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At San Xavier Mission School, Tohono O’odham drums and traditional songs accompany students’ Catholic Mass, held at the adjacent Mission San Xavier del Bac.

For 7th grader Keion Lopez, 12, the music is a direct link to his great-grandparents, who like him, grew up on the Tohono O’odham reservation.

“When they play traditional songs at Mass, it feels like I’m a lot closer to my culture,” he said.

The mission school, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, strives to connect its Native American students to their heritage, language and traditions, while imparting the Catholic teachings that undergird the next-door mission church, founded in 1692.

“It’s the blending of culture, tradition and religion,” said Principal Shirley Kalinowski. “That is a part of their spiritual foundation.”

The school, one of the first established in Arizona, will celebrate its anniversary by participating in a community parade on Oct. 18 and hosting a dinner in November for family and friends of the school.

The San Xavier Mission School has long provided academic and spiritual education to Tohono O’odham people in the Wa:k community, located in the San Xavier District, one of 11 political subdivisions on the Tohono O’odham Nation. Today, the school also teaches Pascua Yaqui, Navajo, Pueblo, Hispanic and African-American students from the neighboring community.

The mission school’s two main buildings frame an open-air courtyard with an herb garden named in honor of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint who was canonized two years ago. Another garden is planned near the playground next to the school. The mission school works with the nearby San Xavier Cooperative Farm to include locally grown and traditional foods in school meals. A computer lab accommodates 25 students at a time, and radio equipment lets students record their own news programs, which occasionally air on the radio station in Sells, the capital of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

“We’re trying to educate the whole child, spiritually, physically and academically,” said Kalinowski, the first “lay principal” in the school’s history. Until 2006, all previous school leaders were nuns.

Tourists regularly visit the Mission San Xavier church next door, the oldest intact European structure in Arizona, founded by Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Kino.

Today, the school faces modern challenges, like improving high school graduation rates among its students, and slowing the rise in obesity and Type 2 diabetes among its largely Native American population. Most of the school’s 149 students are Tohono O’odham.

The school still stands today because of the determination of religious communities like the Franciscan Sisters, who gave freely of their time, often without compensation, to open it, Kalinowski says.

“Without that dedication of those groups, this school would never have stayed open,” she said.

Most students attend the ,000-a-year nonprofit private school at a discount, based on financial need. Some pay just a month.

The school gets 0,000 to 0,000 each year from Arizona’s Catholic Tuition Support Organization, she said. The nonprofit distributes donations made by taxpayers in exchange for tax credits, as scholarships or grants for children in the 26 Catholic schools overseen by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson.

“I’m able to tell families that couldn’t normally afford a Catholic education that they can come and be at our school,” Kalinowski said.


Today, Catholicism is an integral part of life for many Tohono O’odham — but that hasn’t always been the case.

When the Spanish arrived in the 17th century, many indigenous people welcomed and collaborated with missionaries. But others fiercely resisted the incursion of European colonists and the repression of traditional religion, celebrations and medicinal practices. The resistance culminated in a violent, and unsuccessful, rebellion in 1751, said Bernard Siquieros, educational curator of the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum.

The practice of educating Native Americans through missions, government schools and off-reservation Indian boarding schools was historically a tool of colonialist oppression, experts say. Through the 1800s to 1900s, many Christian mission schools were funded by the U.S. government, whose official policy was to assimilate Native Americans through an Indian boarding school program seeking to eradicate tribal culture.

“What federal schools and mission schools shared is this commitment to transforming native people in the name of ‘civilizing,’” said Tsianina Lomawaima, professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.

Today, the Franciscan friars who staff the parish at Mission San Xavier strive to respect and incorporate Native American culture, while teaching the tenets of Catholicism, Kalinowski says.

And Lomawaima points out that native peoples weren’t just victims of the colonial system. Many chose to attend government and mission schools to take advantage of the education offered. Many also resisted efforts to erase their languages through decades when it was repressed, she said.

“It’s important to (note) the hard work native people have put in to maintain their languages, so there’s still something to teach,” she said.

Edith Manuel, a Tohono O’odham elder, has taught Tohono O’odham language, art and culture at San Xavier Mission School for 37 years. Her parents attended Indian boarding schools, where they had to speak English exclusively, but they still raised her to speak Tohono O’odham. Manuel says she wants to instill a respect for the language in her students, who usually grow up speaking English.

“I want them to learn so they know where their roots are, where their ancestors came from. They have a place where they can call home,” Manuel says.


Tackling the problem of obesity is high on school leaders’ priority list. This year the cafeteria stopped serving chocolate milk. Snack time centers on trays of vegetables passed around classrooms. Children are learning to cook healthy, traditional meals and are encouraged to take ideas home to their families.

Five years ago, the new school nurse Myra Archuleta measured a quarter-mile walking path around the playground and implemented a new rule: Every day at the start of recess, all students must walk the quarter-mile lap before they play.

The changes are having an effect. Fifty percent of the student population is obese, compared to about 80 percent five years ago, Archuleta said.

“It’s working. The parents are buying into it,” Archuleta said. Native Americans are already at risk for diabetes. “By doing all of this, we can put it off for as long as possible.”

Contact reporter Emily Bregel at 807-7774 or On Twitter: @EmilyBregel

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