When Kimi Serna gives directions to her Gila Crossing house, she doesn’t use street names.
“It’s hard to tell people where I live,” Serna said. “So I just give them the general area and tell them to follow the mountains around to my house.”
For the past four years, Serna, 22, has lived in two worlds: The wide-open, rural Gila River Indian Community, where her parents and siblings live, and the bustling Arizona State University campus in Tempe, where she majored in American Indian studies and public policy.
Traditionally, most tribal members stayed on the reservation, multiple generations living in family groups. But new money, much of it from Indian gaming, is changing that.
Today, about 20 percent of the 22,000 registered members of the Gila River tribes live off the reservation. More than 400 attend community colleges and universities, mostly in Arizona.
Their educations are largely financed by the Gila River tribal government, which gives scholarships to anyone seeking a college education. The community has nearly $7 million set aside for the college education of its members — a dramatic increase from the $400,000 of tribal money available in 1997, according to tribal officials.
The money opens up the door to a world that many older tribal members never experienced. And it has created a new generation straddling a threshold, one foot in the future and the other in the past.
One of those standing in the doorway is Serna.
Serna graduated from ASU this May. She was one of about 25 Gila River students to study at ASU this year.
A week after graduation, she boarded a plane for Greece to attend an international cultural fair, where she performed traditional dances with other American Indian students from ASU. She will spend the summer in Washington, D.C., working for one of Arizona’s congressmen, and then will return home to try for a job as a social programs coordinator for her tribe.
Serna has definite ideas about what her tribe should do about critical issues such as transportation and funding for local schools. She wants to see more buses on the reservation because many residents have no easy way to get to work. She said it’s hard for the reservation to prosper without more job opportunities close to home.
Serna has lived on the reservation all her life, but moves easily between “the rez” and the university.
“We aren’t aliens,” she said. “It’s just a part of who I am. I don’t feel like I have to balance that. We have a lot of the same values that everyone else does. I don’t think it’s a challenge at all.”
Serna’s Gila Crossing home in the shadow of the Estrella Mountains is a 45-minute drive from Tempe. There are no streetlights or numbers on the houses. Her parents’ double-wide trailer sits on a 1½-acre lot.
About two miles down the road are the Shell station and the Vee Quiva Casino. The closest city is Laveen, five miles to the north.
Until 2003, Serna lived in a house that had no central cooling or heating.
“I lived in that house for 20 years before we got a new one,” she said. “It’s an example of how the tribe is changing things. But it’s just been really slow.”
Serna is determined to be a part of that change.
“That’s why I chose (to study Indian) policy,” she said. “I want to be remembered for a policy that I passed, not just a statistic. I have a goal. I have a mission. That’s why I donate so much of my time — because I care.”
While Serna has no trouble moving between her two worlds, the transition from reservation to university is often a difficult one, said Eddie Brown, former assistant secretary of Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior and now director of ASU’s American Indian Studies program.
Students often find themselves torn between their commitment to their families and the expectations they face at school, he said.
In western cultures, he said, “You have your parents’ support and everything is focused on you. But in Indian culture, you are still a part of a family. You are tied to that culture. If a ceremony takes several days, you are expected to be there. You just go.”
Brown said students from rural tribal areas often are less prepared for college and have lower standardized test scores. Even more difficult, they frequently encounter faculty and staff who do not understand them.
He remembers when a student released a snake in a Indian girl’s dorm room as a prank. She wouldn’t return to her room until a special ceremony was performed, and university staff members didn’t understand how delicate the situation was until Brown called them to explain.
“It can become complicated,” Brown said. “We don’t have faculty here who understand all Native Americans. We have Native American staff, but not enough from the Southwest.”
Brown said he hopes the new American Indian Policy and Leadership Development Center at ASU will change that. The center moved from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law to its own building this semester, consolidating services currently spread across campus.
Brown said the center, along with more American Indian advisers, will increase retention and make students more comfortable.
On a typical Wednesday morning this semester, Serna’s father dropped her off at campus for a day of classes. Wearing designer glasses and carrying a “Hello, Kitty” purse, she settled into her classes, greeting friends and answering instructors’ questions with confidence.
She especially liked her American Indian Studies classes.
“The department is real small, so everyone knows each other,” she said. “It’s not like it is with a bigger class where you have like 400 students. I feel very comfortable speaking with them.”
Between classes, Serna studied in the library or headed for Mill Avenue to grab a bite with friends. They chatted about music and fashion and favorite TV programs.
“The only thing I can’t talk to my other friends about is something that if you didn’t live on the reservation, you wouldn’t get,” she said. “Like we joke with each other and say, 'That’s so rez,’ when we see something like a dog or cars in the back of a house.”
At home, Serna spent most of her free time practicing guitar, watching TV and playing with her four dogs, including China, a dachshund mix she adopted when it ran in front of her car.
She also took care of her mother, who has nerve damage in her legs, a result of diabetes. Her mother’s condition worsened in 2002 when one of Serna’s sisters was killed by a carjacker.
“When my sister died, it was like everything tumbled down,” Serna said. “It was hard because I was really close to her. It was devastating to my mom. I was afraid she wouldn’t make it.”
Still, Serna considers herself to be “a privileged girl.”
“I never had alcohol or drug problems or a lot of things that people associate with Native American people,” she said. “My family has always been supportive, and I have had a lot of cultural support. A lot of people don’t have that. Either they don’t have educational direction or they don’t have direction culturally.”
Education has always been a priority for the family, Karen Serna said. “But Kimi is the one who knows what she wants. She is strong. She went out, worked hard and has represented the tribe well.”
As the reigning Miss Gila River and Miss Indian ASU 2006, Serna works hard to keep her tribe’s culture alive.
During the Christmas holidays, she put on a traditional red-and-black dress and performed a tribal “bird dance” for 45 people at a community nursing home.
Holding onto the hem of her skirt, she stretched her arms out like a bird and swayed to a song recounting her ancestors’ beliefs and way of life.
“A lot of the elders got teary-eyed,” she said. “One man told me he hadn’t seen the dances since he was little. I think it meant so much to them.”
She and her mother also held weekly classes for Serna’s nieces and nephews, teaching them the native Pee-Posh Maricopa language.
“This was the highlight of my year,” she said. “It’s our job to pass along the language.”
Victor Flores, a psychologist who has worked on discrimination issues with the Tohono O’odham and Yaqui tribes, said the real divide for many American Indians is the one between rural and urban ways of life.
“There’s no doubt about it; it’s two different cultures,” he said. “The real difference in the urban area is that everyone is intermixed.”
American Indians’ success negotiating the world outside the reservation “depends on how assimilated they are in urban culture,” Flores said. “It is very different from a rural environment. Everything moves a lot faster.”
But Terry Yergan, project coordinator for the Gila River Planning and Evaluation Office, thinks the “two worlds” idea is overstated. He pointed out that tribal members watch the same television shows, eat many of the same foods and follow the same news as their non-Native counterparts.
“It’s not one world to another,” Yergan said. “They aren’t coming from another country or anything. The people on the reservation only live about 30 minutes from an urban environment. It’s no different just because they live in a rural area.”
Serna agreed that the divide is often not as great as people believe.
“People make assumptions and think you are something else than you actually are,” she said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about living on the reservation.”