Riley Briones was suicidal. His girlfriend was breaking up with him. He and his parents were constantly fighting. He didn't fit in at school. His life was a mess.
But Riley, who was 14 at the time, didn't have the nerve to kill himself. A cousin suggested he accompany him to a gang party, where there were certain to be weapons and any number of obliging executioners.
One by one, the drunken partygoers filtered out. The only ones left were gangbangers and Riley. The shooter was chosen. "You want to die?" he asked Riley. Riley nodded.
"Stand against the wall. I don't want blood on my carpet," the gunman said.
Riley obeyed, and the gang member stuck a 9mm pistol in Briones' face and told him to open his mouth. "I'm going to count to three, and I'm going to be the last person you'll ever see," he said.
When the gunner stuffed the pistol into Riley's mouth and pulled the trigger, nothing happened. Instead of killing him, the gang members roughed him up. Ultimately, they would give him a blue bandanna, the gang's colors. His suicide turned into an initiation.
Riley is not the product of a barrio or housing project. He's half Apache and half Pima Indian, and his 17 years have been a jumble of contradictions. He's spent most of those years on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, a reservation bounded by bustling cities. He wears his dark hair to the middle of his back because it is his heritage as a Native American. Yet he's run with a black and Hispanic gang, and wears the uniform of the "Crips." He became a father at age 15.
He was bright enough to get good grades in school; when he was younger, attending the Bureau of Indian Affairs school on the reservation, he was even elected class president. But as his teen years approached, he came to believe he didn't belong where he'd been sent--to a public school in the white man's world.
He didn't belong anywhere, he believed, except in a grave.
Riley doesn't believe that anymore. His death wish has vanished. He still wears gang colors, but he's no longer looking for trouble. He's going to school on the reservation--his own turf--and expects to get a high school diploma next spring, something that eludes an alarming number of his reservation peers.
He lives with his parents, three siblings, his year-old daughter and his future wife on a half-acre of the reservation, surrounded by flat farmland. They used to live in a small trailer on the parcel. But just last month, the family moved into a new home.
To the east of their home and the 55,000-acre reservation is the Verde River; beyond that, the McDowell Mountains loom. To the west are the boutiques of Scottsdale. To the north, Fountain Hills. To the south are the Salt River and the distant steeples of Mesa.
Riley knows Mesa well. When he attended public school there, he was frequently in trouble. Once, while attending Mountain View High, he tangled with a "skinhead." His father pulled him out of school because he feared reprisals. Last fall Riley started school at Westwood High, but was suspended after a gang fight in which he stabbed a foe.
But Riley doesn't fight at school anymore. His enrollment in a new alternative school on the reservation has been a catalyst in his transformation. The school's curriculum revolves around Indian culture.
When Riley started at the alternative school, his teacher did not scold him for doodling and sketching while she lectured. On a recent evening, Riley sat in his parents' new home and pored over a stack of those pencil drawings. Some are stunningly realistic; others could be from a fantasy magazine. The images come straight from his experience as a gang member, a teenage father, a product of the reservation. Some are from the dark side--scantily clad women with guns, chilling images of death. Some are of beauty--a drawing of his future wife, Carmen Montiel, with her long hair flowing. Some are of tribal superstitions--his view of goatman, what many of his friends view as the devil. They are from his world.
"When I went to the Mesa schools, I always had to worry that I might get in a fight," Riley says. "You look forward to going to school on the reservation. If you didn't go, you'd most likely get into trouble."
The new school has taught Riley a lot about what it means to be an Indian. The school has gone a long way toward healing what ails him. That's fitting, because the school is called Medicine Wheel.
@body:Until World War II, most children living on the Pima-Maricopa reservation attended the BIA-run Salt River Day School for both elementary and high schools. The kids rarely left the reservation. Others attended religious boarding schools, often out of state.
But after the war, the federal government began to encourage Native American families to send their kids to traditional public schools. Some Salt River kids enrolled in Scottsdale schools. Sometime in the 1950s, the students abruptly left Scottsdale schools. Exactly what happened is a subject of some debate. People from the reservation say Scottsdale booted the students out en masse. Current Scottsdale school officials say they aren't sure what, if anything, happened.
What is known is that the Mesa Unified School District became the adopted public-school district of families on the reservation. Last fall, 1,100 students from the reservation enrolled in Mesa schools.
However, things have not gone well in the Mesa schools for many students from the reservation. The tribe--which has its own education department, but operates no schools--has estimated that more than 60 percent of the students drop out of school at one time or another, and only 20 to 30 percent of the tribe's 18-year-olds receive diplomas each year. The study indicated that the Salt River community had one of the highest dropout rates in the country.
A Mesa schools study had similarly dismal results, although it found the dropout rate to be considerably lower. The district's survey of graduation rates over four years showed that only 66 percent of Native American students graduated--and that figure includes all Indian students, not just those from the reservation. The graduation rate for Mesa students of all races was 20 percentage points higher.
In 1988, Bob Chiago, then the tribe's education director, decided it was time to do something. He persuaded the tribe and the Mesa school district to launch an intensive effort to get high school diplomas for the tribe's children.
Along with Bo Colbert, a former administrator at Phoenix Indian School, Chiago overhauled the tribe's education department, introducing a variety of new programs. One of them evolved into Medicine Wheel High. The reforms have been widely hailed. In the first year alone, 1989-90, the number of high school graduates from the reservation tripled.
Unfortunately, success doesn't guarantee longevity. Medicine Wheel High is still in its infancy, and the long-term education program on the reservation is far from clear. The "medicine wheel" approach is not universally embraced; even some Indians believe reservation students must be schooled in the ways of the white man if they are to be successful. Some influential people on the reservation would like to see the program revised.
Further clouding the future is the fact that neither Chiago nor Colbert is involved anymore. Chiago left to take a better job in Washington, D.C. Colbert, a Creek from Oklahoma and the logical choice to replace him, found himself in a minority in his views of education. After he was found to be keeping alcohol at the school last April--he says it was confiscated from students--he was suspended, and he doesn't know if he will return. In addition, several of the program's original teachers--including the one who wrote Medicine Wheel's curriculum--have left.
@body:School begins around 9 a.m. at Medicine Wheel; the starting time is flexible. Kids aren't punished for being a few minutes late. Teachers' aide Frank Poocha, a Hopi, usually starts the day by burning cedar or Hopi "sweet grass" to ward off the evil spirits in the room, while teacher Susan John reads from a book of Cherokee affirmations.
John's classroom is the southernmost of a set of brown, mobile units that house the reservation's alternative-education program. The buildings, situated near the intersection of Longmore and Osborn roads, look nothing like a school campus. But here there are an elementary school, junior high and high school. Other than gardens outside, the buildings are nondescript.
Inside, the classrooms are rich in culture. In the hallway leading to John's classroom is a huge painting of the tribe's emblem, the "Man in the Maze." Her classroom looks more like a living room, with sofas and futons and a television set. A copy of T.C. McLuhan's Touch the Earth rests on the ledge below a chalkboard. There are student-painted maps of the world and one of the United States, with reservations highlighted. There are several posters of bald eagles and famous Native Americans, such as Will Rogers and Arthur Parker.
On a far wall is a painting of the medicine wheel. It is a large circle, split by an X into four quadrants. It is painted white, yellow, black and red--representing many things, including the races of humanity. There is a mirror in the middle.
John has adapted the Mesa curriculum to fit into the four sections of the wheel. In class, time is split evenly among the four sections.
The wheel starts in the west, not the "logical" north. The west covers topics such as Native American history and leadership. Across to the east are art, music and literature; here, again, there is a heavy focus on Indian accomplishments. In the south, the curriculum focuses on "wellness"; it is here that kids with substance-abuse problems receive treatment. The north emphasizes logic and critical thinking and is the area most resembling mainstream education. Math and science fall here.
John's teaching materials sit in crates labeled to correspond with the wheel. The material mainly consists of photocopies of works of Native American authors, such as Paula Gunn Allen and Michael Dorris. The Mesa textbooks are rarely used--except in math--and are tucked away in a bookcase.
"Our school does more than just emphasize Native American philosophy," teachers' aide Poocha explains in a video produced at the school. "We try to live it daily by conveying a network of values, norms, rituals, ceremonies, stories and myths."
The authors of the traditional classics--such as Shakespeare--would fall in the nine-week unit on European authors. Other "famous" authors would come up in comparisons with Native American writers.
To meet requirements that the kids learn about government, for example, John first taught the kids about tribal leaders and their formal administrations, and then taught them about the federal government.
"You learn both sides of the story regarding American history, both from the white and Indian perspective," Riley says.
On one Thursday in late May, John offered the students coffee and read aloud a newspaper story, yet another dispatch about Indian gaming. The kids were fascinated by a statewide political debate that revolves around Indian rights. They were upset that people are attempting to keep gaming off reservations.
When the classroom focus shifted to the eastern quadrant, Johns showed off five artworks by non-Indians. As she spoke, students got up freely and walked around, going to the rest room, getting a drink of water. They spoke among themselves, but were not disruptive. John passed out posters of Indian artwork. The students answered questions about each one. There was a brief debate about whether Hopis should sell kachinas.
After a break, the subject matter moved south, to a psychology lesson. John read the last question aloud, "A set of assumptions about people in a given category or group is called . . ."
Before she could finish, a student blurted, "Stereotype."
That was an easy one.
@body:For most of its students, Medicine Wheel High School is the last line of defense.
"Jack" just got out of Adobe Mountain Juvenile Institution; his mother is in federal prison for murder. "Alex" was accused of nearly beating another teen to death with a baseball bat. He denied doing it and was never charged, but his mother took him out of public school because she feared that a rival gang might retaliate. "Karen" missed weeks of school at a time so she could baby-sit her brothers and sisters. Three other girls attending Medicine Wheel are mothers; one is pregnant for the second time.
Kyland King, who graduated from Mesa's Westwood High earlier this month, did a stint at Medicine Wheel before reentering the public-school system, where he had faltered because of poor attendance. He missed too many days because he didn't like getting out of bed so early to catch the bus.
Sonya Baptista, 12, who is enrolled in the tribe's version of Medicine Wheel for grade schoolers, says she was talking back to the teacher and acting up in Mesa schools. She also was having serious problems in math--in sixth grade, she hadn't mastered her multiplication tables.
Willie Eschief, 14, says he did poorly because the teachers in Mesa were "snooty."
Many people who know these students believe the reservation's proximity to the city has thrust them into limbo between the two worlds--without a clear sense of identity with the reservation or the cities around it.
"Assimilation has been effective," Bob Chiago says. "Most of the segments of traditional culture are being lost."
The death of cultural awareness, tribal elders say, has been a long time in the making. It is a product of their own school days, when they were encouraged to assimilate to get ahead.
Increased enrollment in the Mesa schools brought conflicts between Indians and what Bo Colbert calls the "Bible belt" culture.
And students feel there is prejudice in schools off the reservation.
"You come in and you're overweight and you're darker than everybody else and you're an Indian. People stare at you. Kids make fun of you, point to you. Teachers don't know what to do with you. Is it any surprise you feel intimidated by school?" says Chiago.
The problems cut both ways. While most Indian parents say they strongly value education, some lack high school diplomas themselves. Others are apathetic.
"You can see the frustration that Mesa people have, and what they have to put up with," says one Mesa teacher, who asked not to be named. "The parents don't come to conferences. They don't have phones, so you can't call them."
@body:Once Bob Chiago came on board in 1988, it didn't take long for him--a member of the Navajo tribe whose father was Pima--to identify the problems. He had spent part of his childhood on the reservation and attended Mesa High School.
From 1983 to 1988, fewer than 20 percent of the tribe's 18-year-olds graduated each year, Chiago found, and there didn't seem to be much urgency to correct the problem.
"They sort of thought it was business as usual," Chiago says. "The attitude was, 'Well, Indians are supposed to drop out.'"
Many members of the tribe, meanwhile, were denying the extent of the problem, he says.
He realized that the reservation had little say as to how its children were educated. And although the Mesa schools received extra funding for Native American students, they weren't providing much more than tutoring and financial aid to help parents pay for books and fees. One of the key sources of funding Mesa could use specifically for reservation students, but didn't, was impact aid. The impact aid--federal funds that make up for the property taxes Mesa can't collect from the reservation--fluctuated between $300,000 and $375,000 a year. The law required that the district meet with tribal officials and members to determine exactly how the money would be spent.
But Mesa officials say they were unaware of that requirement before Chiago pointed it out to them. "Chiago knew a lot more about the law than I did," admits David Eagleburger, associate superintendent of the Mesa school district.
Chiago suggested using that money to curb the dropout rate.
He hired Colbert, then the education director with the Fort McDowell tribe, to oversee supplemental programs on the Salt River reservation.
Colbert found that some dropouts had failed because they didn't understand what was required of them to graduate. He saw transcripts of kids who had taken the same classes over and over; still other students had few credits that counted toward graduation after years of high school.
"They were falling through the cracks," Colbert says. The average load for Mesa student advisers was 400 to 500 kids each.
With the impact-aid funds, the district hired additional tutors and home-school liaisons to help the kids. Administrators now review students' transcripts twice a year to make sure they are taking the courses they need to graduate.
Attacking truancy--some students missed as many as 75 days a year--was more difficult. Chiago hired two attendance counselors and got the district to assign one just for Salt River children. They encouraged the tribe to prosecute parents who allowed their kids to skip school. If a child missed the bus, a worker might drive out and pick him up.
But counselors couldn't alter the length of the bus ride. One of the biggest reasons students missed so many class days was that they simply didn't like being bused 30 or 40 minutes to a school where they felt uncomfortable in the first place.
Colbert saw an opportunity to solve that problem with a new school on the reservation, Medicine Wheel. The alternative school would also test his theory: that failing kids would do better in a reservation school with a Native American-based curriculum.
@body:Next fall, many of the students attending Medicine Wheel High will go back to Mesa's Westwood High, where the majority of Salt River teens attend. There, they can ease into the mainstream by attending a Native American "core" program that meets three hours a day. The program's teacher formerly taught on the reservation, and there is a counselor who works with Native Americans only.
But the people who work closest with the kids believe that if the tribe's education reforms are to endure, they will have to happen on the reservation.
Colbert believes the kids will learn more in schools run by the tribe, and will begin to see themselves as members of the tribe. But his push to return to a reservation-based education system has sparked some tension between educators and tribe members. While a vast majority of parents want the tribe to run its own community school someday, the goal of the alternative school is still to get the kids back to Mesa.
Suggestions of opening a school in the community have been frowned upon in the past. Chiago and Colbert spoke with Mesa school officials about opening a Mesa public school on the reservation, but nothing came of it.
"We need more of the public-school services out here on the reservation," acknowledges Terrance Leonard, a tribal official. "But we still have to recognize the tribal sovereignty within the community."
The other problem, Leonard says, is that a school run by the tribe might isolate students that are already poorly prepared to "deal with" the non-Indian world.
And there is still some of what Colbert describes as "paternalism and politics." Many Indians, he says, believe they are better off receiving an Anglo education.
The paternalism is also evidenced in the attitude of some members of the tribe's education committee and workers in the education department. The Medicine Wheel philosophy contradicts beliefs of Indians educated in BIA schools or religious boarding schools.
"Some people who are members of the fundamentalist Christian groups were concerned that the philosophy might be in conflict with their views," Chiago says.
@body:That clash in philosophy, along with tribal politics, may have cost Colbert his job.
He sits in a Denny's in Scottsdale. It's midday, but he's not working because of his suspension. He wears a tank top and shorts.
An Indian educator all his professional life, Colbert speaks candidly about the extent of the problem facing reservation schools. He speaks for hours about his vision for the education of children in a tribe that is not his own. He talks about the difficulty in testing out the Medicine Wheel curriculum on a reservation that abuts an urban society. And he speaks with frustration about his own problems.
Although the tribe won't give details on his suspension, Colbert's version of events has been confirmed by co-workers. He says he had collected liquor bottles that kids left around the schools throughout the year. He kept them in his office in case he needed evidence to suspend or discipline the culprits who had brought the booze on campus. When he was acting principal at Phoenix Indian School, he says, he did the same thing.
But the cleaning staff "discovered" the three or four liquor bottles in his office and reported it to tribal officials, who were under pressure to make an example of the maverick educator. The tribe suspended Colbert, with pay, pending an investigation. The probe has taken ten weeks, and it is uncertain whether Colbert will return.
In addition, several teachers, including Susan John, have left the program out of frustration.
It seems doubtful that Medicine Wheel will survive in its current form.
The tribe's new education director, Ken Crowl, is described as a "law and order" type who has clashed with reform-minded teachers and workers. And lately, there has been criticism of the alternative program's de-emphasis on discipline and competition in the classroom.
"They've got kids that deliberately do bad in Mesa so they can drop out and go to our schools and have fun," says one tribal member, who asked not to be identified.
Susan John laments: "They're going to crack down a hell of a lot. What will happen is we'll lose the kids."
Crowl insists that everything is under control.
"Ninety-nine percent of our kids are successful," Crowl says. Later, he issued a memo prohibiting education department staffers from speaking to New Times.
The official word is "there's going to be changes made," says Janet Johnson, the tribe's spokeswoman.
@body:Riley Briones hopes the changes won't come before he finishes school next spring. He's earned six credits at Medicine Wheel, and hopes he'll be able to earn what he needs to graduate at Mountain View High School--if that school will take him back. In case it won't, he'll need Medicine Wheel.
Riley's year at Medicine Wheel, away from racial and gang problems, gave him time to reflect. He says his gang friends are no longer interested in joy riding, drug running or turf battles--just surviving. When he speaks, he sounds much older than his 17 years.
"It's not a 'gang,'" he says. "We're trying to make things different. The killing is crazy. But you can't be by yourself and take on the world. It's just protection--we're not a gang that goes and steals cars. No narcotics and no coke heads."
He feels he has learned to be more tolerant. This summer, he and Carmen plan to marry.
"Before, my goal was to get through school. That's a pretty short goal," he says. "School's easy. Now I know to think ahead. Otherwise, you won't make it.
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.