Fort McDowell Yavapai’s answer to ‘What is sovereignty?’

    Ella Doka, one of the leaders of the 1992 Fort McDowell Yavapai peaceful standoff of armed federal agents seeking to confiscate tribal slot machines, holds a sign for the 13th Sovereignty Day commemoration

    on May 6, 2005.

    Photo by Debra Krol

    by Debra Utacia Krol

    Fort McDowell Yavapai Community, Ariz. (NFIC)

    Under a bright blue Arizona sky, with the sacred Four Peaks in the background, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation President Raphael Bear asked, “What is sovereignty?” The FMYN president led the speechifying at the tribe’s 13th Annual Sovereignty Day on May 6.

    The day commemorates the 933-member tribe’s peaceful standoff with armed federal agents who systematically raided Arizona tribal casinos and confiscated slot machines on the morning of May 12, 1992. The three-week protest, culminating in a 40-mile march to the Arizona State Capitol, resulted in gaming compacts with Arizona tribes.

    “Sovereignty is the will of the Yavapai to live their life as they see fit,” said Bear. “It is the will of the Yavapai to want a better life for their children. To maintain a home and land for their children. To maintain a culture for their children. That’s who we’re doing this for today. That is what our elders taught us, to see into the future.”

    Vice-President Bernadine Boyd echoed Bear’s sentiments. “Twenty-five years down the road, this community is going to have a lot to be thankful for,” said Boyd. “Our elders have fought for us, walked for us, cried for us and wrote letters for us. They put their lives on the line for us.”

    The Sovereignty Day celebration began in 1994, when Ella Doka, one of the leaders of the 1992 standoff, walked into Boyd’s office. Boyd recalled that Doka announced, “Berni, we’ve got three weeks to do something” to plan to commemorate the tribe’s historic victory.

    “What do you want me to do?” asked Boyd.

    “Well, let’s march,” replied Doka.


    “To the casino.” And Sovereignty Day was born.

    Boyd said that the first year, only 10 or 15 people made the four-mile trek from the Fort McDowell Recreation Center to the casino. Today, an estimated 400-500 people walk, ride bikes or horses, or ride in a horse-drawn wagon down Fort McDowell Road to remember those whose bravery paved the way for today’s prosperity in Arizona tribal communities. A sumptuous luncheon and live music at the casino complete the celebration.

    FMYN Treasurer Pam Mott urged new tribal employees to learn about the history of Fort McDowell. She also praised the tribe’s royalties for knowing their history and culture.

    “Parents, continue to teach your children about Sovereignty Day, so they’ll always remember,” said Mott. “I do that every day with my children, with my grandchildren.”

    Mott stressed, “Sovereignty is very important to us, to continue being a self-sustaining tribe.”

    Mott also honored past tribal leaders who attended the event, including Robin Russell, Larry Doka and Tom Jones. “Thank you for all the things you’ve done for us,” said Mott.

    Council Member Gwen Bahe said that it’s important to remember why the nation meets at Sovereignty Day every year. “Talk to your children about why we celebrate,” said Bahe. “We need to educate our children in letting them know why we do what we do.”

    “So many of you struggled so hard in your life with the dirt floors, the coal lamps, and the outside wood stoves,” said Bahe. “You don’t want your kids to live that hard life. But that’s OK, because you’re still going to implement [respect] into their lives.”

    Keynote speaker Sheila Morago, executive director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association, recalled where she was the morning of May 12, 1992.

    “Believe it or not, I was in Los Angeles working. I got up that morning and turned on the television set, and I saw you on TV. My heart filled with joy and pride,” said Morago.

    “What you did was the vehicle for me to be able to come home,” Morago added. “Because of the Fort McDowell people, the compacts that were signed after that, and the stand that you made for all the tribes to be able to open casinos here in the State of Arizona, I was able to come home to my tribe, the Gila River Indian Community, and work in their casino.”

    As an eagle soared overhead in the bright May sky, Doka, 63, reminisced about the events in the early morning hours of May 12. “That morning, Roddy Pilcher came and woke us up,” said Doka. “We went over there and he told us what was happening.

    “We went over and told more people. And sure enough, the FBI people were all over there loading,” said Doka, as she cuddled her 4-year-old granddaughter. “I went over there and I told them, ‘You’re not gonna get those machines away from us. You just leave it alone, you just get your people and you leave.’”

    Doka added, “I finally told my girls, the other ladies who were with me, ‘What are we doing just standing here? Let’s block the road, let’s not let them go through.’ So we all held our hands and we all got into line.

    “I told one of the tribal secretaries to get her vehicle and block it. She said, ‘I might get into trouble.’”

    The irrepressible Doka replied, “‘Don’t worry about it, just block it.’ So she did.”

    Soon, the rest of the tribe joined the blockade, Doka said. “They all stood up in the crunch. I think that was the most wonderful thing we did.”

    Doka looked around her lushly green, spotless reservation in the upper Sonoran Desert, with the Verde River sparkling in the background. “Now, we’re celebrating. It’s beautiful. We’ve got new homes, we’ve got everything. Everyone’s got brand new cars. The kids – it’s all for the kids, you know, for the future. It’s for their education, for their health care.

    “I’m very proud of the community.”

    Doka said that some of the community and council members who met with the Arizona governor have since passed on. “They’re out there watching us,” Doka said.

    “I’d like for the kids to always remember this thing that we do every year. They need to be here all the time. Parents need to talk to their kids and their grandkids why we do this, and that we need to continue doing this.”

    Doka pointed out several young children who were riding with her and other elders in the wagon. “This is for you, for your education, so you can go further, get better jobs,” she said.

    “That’s why we stopped the machines and blocked the roads.”

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