Under Construction: Phoenix Indian Center

Under Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations..

BMAfunders is proud to be an anchor partner for Under Construction, a project of Frontline Solutions, made possible through support by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Check out the Under Construction facebook page.

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Phoenix Indian Center

Phoenix, AZ

The Hohokam Indians made their mark nearly two millennia ago. In the hot desert region home to Phoenix today, the ancient people developed agriculture through sophisticated irrigation. Using only hand tools, they fashioned a canal network stretching more than 500 miles through the Gila and Salt River valleys.

This summer Augustine Newman, 16, heard of these amazing feats of engineering for the first time. This wasn’t just historical fodder; the pre-industrial technology of the Hohokam fueled a deep pride in Augustine, an aspiring scientist who is half-Apache and affiliated with the San Carlos Tribe. “We Natives had our own system,” he explains. “We were able to be self-sufficient.”

Augustine was among 60 young men who heard about the Hohokam canal system during a tour of the offices of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a diversion system that carries water from the Colorado River to municipalities and reservations in central Arizona. The visit was part of a summer career exploration program within a larger College and Career Readiness initiative organized by the Phoenix Indian Center. Katosha Nakai, former chair of the Center’s Board of Directors and CAP’s Tribal Affairs and Policy Development Manager, led the tour through the many CAP departments—accounting, legal, engineering, water operations. The tour largely served to show the young men the kinds of jobs available with the right training and education.

The trip to CAP was one of many eye-opening moments during the first phase of a program serving young American Indian men between 10th and 12th grades. Over two short weeks, the guys connected with each other, explored their roots, and considered different college and career options. It was a time for surveying the world beyond their home base, located in Phoenix or on one of the nearby Indian reservations.

It’s quite possible that the Hohokam irrigation canals are not featured in local school textbooks. One of the program’s participants, Nathaniel Talamantez, who is Akimel-O’Otham and a member of the Gila River Tribal Community, says that at his school “maybe they’ll do two pages [of Indian history] in the book and that’s it.”

That a curriculum would neglect an important chapter of a local tribal group’s history is unfortunate but not surprising in light of centuries of oppression. Public institutions, including schools, once went to unimaginable lengths to separate Native Americans from their culture and way of life. Patricia Hibbeler, the CEO of the Phoenix Indian Center, believes the forced enrollment of Native Americans into Indian boarding schools was the most devastating policy. She sees that dark legacy alive today in the distrust parents and grandparents have for the school system, and the ways low parental involvement contributes to similarly low graduation numbers. In fact, the dropout rates of American Indians, with boys faring worse than girls, are higher than that of any other ethnicity in Arizona.

A Shared Priority

But there’s reason to believe that Phoenix’s young American Indian men will start charting better academic outcomes, starting with this inaugural group of 60. The College and Career Readiness program is the product of a broad community partnership, enjoying the full support of the Phoenix Union High School District and Mesa Public Schools, two regional districts that have the highest Native Americans populations. The school districts have provided transportation and taken the lead on recruiting for the program. Other key partners are the local businesses and agencies like CAP, Resolution Copper, and the Phoenix Forensic Laboratory serving as tour sites. Their staffs readily have offered advice on how to enter professions like water engineering and forensic analysis. In developing the field-trip schedule, Hibbeler says the first eight businesses and organizations her team approached to be hosts all said “yes,” confirming their shared priority that more Americans Indians enter and thrive in the local workforce.

Then there is the program’s backbone, the Phoenix Indian Center, with its own legacy of supporting and empowering Native Americans living in and around Phoenix. The first American Indian agency of its kind, the Center has operated since 1947 as a networking hub and service provider for residents looking for a more livable urban experience. The College and Career Readiness program extends from a Center tradition of balancing practical support with cultural enrichment via language courses, singing classes, and traditional celebrations.

That kind of balance is exactly what Augustine was looking for. Highly focused and driven, he has long been on the hunt for an afterschool job, and despite getting high grades and enrolling in advanced classes at the local community college, he’s thwarted by an old catch-22—you can’t get that first job without experience and experience without that first job. He hopes putting the College and Career Readiness program on his résumé will help him bust through the roadblock.

But grades and employment are not Augustine’s only priorities. Not having grown up on a reservation, he feels something is missing and is eager to learn about his Apache roots and culture. He shares a story of a sage-burning blessing his dad performed in his home. The smoke filled up the different corners of the house, cleaning out bad spirits and energy, helping Augustine to think more clearly and focus. He wants to learn more traditions like this one, and with the Phoenix Indian Center a gathering place for the more than 400 different tribal groups represented in the region, he seems to be in the right place.

Dealing With Duality

The participants in the program come from different tribal backgrounds and have different levels of knowledge about their tribal way of life. Several students come from local tribal backgrounds and have the opportunity to closely connect with their tribe. For example, Nathaniel is grounded in his own tradition yet always wants to learn more, as does Wesley Paddock, 17, who is enrolled Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT), lives on the Salt River Reservation, and attends Westwood High School in nearby Mesa. All share the duality of being American Indian with its accompanying benefits and challenges. It means a continual push and pull—learning how to balance the mainstream city life while staying true to tribal cultural norms and values.

These countervailing forces can pull young Indian men down any number of paths. Some get the message from tribal members to leave the reservation, forge forward and not look back, while others hear the call to remain behind, serve their community, and help with family responsibilities. Wesley has seen firsthand the worst ramifications of staying behind, having watched former friends on the reservation join gangs and basically give up on their futures. “They can’t see themselves living past their 20s or anything,” he says. “It’s kind of like a pride thing.”

For Hibbeler, the clash of the old and the new also has troubling consequences in the classroom. American Indian students go through school ingrained with a deep respect for their elders, including their teachers. Naturally, they don’t get into trouble. But they can also quietly fall through the cracks, particularly in the large classrooms where the high-achieving and the disruptive students draw most or all of the attention. American Indians, Hibbeler says, “are the silent children in the back of the room not getting noticed.” At a certain point, perhaps during junior or senior year, panic may set in for those back-row pupils, about what will happen after high school and whether they have the proper credits to graduate on time. By that point, it’s often too late.

The leaders behind the College and Career Readiness program believe that with the right prompting, students can start the process earlier of thinking about their future and exploring their options. Having that mindset requires confidence, which is why the program’s focus on American Indian identity is essential, as is the peer learning leaders encourage. With youth coming from several different tribal backgrounds, the program is challenged to guide participants successfully in learning more about who they are as young American Indian men.

That duality of being an American Indian today poses serious challenges for young men, but it’s ultimately something that they are capable of embracing, as many have already shown. “I think we’re starting to see in the younger generations that come forward a real desire to merge both [paths], and to do it effectively,” says Nakai.

Nathaniel lives out this duality. He’s committed to remaining a tribal leader, moving on from the Gila River Youth Council to the main Tribal Council. But he also wants to go to college, pursue aerospace engineering, and learn to “create technologies that everyday people use.” It’s easy to imagine this kind of devotion to culture and career rubbing off on fellow 10th and 11th graders in the program.

Toward a Deeper Exploration

In establishing this new initiative still in its infancy, the Phoenix Indian Center doesn’t have naive notions that every participant will go to college. Hibbeler believes consistency is key to making incremental change. “They have to stay with us for a year,” she says. “We’re just touching the surface . . . they need to keep coming back.”

As the program moves into the school year, the participants will start coming one Saturday a month for Career Academy sessions. The focus will rest on continually helping the young men get comfortable with the idea of preparing for college and career. At any moment, during a career self-assessment, a visit to Arizona State University, or a talk with a college recruiter, the wheels may start turning in a young man’s mind, and the real exploration can begin.

The ultimate test for a young man—for anyone really—boils down to knowing who you are and where you’re going in life. Traditionally, American Indian people introduce themselves by including their tribal affiliation(s), home community, and band or clan affiliation. As an example, Navajos state the names of the four clans that identify their parents, maternal and paternal grandparents, and/or ethnicity before arriving at their own name. The message is clear: every one of those individuals and their tribes and/or ethnicities grounds that sense of self.

This College and Career Readiness program is setting guideposts to help young men accomplish the second part of the test, to figure out where they’re going as they continue to honor the people, history, and traditions that help define who they are.

-Brian Baughan

Phoenix Indian Center Photo Exhibit

Phoenix Indian Center image
Phoenix Indian Center image
Phoenix Indian Center image

Phoenix Indian Center Impact Model

Phoenix Indian Center logic model
Phoenix Indian Center logic model
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