Pot of Gold
Clinton Pattea, president of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, tells with reverence the legendary story of Wassaja, the greatest of the tribe.
Wassaja was a young boy, no more than 7, when he survived a bloody battle near the Superstition Mountains between his own tribe and the Pima Indians. Captured by the Pimas, the boy was sold to a white photographer, who christened him Carlos Montezuma and took him from his homeland. Montezuma was educated in the East and eventually completed medical school in Chicago. A practicing physician, he earned a national reputation as an outspoken advocate for Indian rights. He campaigned for the abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, urging tribes to become self-sufficient. The only way to do this, he said, was to venture outside the "bondage" of the reservation and become educated.
"This has never failed to improve any nation," he once wrote. "The Indians of today can never prosper or grow great, if they are hid away from the outer world and its sunshine of enlightenment."
After a prominent career as a doctor, human rights spokesman and author, Montezuma returned to Arizona, helping his tribe fight for its land and water rights on the reservation northeast of Phoenix. Suffering from diabetes and tuberculosis, he died among his own people. In the middle of the tribal cemetery, a short distance from the road and medical center named in his honor, Wassaja is buried.Fort McDowell Indians are proud of Wassaja, whose name means "signal" or "beckon" in Yavapai. Not only does his name grace their properties, his story is taught to their children in school. A coloring book aimed at preserving the Yavapai language and culture contains only one individual name in its recounting of tribal history: Carlos Montezuma. And it suggests children heed his words: "You, too, can become what you will yourself and work to be."
But there is a gnawing irony to Wassaja's tale.
It's been more than 100 years since Montezuma graduated from medical school at Northwestern University -- an accomplishment made possible only when he was taken far from his homeland and raised by Anglos.
Despite a century of progress and nearly 10 years of full scholarship opportunities provided by lucrative gaming revenues, no Fort McDowell Yavapai has matched Wassaja's educational achievement. This saddens and frustrates the tribe's leader, himself a graduate of Northern Arizona University.
"We haven't produced another Dr. Carlos Montezuma," Pattea says. "Since that time, we haven't had another person with that type of accomplishment."
Arizona Indian tribes, which began signing compacts with state officials in 1993 giving them the right to operate casinos on their land, have discovered the proverbial pot of gold: the white man's love of gambling.
Funds from the casinos have financed a revolutionary attempt to educate young and old and send them off to college. But with unprecedented possibilities, plenty of new jobs, and limitless funding as well as good intentions, tribal leaders have found no easy answers. Challenge looms larger than immediate success.
Fifteen of the state's 21 Indian tribes are involved in gaming, generating hundreds of millions of dollars a year that are providing hope and opportunities for them. The new revenues are creating jobs for Indians, improving conditions on the reservation, and funding new businesses to generate income for the future.
With unimagined wealth accumulating, the tribes have made education an immediate priority.
The tribes want to pave the way for a brighter future by improving reservation schools and sending their members to college, turning them into lawyers, judges, executives and leaders.
Because about 40 percent of Indians are under 20 years old, tribal officials say it is particularly important that the current generation becomes educated -- both to lead the tribes into the future and preserve the native languages and culture that, in some cases, are in danger of being lost.
"Everyone has to pitch in or the culture will die, the tribe will die," says Amy Torres, who heads the Fort McDowell Indian Community's education department.
Gilbert Innis, tribal education director of the Gila River reservation just south of the Valley, says his people lack an identity. He was one of many who were sent to BIA schools that specifically aimed to strip the students of their Indian ways (students were beaten for lapsing into their native language). As a result of that kind of cultural purging as well as little educational opportunity, he says, Gila River Indians have no body of literature -- poetry, fiction, nonfiction works -- to define their own culture. He said Anglos may not be able to fully understand what a void this creates. But he says the tribe is pinning its hopes on legions of its young members becoming educated (courtesy of gaming money) and being able to chronicle the history and character of its people.
Innis says that tribe's recent wealth has provided enough money to guarantee scholarships for every student who wants to go to a university, community college or vocational school.
But first, tribal members need to clear some tough hurdles.
After generations of poverty, isolation and unemployment, community members are not academically prepared or emotionally ready to enter the off-reservation halls of higher learning. In the past, the idea of finishing high school and going to college was hardly considered, Innis says, because there were few jobs.
Unemployment among the tribe's 12,000 members before gambling was about 40 percent.
And the tribe was lucky to graduate one in 10 high school students.
Using federal money like Pell Grants, the tribe sent about 50 students a year to an institute of higher learning, but few would survive.
"You could count on one hand the number of tribal members who had graduated from college," says Innis, who obtained a teaching degree from Arizona State University in 1979.
Now, just five years after Gila River opened the first of its two casinos, unemployment has been cut from 40 percent to about 15 percent. Nearly 600 Gila River students are attending post-secondary schools around the country and around the world. And nearly all of them are on track to graduate, according to Innis.
He can name several students who have received gaming scholarship money and have returned to work on the reservation. One of them, who grew up on the reservation in a home without running water, is now running the tribe's main casino.
High school graduation rates have quadrupled, from 10 to approximately 40 percent. It's progress, to be sure, but close to 60 percent of the teenagers still quit or fail -- a miserable measurement by urban standards. (Nearly 72 percent of all Maricopa County students -- and 79 percent of all Anglos -- who start high school graduate, according to state statistics.) Jobs have been easier to create on the reservation than high school graduates. That's because attitudes toward education -- seldom more than a loose thread of the fabric of reservation life -- are vastly different from those in the rest of the country. The American dream has always been tied to educational achievement. It goes without saying that you don't get a nice house and family car in a charming neighborhood without landing a high-paying job courtesy of a college diploma.
But on the reservations, where about half the population lives in poverty, Third World hardships have created a pervasive sense of futility. Life away at college also forces potential students to desert their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers in an act that is too often viewed as disloyal on the reservation, where the one thing that everyone could depend upon was the fact that your family would always be there for you. So when a large pot of scholarship money is suddenly waved in front of the current generation of students, getting them to buy into a new vision of their future is tough.
A recent survey of tribal leaders by the Indian Country Today newspaper found that lack of money was the most common reason Indian students drop out of high school or college. But a close second was a category that included intangible barriers like low self-esteem and lack of family support or encouragement.
On the sprawling Gila River reservation south of the Valley, students have a long way to go, but there is a new sense of hope in the community.
"These are exciting times," says Innis. "There is a general optimism, an intangible element that has sparked people."
But hope and scholarship money are not enough to guarantee success for Indians who go off to school.
Students unfamiliar with urban life or Anglo ways suffer culture shock and crippling homesickness at college. Some have never used a computer and can't afford a telephone or car. On most reservations, time is viewed differently, so getting up for class and showing up on time requires actual training. Many students have never had a checking account and don't know how to budget their money.
Some from more remote parts of the state are simply overwhelmed at the number of people and the high-rises they encounter.
The Valley is ringed by three Indian communities: Fort McDowell north of Fountain Hills, Salt River Pima-Maricopa just east of Scottsdale and Gila River south of Phoenix. But other than visiting casinos, buying cheap cigarettes at reservation stores or watching artisans at the Heard Museum, most Phoenicians have little contact with the 20,000 residents of these nearby reservations.
And the reverse is true. Herlinda Jackson, a 40-year-old mother of four, says she spent her life in the Gila River community. So when she moved to the ASU East campus to begin school two years ago, she was terrified.
"I thought, 'Oh, no, I'm not going to make it,'" she says.
Jackson had only left the reservation to attend an Indian boarding school during high school and an Indian program in New Mexico where she obtained her high school equivalency degree.
Even though the rural branch of ASU, with its low student population, quiet streets and open parking lots, is not as intimidating as its main Tempe campus, it was frightening to Jackson. She felt uneasy being off the reservation. She just felt uncomfortable seeing faces from other ethnic groups.
"My whole life, I was only around Natives," she says.
Peterson Zah, the former head of the Navajo Nation who is Indian Affairs Adviser at Arizona State University, says most Indian students who drop out of college -- about 50 percent across the country -- make up their minds to do so the moment they arrive on campus.
"They just don't feel welcome," he says.
Steve Yazzie, a Navajo-Hopi, was fast on his way to dropping out of college from the first moment he stepped on campus. By his own account, he was a drunk Indian.
He remembers vividly the first time he tasted alcohol. It was at Lower Greasewood on the Navajo Reservation, where he used to spend his summers with his grandmother helping tend to the land, playing games with soda cans in the dirt, climbing on his grandfather's tractor.
One of his uncles had taken him to a party at a friend's house. There, the uncle urged him to take a large drink from a can of beer.
"This will make you a man," he said.
Yazzie was 5 years old.
He drank the beer and threw it up. Then he kept down his next sips, to his onlookers' cheers.
The next time Yazzie drank, at age 12, he tried a screwdriver at a liquor store, where he had driven with another uncle. Yazzie liked the warm sensation of the booze inside of him. Feeling like a man, he asked for, and drank, another. On the way home, he blacked out.
In the coming years, Yazzie continued this pattern, often with his uncles. In the absence of his father, who'd deserted the family, they became the men in his life. These male relatives taught him to drink quickly, secretly, and in large quantities. In a family that had rejected traditional Navajo beliefs for Mormonism (which forbids alcohol consumption), hiding such behavior was essential.
Yazzie's "power drinking" -- and alcoholic blackouts -- continued for years. At NAU, where he enrolled as a freshman, his behavior spiraled out of control.
Yazzie attended classes for a few weeks, then spent the rest of the semester drunk, trying to maintain a level of alcohol that would prevent his killer hangovers from setting in.
"I didn't seek out the American Indian program there, I didn't seek out former friends from high school [who were not aware of his secret binge drinking] or make any new friends," he says.
At a university with a student population three times as big as his hometown of Holbrook, Yazzie felt almost invisible, free to act out in self-indulgent ways without fear of getting caught by his mother. "I did the thing I was told I could not do publicly," he says.
Yazzie flunked all his classes, left NAU and moved back home with his mom. He got a job as a cook at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken, working and drinking every night, then sleeping all day.
When his mom kicked him out of the house, he joined the Navy. Under strict rules of boot camp, he did well. But later, he got into trouble drinking and fighting, displaying what one police officer called a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality.
He quit the Navy rather than face a court-martial. But he went along with the plan to ship him to an alcoholism treatment program at the Phoenix Veteran's Affairs Hospital. It was a 28-day inpatient program, where he spent two weeks in detox.
After that he dabbled in school, did odd jobs and began carving three-inch kachina dolls for tourists. In 1993, he moved back to the reservation.
Money was running out, but Yazzie found limited employment opportunities on the reservation.
Desperate, Yazzie applied for welfare, but was told he had earned too much in the previous quarter (as a mechanic at Sky Harbor Airport) to qualify.
He moved his wife and baby son off the reservation and back to Phoenix, where his brother lived and offered him a couch to crash on. Yazzie went back to work at Sky Harbor Airport. His mother -- who worked in Indian education in Holbrook -- told him about the new Indian program at the ASU East campus. Yazzie met with program director Phillip Huebner and was impressed with the on-campus homes (former officers' quarters) available for about $600 a month, a fraction of what it would have cost him in Phoenix for a three-bedroom house.
Yazzie signed on in December 1998 and took a couple of community college classes.
But he hit a financial rough spot in the spring of 1999.
It was then, he says, that the Fort McDowell gaming monies saved him.
"I was feeling down about myself," he says.
Yazzie, whose record already included flunking out of NAU more than a decade earlier, quitting the Navy and dropping out of two community colleges, went to Huebner for help. Huebner suggested he apply for a scholarship as a short-term fix to his money troubles. Yazzie did so, even though he didn't hold out much hope.
He had blown a Navajo tribal scholarship and a Pell Grant when he went to NAU just out of high school. And he didn't expect a second chance.
When he heard he had received a $500 scholarship, his life changed.
"It was more than just the money," he says. "I realized I wasn't alone anymore. It made me feel like I could do it. It raised my self-esteem and it kept us in the house and it gave me the confidence that I actually was worth something."
Yazzie stayed in school, earning two A's in his first two courses. That qualified him for the Dean's List.
In the summer of 1999, he went through ASU East's first Summer Bridge Program for Indian students. The only Navajo in that first class of 10 students, he learned invaluable computer skills, met more Indian students and decided to stay on.
Now 32, Yazzie is in his junior year. He maintains a 3.5 grade point average, taking a full course load in environmental technology management. The coursework will prepare him to oversee industrial operations with an understanding of environmental issues such as pollution and groundwater regulations. Yazzie hopes to eventually obtain a law degree from Harvard, then work to promote new business opportunities using natural resources in abundance on the reservations.
He qualified for another Navajo Tribal Scholarship (funded by mining revenues), another Pell Grant, entered the school's Honors College and received an $8,100 Gates Millennium Scholarship, a fund started by Bill Gates for minority college students.
A founding president of the campus First Nation Club for Indian students, Yazzie is more mature. He doesn't drink, and with a wife and three boys who depend on him, he feels a higher responsibility to keep sober and stay in school.
But he doesn't take sole credit for his recent success.
"If it wasn't for the American Indian Programs and the Fort McDowell gaming money, I would not be here," he says.
With the new opportunities made possible by gaming revenue have come a host a special efforts and programs aimed at preparing Indian students for college, easing their transition to campus and academic life, keeping them in school and helping them graduate.
A new collaboration between Arizona's tribes and the three universities called the Arizona Tri-Universities for Indian Education. A first in the United States, the organization requires high-level Indian officials at each university to work with tribes to promote recruitment and retention of tribal university students. It was formed at the urging of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, who made it a part of its new $2 million scholarship program.
The development of Indian student affairs offices and programs aimed at recruiting and retaining Native students. At ASU, the American Indian Institute provides computers, tutors, telephones, career guidance, scholarship help and comfort to its students. On the East campus, the American Indian Programs center offers those services and more -- laptop computers to check out, mountain bikes to help students get to class, van service for transportation to grocery stores, doctor's appointments. Similar programs are in place at the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University.
The use of summer programs at all three universities to help Indians adjust to new lives away from home. These include social and academic components and go beyond just showing entering students around campus. At ASU East, students attend a five-week session that includes not only computer readiness and English brush-up courses, but tips on how to succeed in school: how to be on time for class, where to sit in classrooms, how to manage scholarship money so it lasts a semester.
The beginning at ASU of the Native American Achievement Program, a two-year course that all Navajo, White Mountain and San Carlos Apache students must complete. Per agreements with those tribes, disbursement of scholarship money is contingent upon students meeting requirements of the program. It features welcoming activities, a mentor program in which incoming freshmen are matched with higher level Indian students, monitoring of academic progress, career counseling and help with personal problems.
The development of coursework more relevant to Indian students, many taught by Indian faculty members. Rather than learn history and political science largely relevant to white America, Indians can major in Indian Studies at ASU -- which includes instruction in tribal sovereignty issues and culture -- or obtain a law degree with a specialization in Indian legal issues.
But Indian Studies, the sort of ethnocentric coursework that infuriates conservative legislators when tailored toward blacks or Latinos, does not begin to capture the depth of effort expended on behalf of young tribal students. Consider:
When Navajo teenagers send incomplete applications to NAU, university staffers don't place a phone call (virtually useless when many applicants have no phones) or send a form letter trying to get the problems corrected. Members of a "hot team" developed just for this purpose call the school the student attends and ask for help in securing a face-to-face meeting with the applicant and his parent. University administrators then drive the hundreds of miles onto the reservation plateaus to meet personally with the student and parents to correct the flaws in the paperwork.
Indian parents who enroll in ASU's five-week summer program can send their children to a free science camp, instead of day care, while the adults are in class.
Gila River Indians who dread the thought of leaving relatives behind on the reservation are welcome to move their entire family, including aunts, uncles and elders, onto the ASU East campus with them.
Already, results from these efforts are evident.
Indian enrollment at all three Arizona state universities -- about 3,200 total -- is at record levels. Officials say the dramatic jumps -- a 40 percent increase over the last two years at NAU and a near tripling in the number of Indian ASU students over the last decade -- is because of new gaming money and intensified recruitment and retention efforts. At ASU's Law School, 37 Indian students are enrolled, more than at any other law school in the country.
At ASU, Zah says, the new two-year program for Navajos and Apaches has caused a dramatic turnaround in early retention rates. Before, 70 or 80 percent of those students would leave in their first or second year. Now, he says, nearly 80 percent are staying. At ASU East, students who have been through the Summer Bridge program have a nearly 100 percent retention rate.
But these reassuring statistics apply only to what are essentially freshmen and sophomores, those students who are at the beginning of their college career.
Cal Seciwa, head of the American Indian Institute at ASU, says overall graduation rates have doubled. That sounds like good news, until he reveals the rest of the statistics: The graduation rate over a six-year time period, once at 15 percent, now stands at 30 percent. Indians, he says, still have the worst graduation record of any ethnic group.
With all the help that money can buy, 7 in 10 Indians at ASU fail to graduate.
The reasons vary. Some recent examples: One student left because she felt the work was just too hard and she wanted to get a job. (But when she found low-paying work, she is thinking about returning.) Another had academic difficulties and personal problems.
Others needed to return to the reservation for family emergencies, to help care for an elder or to fulfill other obligations not quickly addressed. If he or she is needed at home, the student would simply leave school, because family responsibilities are paramount in tribal cultures.
Other students have dropped out after falling ill, returning to the reservation for lengthy traditional healing ceremonies rather than visit the student health center. And one who just left believed he wasn't ready for a campus as intimidating as ASU; he is transferring to a community college.
Lavern Dennison, a Navajo who works at ASU's American Indian Institute, says students' reaction to such obstacles can also depend on their personality, their family background and their spiritual beliefs. While many drop out, some do return.
"Some can return from the healing ceremonies refreshed and with a new outlook. For some, whatever is going on, that's what makes them stronger," she says.
Because nearly all the Indian students are the first in their families to attend college, they can't rely on their parents for advice or wisdom about how to handle such situations.
They are the trailblazers.
At Fort McDowell, aggressive efforts are under way to improve high school graduation rates and encourage their young people to seek higher education.
A small tribe of only 900 members, it has been in the gaming business longer than any other in Arizona. It has averaged $80 million in annual profits over the past eight years, according to Pattea. One of only three Arizona tribes to distribute a portion of its gaming money directly to tribal members, the Fort McDowell Yavapai have paid out about $30,000 a year to each member of the community. The tribe has used gaming funds to build about 80 homes on the reservation, construct a new medical building, expand and improve a new recreation complex, open a day-care center and upgrade its elementary school. It has incorporated money management classes into its summer camps for children. It has opened a sand and gravel operation, a gas station, a tourist adventure company, and has planted 60,000 pecan trees and 25,000 citrus trees. The tribe hopes to open a hotel and restaurants on land just acquired along the Beeline Highway.
Over the last year, the tribe has put a computer in every home, hoping students will be better equipped to keep up with homework. A new education director is in place and a new person will soon be hired to oversee higher education needs.
Last year the Yavapai tribe, which has more than enough money to send all its own tribal members to college, did a remarkable thing. It began a scholarship program for other Indian students (and some non-Indians), giving $1 million each year to be equally divided among the state's three universities. In the past two years, officials say, the money has benefited hundreds of students in Arizona, helping some make ends meet, sending some to conferences, funding Indian clubs and programs, paying wages for students to work at campus Indian centers and providing emergency money for students who can't call home for extra cash.
Not long ago, says Dennison, an ASU student admitted that she and her three roommates were out of money and had been existing on free oranges brought in each day by an Indian center staff member. Dennison tapped into the Fort McDowell scholarship fund to help the students pay some bills, buy some food and stay in school.
The name of the scholarship fund is Wassaja.
Amy Torres, Fort McDowell's education director, likely will be calling Steve Yazzie soon.
A requirement of the Wassaja Scholars money is that recipients volunteer to help other Indians. And Fort McDowell's leaders have decided that some of those hours will be spent helping to mentor the tribe's high schoolers.
Torres has only been on the job since June. But she has been busy. In her office, she displays a computer printout depicting the names of all 481 children in the community. Each is listed by name, parent information, address, phone number, school and grade level. Another sheet contains the names of the 34 tribal members attending a university, community college or vocational school. Included on that sheet are the students' majors, grade point averages and the amount of scholarship money the tribe is spending to send them to school. Amounts range from $500 to $10,000 for an out-of-state student.
It's all part of the tribe's new effort to keep track of where their kids are and how they are doing.
'Hman 'shawa Day School, the lone tribal elementary school, serves 99 children from preschool to third grade. Torres, who also serves as the school's principal, knows them all. As she walks through the campus, she hugs one here, pats one there, calling them each by name.
But back in her office, she points to the names of children in grades four and higher.
"This is where we lose track of them," she says.
The tribe's older children are scattered among several school districts and charter schools, off reservation, mostly in Fountain Hills, Mesa and Scottsdale.
Hired with express instructions to monitor Fort McDowell's students closely, Torres encourages them to succeed in school, providing incentives and help however she can.
Before gaming, says tribal president Pattea, the high school graduation rate was dismal. Of 20 or 30 entering high school freshmen, he says, only about five would actually graduate their senior year. "That was if we were lucky," he says. Graduation rates are about double that now, he says.
In other words, 10 out of 30 children might graduate, meaning 20 out of 30 still drop out or fail. That 60 percent dropout rate at Fort McDowell is comparable to the numbers at the Gila River reservation.
In most American households, the emphasis on education and the importance of a college degree is tied to the ability to get a good, high-paying job. But at Fort McDowell, students are entitled to a fat chunk of money ($100,000 to $250,000) when they graduate from high school. If they don't graduate, they will get the money a few years later. And then, they can begin receiving the same annual payout -- $30,000 a year -- that adult tribal members receive.
So where's the incentive to become educated?
Pattea says that is the tribe's greatest challenge, to convince students that higher education is about more than money, to push them into becoming leaders.
"The kids don't care," Torres says. "But we need to remember that we are the adults. We have to lead them, to push them."
It's a dilemma likely to be faced by officials on the neighboring Salt River reservation, the newest Valley entrant into casino gaming. Members of that community just east of Scottsdale voted three months ago to distribute 35 percent of the gaming revenues directly to its 6,000 residents. They adopted a policy just like Fort McDowell's, holding the money until a child reached age 18 and graduates from high school, or turns 21. And annual payouts are expected to be similar, around $30,000.
Pattea says as part of this new emphasis on tribal education, leaders decided to spread out the trust money over a 10-year period rather than giving it all at once to a student.
Torres has been busy meeting principals and teachers at all the off-reservation schools attended by tribal members. She wants to be informed when there is a problem, so she can contact the student's family and arrange for help. She wants copies of report cards sent to her in addition to the students' homes. She notifies parents and students about problems as well as good work.
On the reservation, Torres is also instituting new programs at the elementary school, knowing those efforts won't pay off for years. She has hired teachers and aides to create a 5-to-1 student-teacher ratio, and she has begun incentive programs to reward good behavior, attendance and parental involvement. She has organized "Let's Talk" nights for teenagers and parents to discuss their feelings toward school. And she buses in high school students in the afternoons to the elementary school for homework supervision and tutoring.
She has private conferences with students and parents, encouraging them to stay in school and seek higher learning.
Torres encourages them to leave the "bubble of beauty" -- and wealth -- that is the reservation and achieve more.
Gaming and subsequent development have provided 1,200 new jobs on a reservation populated by 900 people with a work force of 400.
"Most of the high positions are managed by non-Yavapais," says Torres, who herself is not an Indian. "What's wrong with this picture?"
April Morago, 18, stands outside the same orange brick house where she has spent her life.
Old tires stuck into the earth act as a border for the driveway. A weathered, homemade basketball pole and backboard (with no rim) stands in the dirt yard. A threadbare old recliner is the main piece of patio furniture. Two horses in a makeshift corral -- branches and poles held together with colored twine -- separates her yard from the one next door. There, four abandoned cars, two with hoods open, line the driveway.
Micah Gatombe (meaning strong-willed), her late sister's son, toddles around the yard, offering partially chewed cookies to visitors.
It is a Saturday morning and Morago is home from college, like she is every weekend. The Sacaton house on the Gila River Indian Community is only half an hour from her dormitory at ASU East, but it is a world apart from her college quarters.
The 12,000 Pima and Maricopa Indians on the sprawling Gila River reservation do not share directly in the millions of dollars of gaming revenues, a point of contention among many. Instead of making payouts to members like the Fort McDowell tribe does, Gila River leaders decided to invest all the money in badly needed infrastructure, like roads and plumbing, services like fire and police departments, economic development ventures, like the resort and golf course in the works, and two new day-care centers, until now not even necessary because of high unemployment rates. And they are offering full college scholarships to all tribal members.
And so while Gila River's two casinos are raking in the money (how much they won't say), living conditions for Morago's family -- and numerous others -- haven't changed much. Morago's mother, Lavina Antone, has been working since she was 15, but she doesn't have much to show for it. Furniture in the house is well-worn. The walls, adorned with tacked-up family photos, Christian images and Indian crafts, are scuffed, and the kitchen floor is scraped bare beneath a dinette. She doesn't own a car.
When Morago opens the door to her bedroom -- furnished with only a twin bed and an old desk -- the bottom of the wooden door crumbles off against the carpet.
Her dorm room, a single that came equipped with a queen bed and other furniture, is about three times the size of her room at home. It's decorated with basketball posters and pictures of friends. Not much to look at from the outside, the rooms are spacious and clean, with a couch, desk, nightstands and little kitchens in between each pair.
Morago has no TV in her room on campus, no stereo, no phone. She usually makes something in the microwave -- often homemade food made for her on the weekends by her aunts. She doesn't go to concerts or football games or campus parties like other college freshmen do.
She has a specific goal -- to get her degree in Indian Studies so she can someday be the leader of her tribe.
Mary Thomas, she says, was the first female governor of the Gila River Indian Community. Morago wants to be the next one. She is not shy about sharing her dream.
"I figure the more I tell everyone about my goal, the more people will help me along the way," she says.
Morago doesn't like to reveal negative things about her life, speaking in generalities about "the way my mom was when she grew up." While acknowledging that her father is an alcoholic, she does so only after prefacing the admission with, "I don't like to say this." She is clearly torn between culturally ingrained respect for her elders and her disapproval of their lifestyle.
"She goes out too much," says Morago of her mother.
Despite her reserve, pieces of Morago's life emerge. She talks fondly of elementary years at St. Peter's Indian Mission school on the reservation, but darkens when she recalls the year her mother moved the whole family to New Mexico. Lavina Antone uprooted all the kids without so much as a mention of her plan to "marry some guy named Ray."
Morago reveals that her 15-year-old sister, who is finishing a 90-day sentence in juvenile detention, is her true sister, that her father never married her mother, that he went from woman to woman and fathered five others, that she was closest to Claire, her older half-sister (her mother's child by another man).
Morago tells of the gut-wrenching day three years ago when Claire, then a high school senior, died of a brain aneurysm after doctors delivered her premature baby by cesarean section. "I just felt incomplete without her," she says.
When Claire died, she says, she sank into a depression, started ditching classes, then drinking and trying drugs. She hung out with her friends and boozed, but got bored with that. "It was the same thing all the time; where's the fun in that?" she says. And she adds, drugs made her feel too weird.
She credits a high school basketball coach in Casa Grande with reaching out to her when her grades were plummeting and she was cutting school. She helped Morago make up lost work and get back on track.
She's able to talk for the first time in a long time about the impact of Claire's death. And she says she's decided not to be judgmental of her little sister. She thinks the young girl's just rebelling against the responsibility of having to care for Claire's son when her mom heads out to the casinos.
"When I was her age, I was a rebel, too," she explains.
Morago misses her friends and boyfriend at home, but says she feels comfortable at ASU East. In the evenings, she rides her borrowed mountain bike over to the American Indian Programs center, where she studies and visits with other Indians. A runner-up in one Indian pageant, she is working on running for Miss Gila River. In tribal settings, and in her job as an elected member of the Gila River Youth Council, she's not afraid to speak or perform in front of large groups.
But at ASU East, in small classrooms, she doesn't participate. "The environment," she says, pressed to explain. She just feels awkward in front of non-Indian students.
Such slight discomforts are minimized by the special program for Indians -- and specifically Gila River Indians -- at the ASU East campus on Williams Field Road.
In a remarkable agreement reached after the closure of Williams Air Force Base, ASU agreed to cooperate in educational programs with the Gila River Indians, give them control over the existing base golf course and provide preferred housing for tribal members.
The idea, at the time, was to allow tribal members to live close to home and near each other. With the family housing options available using the former officers' residences, Gila River Indians could make a little community, move in family members if needed and improve their chances of success off the reservation by taking part of the reservation with them.
That village idea has changed -- Gila River students are mixed among other students -- but tribal members do find college life easier there. A continuing collaboration between ASU and the tribe has resulted in close monitoring of tribal students. Tim Gressley, an employee of the tribe, works out of an office at the Indian Programs office on campus. His job is to assist students however he can. He, and Phil Huebner of ASU, can help students obtain their high school equivalency degree, set them up with Chandler-Gilbert Community College classes or upper division ASU courses.
Students can come to the center for tutoring or homework or to use a telephone. They can use child care on campus day or night. They can catch rides back to the reservation courtesy of a van purchased with a tribal grant. On campus, they can use mountain bikes to get around or check out golf clubs free of charge to relax on the adjacent links.
They can ride an hourly shuttle to the main campus for classes there, they can send their children to schools on site or nearby, they can sign up for the van to take them to the movies or a grocery store.
Funding for the program is also a cooperative, creative effort. Huebner says ASU budgets about $90,000 for the program, enough for two staff members' salary. But he and Gressley (whose salary is paid separately by Gila River officials) have parlayed that into an annual budget of about $300,000, largely by seeking donations, grant money and tribal contributions.
Innis, the Gila River education director, says the program suffers because it is the new kid on the block. Tribal officials are leery to give it too much money because there aren't that many students out there. But, he says, if it had more money, it could recruit and retain more students.
In the first year of the partnership, one Gila River student attended school at ASU East. And he commuted there. Three years later, with the program in full swing for the first time, 43 Gila River Indians are living on campus (34 of them students and nine family members). The tribe makes up nearly half of the Indian student population of 89 in a campus of 2,000 students.
There is plenty of room for more.
Determining how many Gila River residents are eligible to attend school at ASU East is difficult, because the program usually appeals to non-traditional students -- those who have been out of high school a while -- and will accept even those who did not graduate, assisting them in getting an equivalency degree. But out of this large pool, fewer than expected Gila River students came to ASU East. Per an intergovernmental agreement, ASU reserved 13 housing units for Gila River students last year; only 11 were filled. This year, 22 were marked for tribal members and only 15 are occupied. Next year, 30 homes and dorm rooms will be set aside for Gila River Indians and officials expect to nearly fill them.
April Morago says she would not be there without the tribal scholarship money and the help she gets from the Indian center. Her mother, who lives only on income from some property she owns in Oklahoma, couldn't afford to send her to college.
"I just wish more people would see how good the program is and take advantage of it," she says.
A recent high school graduate, Morago is a rarity among Indians at the East Valley ASU campus. Because the facility is designed to accommodate those with families, many are older students, single parents who would otherwise not be able to attend college.
Herlinda Jackson, 40, says she is so happy she moved her little family to the Williams campus. On the reservation, she says, they were in a smaller house, living for decades on welfare checks. Her oldest daughter, now aged 12, didn't like school and didn't do well there. Her son, now 21, got into trouble and ended up in prison.
When she heard about the program for Gila River students, she decided to give it a try. She had just broken up with the father of her 5-year-old twin girls, and she needed a fresh start.
Now, she says, her three-bedroom house on campus is home. Without a car, she doesn't go back to the reservation much. Her three girls are doing great at the charter schools they attend. The other families who live around her are friendly and nice.
"It's so quiet here. And there are nice green grass and trees," she says.
One Sunday evening, her family joined others for a cookout on the parklike area between the homes. She is glad her children are learning to be friends with kids of other races so they won't feel as strange as she does around those who are not Indians.
Jackson started with a tribal scholarship but fell below the 2.0 minimum grade point average to maintain it. The math was just too hard for her. But she sought help from the American Indian Programs center, got tutoring and decided to stick it out and try to get a two-year certification in microcomputers. Her new boyfriend has offered to help her financially until she can qualify for the scholarship again.
She just passed her two computer classes and another math class. And she is finding herself actually liking school.
"This place has been good for us," Jackson says. "It feels good to be learning. I've started to look forward to going to class. And my kids are doing good. I feel like at least I have a chance."
Had she dropped out, she says, she would have been forced to move back home to her family house, a mud structure surrounded by trailers where she grew up with 11 brothers and sisters.
"It's crowded and there's a lot of drinking," she says. "I don't want my kids exposed to that."
The Native American convocation at the ASU student union two weeks ago was a blend of old and new traditions. Christmas songs were piped in before a traditional drum group began singing and beating. Of nearly 70 students getting their undergraduate and graduate degrees, about a dozen showed up for the formal ceremonies. Some wore traditional Indian attire, others modern dresses. One, an Oglala Lakota whose family drove from South Dakota to see her graduate from college, wore a feather in her mortarboard.
For cultures rich in tradition and ceremony, this was a chance for the graduates to have their own moment in the spotlight, to celebrate and speak of their individual accomplishments rather than just walking across a stage to grab a diploma. At a podium adorned by an Indian blanket and basket, each graduate had a chance to speak.
Nearly every one cried.
Their impromptu speeches were not the rhetorical stuff of other college graduation ceremonies -- full of giddy celebration, fond memories and vague dreams for the future.
They were somber, powerful testimonies about the long path to that microphone.
Some spoke of the trials and death marches imposed on their ancestors. They spoke of their own struggles, paling in comparison, but ringing of the same courage and determination to survive and achieve.
Speakers recalled long years working toward their degrees, five, six, even nine years. Tears streamed down faces as they spoke of loneliness and sleepless nights, of missing their families, of not being able to return to their homelands for months at a time. They told of frustration, anxiety and failures. They spoke of invaluable help they received from faculty members and staff at the American Indian Institute.
Marcus Bakurza, a Navajo-Hopi who earned a bachelor of science in communication, said he was keenly aware each day that the odds were stacked against him, that 70 percent of the Indian students at ASU would not make it to graduation.
"Coming off the reservation, or near a reservation, sometimes we're lost . . . ," he said. "Sometimes you ask, 'What am I doing here?' Each morning you wake up with the statistics against you."
Bakurza urged his fellow graduates to be part of another statistic, a growing number of Indians in the country with a college degree.
Today, what hope exists in the effort by the tribes to educate their own results from extraordinary intervention to create an Indian environment on largely Anglo college campuses in Arizona. Because there is no official tracking system in place, what happens when that support system is removed after graduation remains to be seen.
Dennison says she took the opportunity not long ago to give some adjustment advice to a recent ASU graduate.
He had called, she says, eager to tell her the good news. He had landed a fabulous off-reservation job in his narrow field of study, he was driving an impressive new truck and he was making a hefty salary -- an amount he boasted about without being asked. Dennison, of course, congratulated him, but per her on-campus role, offered some advice:
"I told him he should invest his money, look into buying a condo or something," she says.
Wassaja's dream, that Indians escape the "bondage" of the reservation, still shimmers upon the horizon. In the interim, tribal leaders are encouraging graduates to return to their people on Indian lands.
While most Indian college students say they want to return to the reservation and help their people once they have completed their education, college administrators say that is not as easy as it sounds.
Al Henderson, tribal coordinator at NAU, says going home can be particularly tough for tribes like the Navajo, Hopi and Apache where a member's place in the community is fixed to the land and the labor necessary to make the dirt fruitful from grazing or farming. There, students who leave the reservation may be looked upon as deserters who left their responsibilities behind, creating more work for those who remained.
And even if they do have the blessing of their families, college graduates are not always welcomed or revered back home. Henderson and Phil Huebner at the ASU East campus say it is all too common that students have been shunned, perceived as having a "holier than thou" attitude even though they don't. Dennison says some are met with jealousy or fear that they will steal jobs from those already employed.
One college graduate, who asked not to be identified, says she quit her job on the reservation because of such treatment.
"Because you have your degree, they think you are trying to be somebody else and become Americanized. And they expressed that to me," says the woman, who is now employed off the reservation. "I just didn't like it."
Innis doesn't believe Gila Indians shun their college students. Indeed, the tribe will find them paid summer internships in their specific field just to keep them interested in their studies and close to home. But he says once they graduate, they are more scrutinized because they tend to hold high-profile positions of importance.
He says someone with a college education is unquestionably going to be a different person from the one who left the reservation. He has broadened his interests and worldview, changing him for the better. (Innis says many Indians hold a deep-rooted distrust of Anglos and tend to blame any problems they may have on prejudice. Experiencing life off the reservation is a key to learning there are good and bad people in all ethnic groups, he says.)
Henderson says university officials have done a good job of helping Indian students feel better about going to school. Now, he says, tribal leaders need to make them feel good about coming home.
"They need to feel welcome and comfortable and able to impart their knowledge," he says.
Again, generations of poverty and lack of higher educational opportunities created an atmosphere in which a college education is almost an alien concept, an achievement whose value frankly is hardly understood by the community.
April Morago, the Gila River student with wonderful hope of governing her tribe, has always been a capable student whose leadership potential was encouraged by teachers, tribal officials and even her father.
But in her own home, she battles a warped sense of the importance of a college degree.
In the kitchen of Morago's house on the reservation, her mother finishes hand-washing a stack of dishes left over from the previous night's dinner. Lavina Antone says she is proud of her daughter and predicts she will succeed at ASU.
"She's a determined person. When she puts her mind to something, she does it," she says.
But minutes later, Morago tells her of an earlier phone call was from a military recruiter, who got her name from a friend who is enlisting. Morago told the caller she was already busy going to college.
Her mother looks dejected.
"I want her to go into the service," Lavina Antone says of her daughter April. "Then she can see the world. I never did."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.