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Thamar Richey and Her Yaqui Students

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Thamar Richey was a pioneer teacher who became an important figure for the Pascua Yaqui.

She was born on August 8, 1858, on a farm in Indian County, Pennsylvania, one of nine children. After graduating from high school, itself a remarkable achievement for a farm girl, she taught in various schools in Missouri and Kansas.

She arrived in California in 1892 to teach on the Mojave Reservation near Needles. After a few years she returned to teach school in the Midwest and at the normal school in Emporia, Kansas.

In 1919, at the age of 61, Richey took a job in Arizona, teaching in a rural ranch school on the Empire Cattle Ranch near Greaterville. She moved on to Tucson in August of 1923, still not ready to quit teaching. Told that there were no openings for teachers, she asked C.E. Rose, the school superintendent, if he would approve a job for her if she were able to find a school.

Rose agreed and then forgot about it. Richey, meanwhile, went looking for a school. She found that Yaqui parents objected to their children having to travel to Tucson to attend school, and wanted a school of their own.

She presented her case to the superintendent, saying, “Now I don’t have anywhere to teach and they don’t have a school. If I can get one, can I teach in it?” He reluctantly agreed. Weeks later, she invited him to visit her at a makeshift school – the tin-roofed, three-sided ramada pictured above.

The dirt-floor structure was the ceremonial meeting place for the Yaqui tribe and would serve as the schoolhouse until Christmas 1923.

Here the children learned their alphabet by tracing the letters in the floor dust while sitting on railroad ties. Richey immediately began to advocate for a proper school building. She argued that the Tucson School Board should build a schoolroom for the Yaqui children, even though they lived outside the school district. No other government was then taking responsibility for their education.

The city of Tucson did build an adobe school for the children near the old ramada, and Richey began to furnish it, acquiring, over time, regular desks for the children, a desk for herself, a phonograph, an organ, book shelves and potted plants for the windows.

The children were bitterly poor, often coming to school barefooted, even in the coldest weather. They carried with them buckets of warm ashes from their home fires, which they would empty onto the cement floor of the schoolhouse so they could warm their feet.

Richey kept a large pot of beans on the stove, and offered the children breakfast with milk before they started their classes. The girls helped her serve and washed the dishes. As time passed, she became confidante, nurse and frequently an arbitrator in village disputes.

In 1936, as the Great Depression took its toll on Arizona, Richey described the plight of the Yaqui children as “worse than ever.” Many of their parents were working in the Arizona cotton fields where the pay rate was just 75-cents a hundred pounds for picked cotton.

Richey begged for food and warm clothing from the Tucson community and distributed the goods to the Yaquis when she was not teaching. By that time she had 40 pupils in her class. She complained that there were too many silk stockings and chiffon blouses among the donated goods, when what she really needed was more substantial clothing.

Richey taught the children English, reading and writing, and also found time for art and music. She taught with the help of two interpreters – one to translate English into Spanish and the other to translate Spanish into Yaqui.

After 14 years of teaching Yaqui children, Thamar Richey retired. The Arizona Board of Education approved her application for a pension and allowed her $50 a month.

She died that year at the age of 79, on October 14, 1937. She had taught all her adult life. Yaqui elders carried on a candlelight vigil for her, and the entire Yaqui village turned out for her funeral.

(This Times Past article was originally published on December 15. 2000.)

Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society, Tucson; research by Jane Eppinga. ©Arizona Capitol Times.                                                                        

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