sporting venues around the Valley and are most familiar with Mesa and downtown Phoenix.
During a field trip to the Arizona Science Center, teenagers were most intrigued with the elevator. And another outing to ASU was a first for most of them. Some were amazed by the "A" on A Mountain and mystified by basic terms used by an Indian adviser at the School of Nursing.
He was telling a group of teenaged girls about prerequisites needed to get into nursing school for either an RN or a BSN degree: 17 classes including four labs chemistry, biology 201 or 202, microbiology, pathophysiology.
He said they could apply to the school after completing 13 classes provided their GPA in those courses was 2.75 or higher.
The girls stopped him. He lost them when he mentioned RN and GPA. "What do those letters mean?" one asked.
Nevertheless, the girls were impressed.
"I am definitely going here," said one.
Outsiders often have a misguided opinion of the Fort McDowell students something that can help shape a child's self-image.
Gates, the kindergarten teacher, says she taught an after-school program not long ago in Fountain Hills. She asked the children one day if they ever came across the cattle guard to visit their neighbors on the reservation.
"Oh, no," the children said. "The Indians might kill us."
Gates asked what they thought the reservation was like.
"It's just a bunch of weeds," they replied.
History shows that without a strong sense of self-identity, Indian students can take such hurtful opinions to heart. A tribal document dated during the 1970s says young Yavapai students in off-reservation public schools had taken to calling themselves "dumb Indians" because that's how others referred to them.
Valencia Yazzie, a Navajo who teaches kindergarten at 'Hman 'shawa school, says Indian children can accept their minority status and endure teasing in larger public schools if they are proud of their race and their people.
She points to her own daughter, half Navajo and half Hopi, as an example.
A student at Coronado High School in Scottsdale where Navajo-Hopi students are rare, indeed she has flourished, is an honor student and was selected to travel to Washington, D.C., and New York City this summer to meet with an international teen leaders group.
Raised in an urban setting for the last six years, Yazzie's daughter makes trips back to her mother's and father's reservations during school breaks to participate in the tribes' most traditional ceremonies.
"You need a sense of who you are and where you came from," says Yazzie.
And several research studies in education journals support this idea revealing a definite link between an Indian child's academic performance and his sense of self-identity.
Fort McDowell students have good reason for their lack of self-esteem. Their tribe as a whole has suffered from an identity crisis for more than 100 years.
It was 1865 when Fort McDowell was established on the Verde River, a U.S. military outpost to fight Indians and protect the area's mining interests.
The primary enemy those days was the Apache tribe, a tough people armed with guns. The Yavapai, unrelated to the Apaches, roamed a wide area of the state that did not include the Apache territory.
Their nomadic descendants, who once numbered 6,000, were hunters and gatherers who were equipped only with bows, arrows and clubs.
Historians believe U.S. soldiers may have first mistaken the Yavapais for Apaches when they asked them who they were. "A'baja," the Indians might have replied. In Yavapai, it means "I am a person." But to the English-speaking soldiers, their pronunciation ah ba jay sounded like "Apache."
For decades, the soldiers considered these misidentified Yavapais their enemies. They slaughtered hundreds of virtually helpless men, women and children at Arizona sites named for the blood baths that occurred there Skull Valley, Skeleton Cave, Bloody Basin.
In 1875, the soldiers forced the surviving 1,400 Yavapais to march from the Verde Valley area to the San Carlos Apache reservation in the eastern mountains. During the two-week "Trail of Tears," hundreds more Yavapais died, many from the rigors of the trek. Yavapai tales say others perished after consuming poisoned drinks and meat, young ones who had trouble keeping up were choked to death and babies born en route were left on the trail to die. Legend has it that the tears cried along the way turned to stone Yavapai Tears which came erroneously to be called Apache Tears.
The military thought the Indians were returning to their own Apache people. But the Yavapais who didn't speak Apache called it imprisonment.
They stayed in San Carlos for 25 years a generation and were further misnamed. A tribal researcher says she has found 25 different names for the tribe. Apaches believed because they had come from the west, they must be part of the Mohave Indian tribe.
When the group was finally granted its own reservation in 1903 at the present-day site near the Beeline Highway and Shea Boulevard only 400 Yavapais remained.
By then, their culture and traditions had been diluted by living with and marrying the Apaches. Many of their children were sent away to boarding schools, never to be seen again.
Their erroneous identity became official when they were called the Fort McDowell Mohave-Apache Indian Community a name that stuck for the next 97 years.
They were neither Mohaves nor Apaches. Their 25,000-acre homeland was a tiny slice of nine million square miles their ancestors roamed. And to add insult to injury, the very name of the reservation forever commemorated the headquarters of the soldiers who nearly obliterated their tribe.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
"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.
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."
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.
The younger students are scoring high across the board on the Brigance Tests, a measure of learning readiness that proves the tribe's preschool efforts are working.
Primary students attending the tribe's elementary school are posting strong scores on standardized tests. Education officials are trying to figure out how to keep those scores high once they leave the reservation.
While for decades the tribe counted only a few college graduates, today the number is closer to 15.
The conversational Yavapai language course for adults held twice a week is regularly attended by as many as 19 people.
The pilot community college math course offered on the reservation this summer had room for 15 students. And 15 signed up. (The tribe hopes to eventually have its own satellite community college campus on the reservation.)
Forty more adults with a high school diploma but without a job are participating in new career exploration programs, like an internship program that involves attending community college.
In 1989, only one Fort McDowell Yavapai was enrolled in college. Today, 47 tribal members attend college or vocational schools. One is working on a master's degree and another is in a doctoral program in psychology.
Although most of their ancestors never dreamed of attending college, many children at Fort McDowell today imagine a future in which higher education is a given.
Gates says years ago students who were asked what they wanted to be when they grow up would write things like "I want to work at Bashas'" or "I want to have a popover [frybread] stand."
Today, kids are responding that they want to be doctors, lawyers, teachers. They routinely mention college in their future plans.
Two essays written at Camp Yavapai last summer indicate that not only are the tribal children getting the message that they need to go to college, but surrounded by affluence they are grounded in the Yavapai traits of kindness and sharing.
Shawna Bear, 11, wrote in an essay at Camp Yavapai last summer that she wanted to go to ASU, play basketball and become a doctor.
"I want to be a doctor because they help people and take care of them," she said.
Another 12-year-old girl said she wanted to play basketball in the WNBA and be as good as Kobe Bryant.
"This kind of job pays a lot of money. I could help people and donate to the needy," she wrote.
Older kids are beginning to learn that dropping out and waiting for their share of the gaming profits is not fulfilling. While tribal members tell tales of teenagers quitting school and doing nothing, getting hooked on drugs, or carelessly spending huge sums of gaming proceeds, there are new stories circulating.
In the homework lab one day, an 18-year-old says she dropped out but got bored and came back to school. Another 15-year-old can't figure out the appeal of quitting school. Her sister left high school, she says, "And she just stays home and cleans the house all day."
Others talk about friends, daughters, sons, grandchildren who have decided to return to school and complete their education.
And there are reports that kids are learning from the mistakes of their peers, choosing to take only a portion of their gaming money when they come of age and investing the rest.
Amy Torres, education head for the tribe and its 483 students, made an amazing pronouncement earlier this year. On that particular day, she said, all the tribe's students were attending school. Some were right next door in 'Hman 'shawa classrooms, in the comfort of small classes filled with familiar faces. Some were across the cattle guard, in public schools, charter schools and even incarcerated settings. Some were in boarding schools, private schools, vocational schools and colleges. Some were enrolled in correspondence courses.
"Everyone who should be in school is in school," she said.
For a tribe with dropout rates approaching 100 percent just 30 years ago, it was an incredible achievement.
Still, the tribe is not resting on these indicators of success. President Pattea notes that last year, six tribal members earned new bikes for perfect school attendance throughout the year. This year, only two received the awards.
"We're going to have to work on that," he says.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.