Arianna Dorchester, 5, a graduate of the Fort McDowell kindergarten class, is the pride of her mother, Jessica.
Arianna Dorchester, 5, a graduate of the Fort McDowell kindergarten class, is the pride of her mother, Jessica.
Erik Guzowski

It Takes a Tribe

The audience stands out of respect as the first notes of "Pomp and Circumstance" are played on a piano.

As the graduates walk down the center aisle in brilliant red caps and gowns, they smile and seek out faces in the crowd. Parents and grandparents with cameras, sisters and brothers and cousins fill the room. Clutched in their hands are congratulatory balloons, fresh roses, stuffed bears wearing graduation caps.

The nation's president stands at the microphone.

"You are the youth of today, the leaders of tomorrow," he says. "This is a very proud moment."

Indeed it is.

Even if the graduates are only kindergartners.

Two classes — 19 boys and girls who sit patiently onstage at the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation's recreation center — represent a radically new future for the tribe.

After more than a century of grueling hardship, 900 Fort McDowell Yavapais — a fraction of the thousands of ancestors who once roamed a wide area of Arizona — remain. Only 700 live on the reservation. And most of them have a dim grasp of their cultural identity.

But what this tribe lacks in numbers and cultural strength, it makes up in guts.

Parents and grandparents of these kindergarten graduates defied government sharpshooters, FBI agents, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and the governor of Arizona in 1992 to protect their casino franchise in a battle to guarantee a future free of the extreme poverty that had been their legacy.

Today, gambling revenue and the Yavapai kindergartners are part of a bigger fight to educate Indians who have traditionally had nearly 100 percent dropout rates by the end of high school. The kids are also part of a revolutionary experiment in creating a modern history for a tribe that, in critical ways, does not remember clearly its own identity.

This remarkable effort began after their elders' struggle with armed lawmen.

Leticia Osife, a tribal member and grandmother who was in the graduation audience in May, was one of the first Indians to arrive on the scene of the historic standoff at the casino 10 years ago.

A friend called her early the morning of May 12, 1992, and said the government was seizing hundreds of video gaming slot machines from the casino.

The two hurried down there and confronted armed federal agents.

On orders of then-U.S. Attorney for Arizona Linda Akers, the agents had staged a predawn raid to prove a point — that such gambling was not legal in the absence of compacts with the state government.

Osife's friend got in the face of the first FBI agent she saw.

"You are not taking our machines. They are ours. And this is our land," she said.

The agent didn't respond.

While authorities cleaned out the casino's equipment, Osife called her brother, Gilbert Jones, then a tribal council member.

"He told me to phone [the tribe's] sand and gravel [operation] and have them send some trucks and bulldozers over. . . . Never in my wildest dreams did I think I was being a part of history."

The heavy equipment, and, later, tribal members' own vehicles, formed a blockade in the road leading out of the reservation so agents couldn't drive off with trucks full of video slot machines.

Osife says she saw a government sniper on the roof of the casino.

"I was frightened," she says. "I thought, Is it ever going to end?'"

After then-governor Fife Symington rushed by helicopter to the casino parking lot, he and tribal president Clinton Pattea agreed to a 10-day "cooling off" period in which the video machines would stay put. In the negotiations and court proceedings that followed, the Fort McDowell Indians emerged the victors.

On that May morning a decade ago, the feisty group of Yavapais — one of five Arizona tribes raided that day — was the only one to put up a fight.

The tense standoff in the desert became a dramatic, visible symbol of a larger dispute — not only over gaming rights, but Indian sovereignty. It made front-page news across the country and warranted network TV coverage.

Beyond Arizona, the legal and symbolic victory at Fort McDowell boosted other Indian efforts to offer or expand casino gaming.

Today, the industry provides more than $10 billion in annual revenue for hundreds of Indian tribes across the United States.

And the long-suffering Fort McDowell community, a small tribe on a rectangular patch of land northeast of Phoenix, is now a rich nation.

This year's graduates of the 'Hman 'shawa kindergarten are living in conditions their grandparents never imagined.

While their relatives grew up in ramshackle houses with no phones, indoor plumbing or electricity, these boys and girls have grown up in spacious, modern houses.

They are accustomed to traveling in brand-new cars, while their relatives remember childhoods with virtually no transportation.

They have started their education in an amazing tribal school where classes are small, teachers are happy and supplies are plentiful. Some of their relatives were sent away to boarding schools, some never to see their families again. Others spent more than six hours each school day bouncing over dirt roads on a bus that would take them to and from the nearest public school in Mesa.

Unemployment rates, before gambling, climbed to 60 percent.

Just 25 years ago, annual per capita income was $1,560 on the reservation, a third of the rate for the state of Arizona at that time. Half of the 53 homes on the reservation then were classified as dilapidated. Eight more were in disrepair.

As recently as 10 years ago, a visitor to a Fort McDowell home traveled a dirt road to find a small 30-year-old wooden structure one of its occupants frankly called a shack. Water came from an outdoor spigot. A haphazard arrangement of chairs under an outdoor tree served as a gathering area. Indoors, 14 people shared three rooms.

For decades, the community had no recreation hall, no library, no place to vote, no health facility, no school. And the tribal government — which operated on a $30,000 annual budget before it got involved in gaming — was virtually powerless to make improvements.

In annual surveys by the Arizona Commission on Indian Affairs, tribal leaders filled in typed responses to questions asking them to describe programs for helping members become educated and employed. Year after year, the answers rang with a sense of defeat:

"None. Don't have any money."

"None. Lack of funds."

"Lack of funds makes tribal help impossible."

Permeating the community was a feeling of hopelessness.

What was the point of getting an education when there were no opportunities for employment on the reservation, no way to get to jobs off the reservation?

In 1973, the tribe applied for a federal grant to begin an early childhood education program aimed at curbing what at that time was an astonishing dropout rate — 50 percent in grade school and 99 percent in high school.

In the grant application, tribal officials said the Yavapai people were living "lonely, isolated and depressed lives."

Vada Gates, a teacher hired as part of the early childhood education efforts that eventually evolved into today's tribal school, says when she arrived on the reservation just 20 years ago, she saw Third World conditions.

"Many people were on welfare. But they couldn't afford cars to go try and get a job. It was just a terrible situation."

On their kindergarten graduation gowns, Fort McDowell children wear turquoise ribbons, a decorative touch reserved for special tribal occasions. On their mortarboards, they have eagle fluffs, small downy puffs from the inside layer of the birds' feathers.

The feathers — which mark a first milestone in education — can be worn for years to come in ceremonies, dances and future graduations.

The tribe is banking on the boys and girls donning more graduation caps and earning more feathers.

Growing up in an unfamiliar era of casino-funded affluence, these children are being nurtured in a community-wide atmosphere of support, pride and encouragement.

They are attending tribally funded programs aimed at keeping them in school, instilling in them an appreciation for their heritage and inspiring them to become leaders of their nation.

Without these intense efforts, tribal leaders fear, these youngest Yavapais would repeat the history of dissipation in spite of gaming revenues.

Many of the older children in the community — handed too much money, too fast — have been lured into the worlds of drugs and alcohol. Tribal officials have started educational programs, called community meetings and formed a committee to stem growing substance-abuse problems.

Tribal president Clinton Pattea says not only is drug abuse a new problem for the tribe, but alcohol abuse, an ever-present problem in tribal history, also is on the increase. Over the last 10 years, he said, the rate of alcohol abuse has risen from 15 percent of the population to 23 percent — meaning nearly one in four tribal members has a drinking problem.

Another study showed 16 percent of visitors to the tribal health center have alcohol- or drug-related problems, a rate 32 times higher than the one found in the general population in a similar study of U.S. hospitals.

The figures help explain why the tribe's children are in need of official programs and incentives to help nurture and teach them. Many come from homes where mom, dad or their grandparents are not sober enough to help them succeed in school.

Pattea said the tribe is pushing prevention these days, hoping the youngest generation can avoid the lure of substance abuse, excessive spending and laziness — pitfalls made slipperier with easy money.

In the 10 years the tribe has been able to expand its casino just north of Shea Boulevard on the Beeline Highway, changes on the reservation have been dramatic.

Substandard homes have been replaced with modern stucco residences complete with tile roofs and wide, paved driveways. More than 80 of these $100,000 homes have been erected courtesy of the tribal government. In front of each of those houses are several cars, economy vehicles parked next to impressive new trucks, SUVs and boats.

On their roofs are satellite dishes. Inside are big-screen TVs and tribal-issued computers. And on every residential lot is an attractive tribe-provided storage shed aimed at keeping yards neat.

Blacktopped roads lead to new facilities offering a variety of services — a recreation complex, a day-care center, a health center, an expanded tribal government complex, improved police and fire departments and the new We-Ko-Pa golf course.

On a gorgeous patch of desert at the confluence of the Verde and the Salt rivers, where there once were no jobs at all, the Fort McDowell nation oversees tribal industries and agencies with about 1,300 employees — more than triple the community's work force of 400 people. (Some 300 tribal members now work for the tribal government and its enterprises.)

Members get annual payments of about $30,000 each. And the tribe's budget averages between $80 million and $100 million a year.

Pattea, the tribal leader who spoke at the kindergarten graduation, says education is the key to Fort McDowell's future. He has a vision of a sovereign, self-reliant community that blends traditional values and modern ways to ensure its success and continued existence.

But that vision includes Fort McDowell Indians heading up those efforts — a picture that today is wildly out of focus.

Tribal leaders take heat for filling top business and government positions with non-Yavapai and non-Indian employees. Out of about 30 tribal departments and businesses, only three tribal members hold top positions. And two of those, the head of the sand and gravel operation and the acting general manager of the tribe, were appointed after a shakeup late last year cost three non-Yavapais their jobs.

Some are angry that Yavapais are not considered good enough for the community's most important positions.

A flier posted around the reservation last year implored the tribal council to "trust us with tribal jobs and have faith in our intelligence."

But tribal leaders who agree that Yavapai people should be in charge say there simply are not enough tribal members with the experience and education to head departments and multimillion-dollar enterprises.

Pattea, who survived a recall attempt over this very issue last fall, said the tribe needs qualified people to manage not only the government departments and the casino, but new and expanded enterprises like the tribal farm, the golf course, the service station, a wilderness adventure business and a resort hotel that is in the planning stages.

For now, that means bringing in outsiders to run those enterprises.

"We need the experienced and professional officers to come and more or less introduce new programs and run them for five years or so, then move on to other careers. By that time, more of our young people will have college degrees. And they can take over. But we're looking at five, 10, or even 20 years down the road."

The tribe is trying to prepare some of its members to step into those executive roles sooner rather than later.

Six employees are in managerial positions within the government and are being groomed for higher-level jobs in career development programs. Another six are attending four-year colleges. Pattea says the tribe's plan is to make sure they graduate, work for a few years off the reservation, then return to Fort McDowell to begin working for the tribe — hopefully in key roles.

The tribe allocates $2.5 million annually for its education budget.

With only 483 students from preschool to college, the amount equals nearly $5,200 per student. That's $1,000 a year higher than the state average for K-12 students.

Fort McDowell's educational spending is even more impressive considering about 300 of its students attend public schools in the Valley, where their educational costs are already covered.

The same gaming money, however, that can pay for the best education for Fort McDowell's children can also serve as a disincentive. The old community apathy toward education — based on few employment opportunities — is being partially supplanted by a new type of apathy fueled by impending wealth.

Kids who are urged to finish high school and head to college have a six-figure chunk of gaming profits waiting for them when they become adults — their amount of monthly payments held in trust. On top of that, they know that, like their parents, they'll be receiving monthly per capita payments — between $2,000 and $3,000 — that can easily afford them a comfortable living without them ever having to get a job.

Tribal teenagers wear the latest, priciest fashions: Phat Farm, Sean John, FUBU and Tommy Hilfiger. They carry cell phones and wear Walkmans.

At a session of the summer youth program last year, one boy tried to take a picture with his camera but it wouldn't work. He teased that the guy he was aiming at broke the camera — an old joke.

"You're from Fort McDowell; just buy another one," said Jayson Jones.

Everyone laughed.

Jones, then entering his senior year in high school, was the oldest in the group of 18 teens. He got annoyed watching many of the younger kids messing around, not listening to teachers. He says few of them are seriously looking past their share of the gaming money that they will be entitled to after they become adults.

"They think gaming's going to be around forever, but it's not," he says.

The tribe has altered its gaming revenue disbursement system for kids to try to encourage them to stay in school and get a diploma. At first, students were given the entire amount when they turned 18. And there are plenty of stories illustrating how kids squandered this money. Several merely dropped out of school as soon as they turned 18. One girl blew $300,000 in three months, buying new cars, drugs and gifts for her friends before landing in a rehabilitation facility.

Tribal officials amended the law to spread out the funds over a decade and to require a high school diploma (not a GED) before a student can get the money at 18. With a GED, a student is entitled to the money at age 21. And without a diploma, tribal members still get their funds when they turn 23.

"To me, [that new law] is not really helping," says Leticia Osife, who is raising three grandchildren. "They can just quit school, stay at home and wait for their money."

You might say that Osife is something of an expert witness.

Osife says her extended family is so large that it seems as if nearly all the children on the reservation are somehow related to her. She calls most of them her grandchildren to simplify their family ties.

The tribe has attempted to counterbalance the influence of easy money by instilling a sense of accomplishment for academic excellence as well as a sense of pride in elders who are encouraged to nurture learning in the young.

At the recent kindergarten graduation ceremony — which also included awards for students from grades 1 through 3 — Osife was in the audience, sitting next to tribal president Pattea, clapping for many of her young relatives.

She is the assistant to Pattea, a man she has worked for for 27 years. And she is the sister of Gilbert Jones, the late tribal leader who told her to call out the bulldozers during the casino confrontation 10 years ago.

On the one hand, she knows tribal officials are doing all they can to help young people succeed and to address the growing problems of alcohol and substance abuse.

But on the other hand, she is intimately aware of how the easy gaming money can corrupt the tribe's youth.

One morning she sat at her desk outside Pattea's office and looked at a clock. At about that time, she said, her 16-year-old granddaughter was boarding a plane — with a police escort — to enroll in a residential drug rehabilitation facility in Utah.

The girl had been using glass (a smokable methamphetamine) and marijuana without Osife's knowledge. By the time Osife discovered what was happening, it was too late. The girl was addicted.

Osife and others in her generation say they are so unfamiliar with drugs that they miss the signs of abuse going on in their own homes. At the same time, they are anguished that the tribal youth are destroying their bodies — and in some cases, ending their lives — with drugs and alcohol.

Osife says because of their guaranteed share of gaming money, kids on the reservation don't even have to pay for drugs. The sellers (tribal members) know that once a customer comes of age, he will get a large sum of cash and pay off the tab.

Whether they are involved in drugs, Osife says, too many teenagers are counting on their gaming money rather than planning to get their education.

"That's all they wait for is that day that they turn 18 or 23," she says.

Two years ago — when this year's kindergarten class was ready to start preschool — president Pattea issued an executive order outlining a program designed to turn around the tribe's dismal educational record. Included were plans for the tribe to install a computer in every home and to carefully monitor each of the community's nearly 500 students to help them get through grade school, high school and college.

It was a huge assignment considering parents can send their children anywhere they choose and often switch them from school to school when things don't work out. About a hundred pupils attend preschool through third grade classes at the 'Hman 'shawa school on the reservation. Nearly 400 more are scattered among 110 more public, private and boarding schools around the Valley and beyond.

The tribal council hired educator Amy Torres to serve as principal of the elementary school and oversee broader educational efforts.

A former Mesa high school teacher, charter school administrator and employee of a technology-based educational company, one of Torres' primary jobs was to find a way to track all the students at Fort McDowell. That involved contacting more than 100 schools, researching family living situations and setting up a database of all the tribe's 483 students. And it entailed convincing schools to send her report cards and notify her about disciplinary actions so she can monitor how the kids are doing, not just where they are.

This year she and other tribal educational specialists intensified efforts with high school seniors, holding weekly meetings beginning in January to help guide them through their final semester. And they began file folders on all the other high school students — sort of a dossier with a four-year plan for each child.

Parents are kept informed along the way.

"We're not spies," she says. "We care about them."

'Hman 'shawa, the tribal school, sits on a bluff facing the Four Peaks mountains, an ancestral home of the Yavapais. Its entryway is lined with boulders imprinted with petroglyphs etched by their people thousands of years ago.

The school's name means "for the little ones" in Yavapai, although the work that goes on there involves even the oldest members of the community.

'Hman 'shawa is different from other schools.

Here, there is no teachers' lounge.

Nor are there lunchroom attendants, playground monitors, or weekly early release days so teachers can have time to plan their lessons and attend meetings.

Officials believe every moment a child is in school presents an opportunity for learning. And whatever problems a child faces at home — alcoholism, drug abuse, lassitude — that child will be nurtured before, during and after the traditional school day by a cadre of committed teachers.

Students report to their classes at 7:40 a.m. each day. Twenty minutes later, they head to the cafeteria for breakfast.

Each teacher and aide stays with their classes not only during instructional hours, but also during breakfast, lunch and recess. They carefully coordinate their rest-room breaks, so one can hurry to the unisex rest room in the office while the other one stays with the class. One of the teachers also rides the bus as it delivers the children back to their houses.

"We are with the children all the time," explains kindergarten teacher Vada Gates. "We don't take breaks."

She is not complaining.

Educators aren't afraid that the children will get into trouble without their watchful eyes. It's just that they don't want to waste a minute of valuable teaching time.

With the tribe's history of educational deficiencies, the number of kids from troubled homes, and the cultural obstacles that await the children off the reservation, officials believe, every moment counts in these early years.

Unlike in public schools where only the poorest students qualify for federally funded meals, here everyone eats two meals a day, no questions asked.

Rather than encouraging families to provide nutritious breakfasts to help their children start their day ready to learn, the school simply feeds everybody.

At breakfast and lunch, students are taught to wait until everyone at their table is served. Then they say a prayer:

"We give thanks for the world so fair. For the sun and the rain and friends who care. Amen."

Sitting right next to their teachers, the boys and girls are constantly learning. Grown-ups stress manners, nutritional value of food, proper use of utensils.

There are basic survival skills being taught: Eat well, be ready to learn, get along with others, be gracious and be grateful.

Outside on the playground — where there are no bells or whistles — teachers also continue to watch over and instruct the children.

Four nights a week, all students are assigned homework. For the 3-year-olds, it might be listening to a story and giving a summary in class. Or it might be to play a traditional Yavapai game with a parent or elder such as "nohowe," a game that involves hiding a stone under a pile of dirt and guessing where it is.

Anyone is welcome to stay after school in staffed homework rooms to get homework help. Some students just want to get their work done before they get home. Some need extra help. And some come from dysfunctional families where no one is available to help them in their homes.

'Hman 'shawa has a 5 to 1 student-teacher ratio. Every class has a certified teacher and an aide for a dozen or fewer students. Pupils are provided everything they need for school without any wish lists sent home to parents, annual fund-raising efforts, or teachers dipping into their own pockets.

The school supply room is amply stocked and the teachers say they can easily get approval for any extra things they need for instruction.

Does all this really make a difference?

"It makes a tremendous difference," says Gates, who has taught Fort McDowell children for two decades.

Outside school, Gates says, improved conditions have made "the whole environment more conducive to learning." Twenty years ago, many homes didn't have running water or hot water, so just making meals and bathing were huge tasks. That left little time for homework or learning, Gates says.

Today, kids can study in comfort, with air conditioning, new furniture and computers, and modern plumbing standard features in their homes.

Parents are helping their children more. They are used to leaving the reservation and shopping at nice stores and they are springing for things that were once "luxuries," Gates says, like educational workbooks, computer games and colorful writing tools for their kids.

Families are even taking vacations — unheard of before gaming money.

"It has really opened new horizons for expanded learning," Gates says.

Amy Torres, who is not a tribal member, had to earn the trust of the community when she arrived two years ago. She is not only monitoring the children, she must be in constant contact with the families, keeping them informed, making suggestions, breaking bad news or bringing great news. She urges students, families and school administrators from outside the reservation to call her if they ever have a question, problem or concern.

It is clear she has succeeded. Tribal members and the staff have warmed to her and frequently contact her about a child, a problem, a program.

Alerted by parents about trouble with their child at a public school, she will make some quick phone calls to that school's officials, then set up a quick meeting with a parent and child to discuss things. Recently, she intervened when an off-reservation school suspended a troubled student for an angry outburst. Did it occur to officials there to seek the reason for the problem rather than just kicking the kid out? she asked.

She sounded off about the district's disciplinary policy that suspends Fort McDowell children who are tardy or cutting class.

"I laughed when I heard that," she says. "I said, You are rewarding them for their behavior. Instead of making them complete their assignments, you are telling them they don't have to go to school.'"

Torres offers reassurance, advice, encouragement to parents and their children on a daily basis.

One day while walking through the tribal office complex, she said hello to a father, then told him how well his daughter was doing in 'Hman 'shawa.

On another day, a call came in from the mother of Ian, a fourth-grader who had completed third grade at 'Hman 'shawa the previous spring.

A smart boy, who wore Pokémon shirts and a long braid down his back, Ian had won a perfect attendance award — and a new bicycle as a prize — that year.

Before he left, Ian promised Torres he would graduate from high school.

"I told him I will look forward to it," she says. "And I will be there."

She also asked him to keep in touch, to let her know how he was doing at his new, larger, off-reservation school.

His mother called that day at Ian's request. He wanted to let Torres know he was doing well, he was thinking about her and he missed her.

At Fort McDowell, the 'Hman 'shawa school bus comes to each child's house.

Each morning last school year, while 4-year-old Lucy Sanchez waited for a ride to preschool, she and her grandmother would pass the time reading books together.

Brenda Jones, Lucy's grandma (and Jayson Jones' aunt), said it became an enjoyable routine, one spurred by a reading incentive program at the 'Hman 'shawa school that rewarded children for how many books they read during the year. (The prize — one free book for every five read.)

Lucy loves Bible stories and books about bugs. And so that is what her grandmother read to her. Day after day.

During "Turn Off Your TV" week — a national effort that hasn't really caught on among the rest of the population — Jones heeded the suggestion made in a note sent home from preschool. She turned off the television.

And she and Lucy passed the extra time reading more books — about 25 a day.

Still, when Lucy won the top reading award at the 'Hman 'shawa preschool graduation ceremony this year, Jones was shocked to hear that they had logged 950 books.

"I had no idea it was that many!" she said.

Lucy, a shy child, won a $100 gift certificate from Toys "R" Us and a gift sack full of more prizes just for making it through preschool. "Look!" she said as she pulled out color crayons, a coloring book and a hardbound collection of classic stories.

Last year, 4-year-old Makea Carmelo-Preston earned the top preschool reading award and received a trophy almost as big as her. She and her mom had read 645 books.

Wearing braided pigtails and dressed in a Mickey Mouse outfit, Makea said she prefers stories about teddy bears and ghosts. Her mother, Roann Carmelo, says Makea was inspired by the school's incentive program and kept wanting to go to the library to look for new books.

An avid reader herself, Carmelo said she even reads at home to her 18-month-old nephew.

These top achievers — and other preschoolers who won awards for reading hundreds of books — show the tribe's new education efforts are paying off. Programs designed to engage parents and grandparents in their children's education — and help them get an early jump on academic achievement — are doing just that.

Passing out generous gift certificates and huge trophies help the tribe make a very public point. Such educational accomplishments — along with nearly every imaginable smaller one — need to be rewarded, tribal officials believe, so that the children and adults will continue their efforts.

Fort McDowell's year-round program of school celebrations, incentives and rewards is a calculated part of the grand new educational plan.

Here is the philosophy:

Children need to be encouraged every step of the way, to know that their teachers, their tribe and their community are behind them. Parents, grandparents and other community members need to outwardly show their support for these young learners. And those supporters also need to be recognized so they will continue to back the tribe's efforts.

And so during the school year, the tribe passes out special 'Hman 'shawa pencils for good behavior, features lists of Star Students on the walls of the lunchroom and even rewards parents with prizes if their children show improvements in their behavior, grades or attendance.

At year's end, the school makes a big deal of the preschool, prekindergarten and kindergarten graduations and holds awards ceremonies for its first, second and third graders. Everyone gets not only a diploma or certificate, but a medal selected just for him or her: "Best Math Student" or "Best Art Student" for the older kids. "Outstanding Achievement in Coloring," "Most Athletic" and "Best Improvement in Expressing Himself" for the preschoolers. The teachers find a good quality in each child, something to celebrate. This year, a boy who liked to wander all over the classroom earned a "Best Explorer" award.

Those with perfect attendance records at any grade level receive new bicycles from the Fort McDowell Kiwanis Club, whose members include tribal president Pattea and education head Torres.

And every summer the tribe sponsors the Education Department banquet, where generations of tribal members jam a casino hall to honor achievements by students of all ages from any of the 100-plus schools they attend.

Gift certificates to malls and eateries accompany the awards, which are handed out for academic achievement, academic improvement, participating in extracurricular activities and perfect attendance.

The lure of special commendations for their kids is, quite simply, working.

Tribal members turn out in large numbers to celebrate the students' accomplishments. Even with the wealth that the casino has brought to formerly poor families, the promise of a reward still brings out the parents and relatives to celebrate.

One mom, Charlene Corbins, flew in from northern California to bring her three children, aged 10, 11 and 12, to last year's banquet. They had received an invitation notifying them that their good grades had earned them awards. One boy had earned the top Wassaja prize for getting all A's in core subjects.

"This was the first time we've been invited," Corbins said. "I thought it was a good time for them to see how the tribal education program is and appreciate what they have."

It was direct proof that Torres' monitoring efforts were paying off. With her database of Fort McDowell students, she could track how these tribal children were doing in their Fremont, California, schools. And then she could invite them to celebrate their accomplishments with their own people.

At these large gatherings, Torres takes every opportunity to not only praise the children, but to boost the self-esteem of their parents and elders as well. Many of them may not have had formal educations, but she commends them for supporting the younger generation's efforts.

"We are proud of you, all of you," she told the crowd at last year's banquet. "We are proud of your parents. We are proud of the elders."

Later, she reminds them that the Yavapai never gave up during a troubled history. She urges tribal members to keep that spirit as their children go through school.

"Be smart," she says. "If you need help, come to us. Let us help you. Come and participate in the programs we offer. Be proud of who you are. Never forget who you are."

Torres says these banquets and ceremonies are accomplishing what is intended: Kids are proud of themselves, and the community is embracing their success.

"Look," she said recently as she poured punch at this year's awards ceremony and graduation for 3- and 4-year-olds. "We had about 150 people show up today to celebrate 41 graduates."

It was nearly triple the turnout for the same ceremony last year.

Everywhere there are signs these new tactics are paying off.

Many students are leaving the 'Hman 'shawa tribal school well prepared for any public school. Several third-graders have placed in gifted fourth-grade programs off the reservation in public schools. And kindergartners who have started first grade in the Mesa Public Schools District are so advanced that teachers paid Fort McDowell's tribal school a visit to observe and learn from its kindergarten program.

This year's Stanford 9 test results for the grade school, according to Torres, showed "significant increases" in every subject in each grade.

And this year, more Fort McDowell high school students than ever graduated. That's only 14 kids, but it's a tribal record and represents 52 percent of those eligible to graduate this year. This is a phenomenal improvement over the 99 percent high school dropout rate that preceded casino revenues.

This year, 49 members of the Fort McDowell reservation graduated from grade school, high school, college or vocational school.

Larry Doka, tribal council member, told the assembled graduates at a dinner that they needed advanced degrees.

"Nowadays, a regular college degree is not enough."

Doka's parents and grandparents would be amazed to hear him say that.

When he was growing up on the reservation, children weren't expected even to finish high school. The common, acceptable course of education was to get through ninth grade, then drop out and learn a trade. That way, should an occasional brick-laying or carpet installation job come along, the tribal member would be ready for it.

Now a tribal elder with a stern-looking face that breaks often into a wide, boyish smile, Doka says he made it through college out of sheer determination.

His family had sent him to boarding school in Tucson, and when he decided to continue on at the university, no one believed he could do it.

"It was a challenge," he says. "And I guess I was stubborn."

Doka says he was one of a half-dozen Indian students on campus, and two of those lived with him at a professor's house. (He later learned the teacher was tracking his success, as well as that of two Apache boarders, for a research project.)

He had no special Indian programs or study centers like those available now at all three Arizona universities. Counselors didn't really help him. And for assistance in English, his toughest subject, he relied on his landlord's wife.

Doka graduated in 1960 with a degree in animal science.

Doka was part of an era in which sheer toughness got kids through school. But he was unusual. He is the only member of the tribe ever to graduate from the University of Arizona. Doka's toughness illustrated the challenge facing the tribe. Increased expenditures on young kids in grade school was only one part of the problem. Spending large sums of money has not provided a quick or easy solution to the tribe's poor educational record off the reservation.

Only about 100 students can attend the tribal elementary school aimed at providing them with the best possible start in school.

Off reservation, Fort McDowell's students faced the same obstacles as any Indian student.

In Arizona, Indians have the worst dropout rate of any ethnic group in state universities. The overwhelming culture shock of leaving home, trying to adapt to new rules and expectations unaccustomed, managing their scholarship money, and trying to balance their school obligations with their stronger responsibilities to their families back home are problems most Indian students find insurmountable.

And, statistics reveal, Indian students are not likely to be academically prepared for college. They hold the worst dropout rate in Arizona's public schools and score the lowest on standardized tests than any other ethnic group.

Fort McDowell leaders realized they needed to give something other than money to their students to help them get to college and succeed once they get there.

But what?

The tribe decided to make everyone from the 3-year-olds to the elders proud to be a Fort McDowell Yavapai.

Tribal leaders concluded that the problem was that Fort McDowell children had no sense of identity, nothing to sustain them once they left their families on the reservation and went off to school.

Adults and elders needed to learn more about their own history so they can not only be proud of their heritage but pass their customs and values on to their children.

Unfortunately, many of the community members don't really know what being a Fort McDowell Yavapai means.


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