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Home / Focus / Women in Government Nov. 2008 / Third World to first-class

Third World to first-class

Bernadine Burnette (right) poses with Fort McDowell Treasurer Pamela Mott and former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice during a Fiesta Bowl reception.

In just one generation, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation Vice President Bernadine Burnette has seen her community leap from dire poverty to prosperity.
The young girl who had to leave town to attend high school because she was too poor to afford to travel now finds herself hobnobbing with astronauts, governors, congressmen and business leaders. She’s also seen her community progress into a small powerhouse, which has been the epicenter for national changes in tribal policies.
Despite the scenic beauty and rich water resources of Fort McDowell’s 24,000-acre reservation, Burnette, 53, grew up in conditions rivaling a Third World country. “We had a house with a dirt floor, no electricity, no running water,” says Burnette. “We took our baths in a round steel tub. We brought in wood to heat the water in a big pot.”
The young Burnette pitched in around her grandparents’ small farm, which helped keep food on the table. “We picked watermelon, chiles, corn and tomatoes,” she says. Burnette, known as “Bernie” to her family and friends, also helped care for her 101-year-old great-grandfather.
A better life
In the early 1960s, Fort McDowell was a tiny group of houses, trailers and even wikieups (traditional Yavapai shelters built from brush) huddled along the west bank of the lower Verde River. More than 70 percent of the homes lacked basic infrastructure. The reservation had no paved roads. When a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) official came out to tend to affairs, he or she had to conduct office hours out of their cars. Most of the men of the community worked in a small water plant owned by the city of Phoenix, located near the confluence of the Verde and Salt rivers.
But Burnette dreamed of a better life. “I had goals to marry and raise a family,” she says. “I wanted to go to college and get an education.”
However, Burnette’s family was so poor that she had to leave Fort McDowell for Sherman Indian School in Riverside, Calif. When she returned, her financial situation allowed her to attend only one year of a local business college before having to go to work. In the meantime, Burnette had married and had given birth to the first of two children.
“My first job was in a summer program,” says Burnette. “I made $1 an hour. We cleaned the riverbank and collected entrance fees for recreation.”
Next, she worked as a clerk in the tribe’s parent-and-infant program, which was funded through a BIA grant; the job was followed by a three-year stint as a dispatcher in the tribal police department.
In 1981, Burnette took a full-time job at the BIA’s Phoenix-area office. “I drove to town or took the bus for about seven or eight years,” Burnette says. “I worked in tribal operating services.” Burnette’s new job began during a pivotal event for Fort McDowell.
David-and-Goliath struggle
During the 1970s, the tiny tribe, then numbering about 425, was embroiled in a David-and-Goliath struggle against the federal and state governments to prevent the construction of a dam that most likely would have broken up the tribe. Burnette recalled from her childhood hearing about the possibility of Orme Dam. But, she says the dam never made an impression on her until she started asking questions during her teen years.
“Little did I know that the dam would flood three-fourths of my community,” says Burnette.
Finally, in November 1981, after a concerted effort by tribal members, environmentalists and others, Interior Secretary James Watt declared the project dead.
During and after the fight to prevent Orme Dam, the BIA, the Bureau of Reclamation, HUD and other federal agencies had begun building some infrastructure for Fort McDowell. Small block homes now dotted the land that sloped down to meet the Verde. Once-dusty roads began to be paved. A small tribal building sprouted up. However, the tribe was still cash-strapped, and tribal officials still had to work outside the community. The only schools available were in Mesa, some 20 miles to the southwest, until nearby Fountain Hills started building schools. Jobs were few, and poverty was the norm.
Still, Burnette had never given up her dream of achieving something more for her community. In 1990, she was elected to her first term on the tribal council. However, she still had to work for the BIA, which meant that she was unable to take a more active role in Fort McDowell’s next groundbreaking event: the takeover of the casino by armed FBI agents on May 12, 1992. “But I still prayed for a good outcome,” says Burnette, who did what she could to bolster tribal President Clinton Pattea’s stand against the state and the feds.
After taking a two-year break from office, Burnette was re-elected in 1994 to the council, and has served the tribe ever since. She also served one term as president of the tribe, which now numbers more than 900.
Thanks to gaming revenue, Fort McDowell’s tribal council members finally were able to quit their day jobs and work full-time serving the needs of the growing community. During the 1990s, the tribe tackled the huge job of bringing the community into the 20th century. More roads were paved; the recreation center was built and expanded to keep bodies strong, while the nearby primary school, H’man ‘shawa School, builds minds and character; bigger homes with more amenities began replacing the small “HUD box” houses; and electricity, phone service, water service and sewer service were installed.
More importantly, Burnette has helped shape her nation’s future. One of her proudest achievements was the overhaul of the tribal Constitution, which was implemented in 1999. The new Constitution restructured tribal government to meet the needs of both the growing population and the tribe’s relations with its neighbors.
“We also bought out the firm that managed our casino,” says Burnette. “We now own and operate our own enterprises.”
Enterprising tribe’s master plan
And enterprises is the word, as Fort McDowell now owns and operates not just the casino, but a sand, gravel and concrete firm, a four-star resort and conference center, two golf courses, a thriving farm, a Wild West adventure company and an RV park. More than 250 homes have been built and sold to tribal members.
The growth is the result of a master economic plan which Burnette helped craft. And she’s also proud of her role in finalizing a water-rights settlement and forgiveness of a $13 million loan from the feds with which the tribe developed its farm and water infrastructure. Fort McDowell also invests a percentage of its revenue to benefit future generations, and its education program is the envy of tribes across the nation.
The girl who couldn’t afford to finish her own college education now boasts of a new generation of educated Yavapais. “We have 75 kids in college, and our high school graduation rate is 86 percent,” says Burnette.
Recently, the tribe celebrated its first law-school graduate. The last Fort McDowell native to achieve that level of academic prominence was Burnette’s ancestor and noted American Indian rights-activist Carlos Montezuma who became a physician in the late 1800s.
Burnette, who also serves on the boards of the Arizona Indian Gami
ng Association, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Education Association, United National Indian Tribal Youth and the National Indian Gaming Association, has been honored for her work on behalf of tribes. She was named one of seven highly prominent women in Arizona by then-Gov. Jane Dee Hull, and she’s garnered many other honors, which fill her office overlooking the reservation and Four Peaks.
But her biggest award is seeing her two children, three grandchildren and a niece grow and build good lives for themselves.
Being a woman in a leadership role is a natural for American Indian women, says Burnette. “We know how to balance family and work; we have an inner sense of caring,” she says. “We’re the nurturers; we not only nurture our own families but our community as well.”

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