‘70s Flashback: Mescalero Apache Youth Made Movie Magic

George Torres at Isleta Pueblo, New Mexico, at the BNC Training in July 2017

George Torres at Isleta Pueblo, New Mexico, at the BNC Training in July 2017

Every summer First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) conducts at least one Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families (BNC) Train-the-Trainer Workshop. The culturally-based financial education curriculum is enormously popular throughout Indian Country, drawing a wide array of trainers from tribal housing entities, community-based nonprofits, federal partners and other groups dedicated to financial literacy. With the hundreds of people who have completed BNC during its nearly 20-year history, you never know who you might encounter at a BNC workshop. Here’s a story by Shawn Spruce of a recent BNC participant who holds a connection to the classic Bad News Bears movies from the seventies.

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Like legions of kids who grew up with disco, ringer tees, and flashy Aaron Spelling dramas, I adored The Bad News Bears. A memorable sports comedy showcasing the rebellious antics of a Southern California little league baseball team. With potty mouths to sting a roughneck’s ears, the unlikely band of pre-pubescent anti-heroes satisfied the raucous cravings of a generation starving for a bite of crudeness missing from Ajax clean The Brady Bunch reruns and mushy after-school specials.

The original film, released in the summer of 1976, is a classic underdog story: a ragtag team of misfits led by an alcohol-fueled curmudgeon of a coach, played by the late Academy Award winner Walter Matthau. Parading to the opening bars of Bizet’s opera Carmen, the Bears make it all the way to the league championship and stole their way into the hearts of every Gen Xer who ever stepped inside a batter’s box. The movie spawned two sequels, a TV series, and a 2005 remake featuring Billy Bob Thornton. Along the way characters like Engelberg, Tanner, and Kelly Leak became household names and the chant “Let them play!” an anthem to recalcitrant sports fans everywhere.

So what does any of this have to do with Indian Country?

Breaking TrainingIn the first sequel The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, abandoned by their manager and unchaperoned, the Bears travel in a stolen van for a showdown against the Texas little league champs in the Houston Astrodome. En route the team makes a pit stop near the New Mexico-Texas state line, where a parking-lot run-in with a rough crew of Native kids leads to an anything-goes sandlot challenge. What ensues is a bona fide rez ball smack down nearly two decades before the Schimmel sisters were born.

While the film might not stand up to present-day standards of political correctness, it routinely airs on cable where I’ve watched it at least a dozen times over the years. Curious about the origins of the young extras who racked up 15 runs on the Bears before blasting a mercy-rule homerun into a graveyard. Who said Indians always lose in the movies?

At a First Nations-sponsored Building Native Communities train-the-trainer workshop in Isleta Pueblo, New Mexico, last summer, my questions were finally answered by a retired Mescalero Apache police officer named George Torres. During a morning icebreaker Torres casually revealed that he had played one of the uncredited extras in question. Dismissive, he said it wasn’t any big deal. Everyone in the room begged to differ and, after some cajoling, Torres opened up. This is his story.

First off, the rez wasn’t the rez. The scene was actually filmed in El Paso, Texas, during the summer of 1976, about the same time the first Bad News Bears movie was taking the country by storm. Back then the closest federally recognized Native American community was two hours away on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in south-central New Mexico. Producers from Paramount Pictures reached out to the Mescalero schools that connected them to a tribal little league team on which Torres, who was 15 at the time, played with most of the other extras in the film.

“They didn’t tell us a whole lot about what we were going to film” he explained. “I hadn’t even seen the first Bad News Bears movie so it was all new to me. But we were excited to take a road trip.”

Real life mimicked the movie when, like the Bears’ stealthy sojourn, the Mescalero kids traveled under the radar. Torres’s stepmother, Glenda Brusuelas, elaborated.

“We were told about the movie but didn’t believe it until the boys actually left,” Brusuelas recalled when I reached her by phone. “They didn’t give us much information about where they were going, so I got worried and tried to track them down.”

Filming of "The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training" in El Paso, Texas, in 1976. George Torres is pictured second from left, facing camera.

Filming of “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” in El Paso, Texas, in 1976. George Torres is pictured second from left, facing camera.

Frantic, Brusuelas finally located the hotel where her stepson was staying and called to check on him. A desk clerk told her the teen was resting and offered to take a message.
“They were really acting like he was some kind of celebrity,” she giggled. “When he finally got home he didn’t say much about the trip other than to say he missed my cooking.”

I quit beating around the bush. “So how was the money, George?”

“I don’t remember how much we were paid, but I’m sure I bought a house or a Cadillac or something,” Torres joked.

According to a 1978 People Magazine interview with Liz Keigley, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training location casting director, the going rate for movie extras in the late seventies was $60 a day. I’m thinking Torres’s Hollywood payday pocketed him about enough to buy a new bicycle and some chrome polish to shine the handlebars – genuine Cadillac-dealer chrome polish maybe?

I was also hoping for some juicy tattle. Did he play cards all night, talking trash with Chris Barnes aka hot-tempered Tanner Boyle? Was Jackie Earle Haley, who went on to such notable roles as masked vigilante Rorschach in Watchmen, as supremely cool in real life as his character Kelly Leak?

“You know we didn’t really mingle with the Bears on or off the set. We pretty much kept to ourselves. What I remember most was staying in a nice hotel and eating really well. That’s what I enjoyed the most.”

Come on, George. Work with me here. I’m trying to write a story.

Jeff Starr, who played the Bears’ corpulent catcher Mike Engelberg, confirmed there wasn’t much off-camera interaction between the two groups.

“I can’t remember the (Mescalero) kids too much” he said in a phone interview from the car dealership he manages in his hometown of Anna, Illinois. The former child actor spoke with a hearty, shallow Southern drawl. “I talked to some of the guys briefly but that’s about it. What I remember most about that scene was the old lot we filmed in and all the rocks. I was glad we didn’t have to film there long.”

Starr was excited I had met Torres and sent his regards and a compliment to his on-screen adversaries.

“In the movie they sure made it look they stomped us – and they probably would have in real life, too,” he chuckled.

Native teen extras share an on-screen laugh at the expense of the Bad News Bears (left to right are George Lester, Ronnie Thomas and George Torres)

Native teen extras share an on-screen laugh at the expense of the Bad News Bears (left to right are George Lester, Ronnie Thomas and George Torres)

Torres commented that people in those days didn’t carry smartphones and taking pictures was a mild luxury. Therefore, he doesn’t have photos or mementos from the trip. He remembers going to see the movie in the neighboring town of Alamogordo after it came out, but doesn’t recall much of a fuss about it in the Mescalero Apache community. However, Torres did go on to a stellar 12-year Major League career as a shortstop with the World Series Champion New York Yankees. Ah well, not exactly.

While pro baseball wasn’t in Torres’s future he did enjoy distinguished careers in the military and law enforcement, beginning in high school when he worked as a dispatcher and part-time jailer. After graduating in 1981 he enlisted in the Army. Stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he served four years in the elite 82nd Airborne Division. A Jumpmaster, Torres was an expert paratrooper who trained other paratroopers and managed airborne jump operations across all branches of services, an accomplishment he is especially proud of. After the Army he fought forest fires with the Mescalero Hot Shots before spending four years as a corrections officer at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility in Las Cruces. In 1992 he signed on with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, first as a police officer on the Mescalero Reservation and later in Artesia, New Mexico, as an instructor and member of an Interior Special Response Team.

“We traveled out to different reservations and assisted with uprisings and natural disasters – hurricanes in Florida. Things of that nature,” Torres explained.

Torres closed out his federal law enforcement career with the Department of Homeland Security. His main duties were as a specialist and trainer. Although he was assigned to Washington, D.C. after 9/11 — time that included a three-month stint as an Air Marshall guarding flights out of Dulles Airport. In 2013 he retired, or pulled the ripcord as he put it, to spend more time with family and enjoy hobbies like hunting, fishing, biking and running. He has a teenage son, two grandchildren, and a grown daughter who enjoys saying “You were a movie star, Dad!”

This past June, at the age of 55, Torres returned to the workplace and joined the Mescalero Apache Housing Department. A tenant service representative, he primarily assists with compliance and record-keeping.

Torres said he keeps in touch with some of the other kids from the movie, now grown of course, although sadly at least one has passed on. He was a bit reluctant when I requested this interview. You don’t say! But I persisted and hopefully didn’t upset him too much. He repeatedly said his on-screen appearance in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training was not a big deal, but I’d like George Torres and his co-extras to know that for many Native Americans it was and still is a big deal.

Although brief, your roles made a lasting impact in a charming movie that still entertains 40 years after its release. That says something when today, fast-paced digitized special effects and wizardry render most summer blockbusters out of date in the time it takes to chug down a few collectible plastic drink cups. And more importantly, you gave movie audiences a contemporary peek at Indian Country long before it was trendy. In those days, and even now, rarely did Native Americans casually appear in a mainstream film, much less serve up an old school butt kicking to its stars.

We all have brothers, cousins, nephews, sons and grandsons who once looked and acted just like you. The seventies, while not perfect, were fun years to grow up and remain a wistful source of nostalgia for millions of aging latchkey kids. America maintained its semblance of innocence, and baseball was still our national pasttime. You made us smile, you made as laugh, and you made us proud. But most importantly, you made us realize, win or lose and just like George Torres, we could all be home-run hitters in life.

By Shawn Spruce, First Nations Financial Education Consultant

Bishop Paiute Expands Nutrition Education

Amaranth seeds

Amaranth seeds

For a 2016-2017 project, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) selected 21 tribes and organizations across 12 states to receive grants to support nutrition education, especially among individuals who receive food under the USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. Among those selected, under generous funding from the Walmart Foundation, was the Bishop Paiute Tribe of Bishop, California.

Walmart Fndtn report D(This story was originally published in the recent “Outcomes Under the Nutrition Education for Native Communities Project” report that First Nations prepared for the Walmart Foundation. The full report is available for free on the First Nations Knowledge Center at http://www.firstnations.org/knowledge-center/foods-health/research.)

The Bishop Paiute Tribe’s Food Sovereignty Program (FSP) has been working to expand its garden-based nutrition education projects to encourage healthy food and lifestyle choices by partnering with the Bishop Elementary School (BES), the Bishop Indian Head Start (BIHS), and the Inyo County Health and Human Services Department and its food initiative programs.

With the funding provided by First Nations and the Walmart Foundation, the Food Sovereignty program, now in its third year, worked to expand the tribe’s work and community outreach.

Families Learn Together

FoodCorps Service Member Shanae Vega works with Head Start youth participants in a hands-on cooking activity as part of the Bishop Paiute Tribe's Food Sovereignty Program nutrition education classes.

FoodCorps Service Member Shanae Vega works with Head Start youth participants in a hands-on cooking activity as part of the Bishop Paiute Tribe’s Food Sovereignty Program nutrition education classes.

“We focused on increasing garden-based and nutrition education offerings for the fifth-grade classes at BES, and offered similar food related activities to BIHS students,” said Jen Schlaich, Food Program Specialist for the Food Sovereignty Program. “Additionally, in collaboration with our FoodCorps Service Member Shanae Vega, FSP staff held an eight-week nutrition education class for Head Start families with hands-on cooking activities for both parents and children.”

Each week the class featured a new fruit or vegetable in recipes that the FSP cooked in advanced to share with participants as a taste-test. Parents then went through the preparation steps for the featured recipe.

“BIHS already had a nutrition curriculum. However, in the evening classes, which involved both parents and their children, we were able to integrate foods that students were learning about during the day into their home lives,” said Schlaich.

Roasted beet salad is prepared as part of a hands-on cooking activity for Head Start parents participating the Bishop Paiute Tribe's Food Sovereignty Program nutrition education classes.

Roasted beet salad is prepared as part of a hands-on cooking activity for Head Start parents participating the Bishop Paiute Tribe’s Food Sovereignty Program nutrition education classes.

While the parents were trying out the new recipes, the kids were engaged in simple cooking activities that incorporated the same fruit or vegetable that their parents were learning about. The class ended with a fun activity for the whole family such as painting clay pots and planting cooking herbs or designing a fruit basket to take home to an elder. Also, the parents who attended the class were able to take home the meal that had been prepared in class that day.

Plants Impact the Community

While the youngest students were cooking up fun at the Head Start kitchens, the middle school students were busy outside in the gardens tending their own growing plots, and learning about a plant not indigenous to their area. In the Fall of 2016, as part of a farmer-to-farmer cultural exchange supported by The Garden’s Edge, Quachuu Aloom, a Guatemalan Farmers’ Cooperative, visited the FSP gardens to teach community members about one of their important traditional foods – amaranth.

Bishop Indian Head Start youth processing amaranth at the Food Sovereignty Program's garden near the Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center.

Bishop Indian Head Start youth processing amaranth at the Food Sovereignty Program’s garden near the Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center.

Both the fifth-graders and the Head Start students visited the garden to learn about how to harvest and process amaranth, in addition to cooking with it and using it to make crafts. “We puffed the amaranth using a hot skillet and used it to make honey ‘granola’ bars that the students were able to taste. The seeds can be used in stews, ground into flour, or eaten like porridge. It is also a wonderful natural dye which the students were able to experiment with when making holiday gifts from plants to bring home to their families. The amaranth became so popular with the students that the small health food store in town ran out of amaranth. Community members requested seeds to plant along their fences as a usable barrier, and amaranth seed packets were distributed to those who were interested in it,” said Schlaich.

Amaranth

Amaranth

Other foods planted and harvested in the FSP’s family-demonstration garden included: Mohawk red corn courtesy of Rowen White from Akwesasne and founder of Sierra Seeds, tomatoes, strawberries, potatoes, rainbow chard, leeks, radishes, acorn squash, herbs and flowers useful for medicinal purposes or for crafts, currants, gooseberries, beans, peas and bamboo.

Nutrition Education from the Ground Up

Shanae Vega, a Bishop Paiute tribal member, worked with FSP as the FoodCorps service member and served as the garden education mentor. Vega would provide support with the nutrition education lessons during the day with the Head Start students, and later in the evenings was involved in the eight-week cooking series for the Head Start families.

Bananas rolled in amaranth

Bananas rolled in amaranth

Schlaich says Vega was excited to be involved and connecting with community members around garden-based and nutrition education, especially with the kids. At every cooking class Vega was surrounded by kids, who were wondering what she was going to help them cook or what they might get to taste-test next. Vega was also excited to work with all of the fifth-grade classes in Bishop that included students from the reservation and from the City of Bishop. She also worked with all children at BIHS and their families from the reservation.

All of the project’s efforts, including the partnership with FoodCorps, provided over 127 BES students with 10 hours of nutrition education, and nearly 85 BIHS students with six plus hours of garden-based education. Schlaich and Vega worked to get the information out to the community through a variety of ways, via the tribal newspaper, KBPT Bishop Paiute tribal radio station, and through their partnerships with BES, BIHS, and the Inyo County Health and Human Services Department.

Schlaich says the partnerships, and the funding support from First Nations were key to their success. “We never would have had the resources for the eight-week nutrition education cooking classes without the support from First Nations. It was definitely a huge support that made the garden-based and nutrition education components of the Food Sovereignty Program much stronger. We’re excited and motivated to continue with cooking demonstrations during the third year of our community market.”

By Mary K. Bowannie, First Nations Communications Officer

Cocopah Tribe Engages & Empowers Boys & Young Men

Young Cocopah student during CPR training. Photo courtesy of Cocopah Indian Tribe

For more than a decade, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) has had a positive and lasting impact on Native youth. In 2002, First Nations launched the Native Youth and Culture Fund (NYCF) to enhance culture and language awareness, and promote youth empowerment, leadership and community building.

Recently, First Nations unveiled a new grant initiative that reflects our growing commitment to Native youth and youth development: Advancing Positive Paths for Native American Boys and Young Men (Positive Paths). Positive Paths, created in partnership with NEO Philanthropy and and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, seeks to reduce social and economic disparities for Native American males.

Studies suggest that Native American males are more likely to be absent from school, suspended, expelled or repeat a grade. However, a growing body of research indicates that suspensions and expulsions are not always the most effective means of reaching and disciplining these students.

Often, these punitive measures deprive students of the opportunity to develop the skills and strategies they need to succeed. Positive Paths supports innovative programs that emphasize alternative approaches to punitive measures that have a negative impact on academic achievement and graduation rates.

For years, the Cocopah Tribe of Arizona relied upon the public school system for enforcing truancy laws for its students. This approach yielded little to no results, especially among male students. Educators decided to take a new approach that emphasized engaging and empowering Native American boys and men.

In 2014, First Nations awarded the Cocopah Tribe of Arizona $50,000 through the Positive Path grant initiative to restructure its truancy program. The tribe’s new program has reduced truancy rates among Native American males by nearly 75 percent. As a result, student grades and graduation rates have increased significantly, as much as 25 to 50 percent.

The Credit Recovery and Career Exploration (CRACE) program links at-risk male youth to the people and resources they need to recover academic credits, to pursue future career opportunities and develop leadership skills. Students enroll in online classes and work with tutors to successfully complete their courses and graduate.

Students participate in mock trial. Photo courtesy of Cocopah Indian Tribe

Additionally, the program introduces student to careers that have the potential to strengthen and empower their tribal community. Since starting the CRACE program, participating Cocopah students have undergone CPR training, participated in mock trial exercises, and explored career opportunities in medicine and law enforcement.

Students participate in regular meetings with staff and instructors to provide feedback and discuss future plans. During the first meeting, education department staff members noted that many students seemed unsure about their future plans and goals. Over the past year, many students have narrowed down their focus, applying to college or preparing to enter the workforce.

Additionally, staff members have noted that this program helps instill students with a sense of pride in themselves and their community. One education department staff noted, “This program has helped make our students, their families and the community stronger. The program has already shown we can make a real positive difference in our students’ lives. This year we have had a dozen participating students make a 180-degree turnaround in regard to their grades, school attendance and personal attitudes.”

CRACE has received support from the tribe and the tribal community. According to the education department, tribal council members often act as mentors to at-risk youth. They also note that the tribe has recently passed a resolution that makes it mandatory for every tribal member to receive a high school diploma or GED to be eligible for benefits. This resolution sends a strong message to students: education is the key to strengthening and empowering their communities.

The Cocopah Tribe of Arizona’s CRACE program demonstrates the success of alternative techniques in inspiring students to achieve their education and take personal responsibility for their journey. CRACE brochures send the message loud and clear to students who utilize the service: “Your dreams are within reach. You just have to graduate high school to realize them.”

By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Program Coordinator

Protecting Native Money: How to Avoid Financial Fraud

Financial fraud is far too common in Native American communities, and is a growing problem with the recent increase in tribal lawsuit settlements with the federal government. First Nations Development Institute has partnered with the FINRA Investor Education Foundation to produce a pamphlet that can help people protect themselves from common financial fraud techniques.

Over the past five years more than $1 billion in tribal trust settlements have been reached, including the Keepseagle and Cobell class-action legal settlements. Many of these settlements have resulted in payments to individual tribal members, which makes them targets for fraudsters who follow a simple strategy: They go where the money is. The FINRA Investor Education Foundation is collaborating with First Nations to help reach the recipients of these trust fund settlements, as well as other tribal members who may be targeted for their wealth.

The pamphlet, titled “Fighting Fraud 101: Smart Tips for Investors,” is designed to appeal to individuals, members of tribal investment committees, and retirees. It lists some common fraud tactics, such as the “Social Consensus” tactic that lead you to believe that your savvy friends and neighbors may have already invested in a product. With the “Source Credibility” tactic, a fraudster may falsely suggest they have worked with other tribal investment committees or helped people manage lump sum payouts from tribal lawsuits to try to gain trust. The pamphlet also teaches several techniques to avoid being taken advantage of and how to report suspicious behavior.

“We are honored to be able to collaborate with several national partners, including the FINRA Investor Education Foundation and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, to provide financial education for tribal members,” said First Nations President Michael Roberts.

First Nations representatives Sarah Dewees and Shawn Spruce spoke at an October 29, 2014, Federal Trade Commission event titled “Fraud Affects All Communities.” The purpose of this meeting was to highlight the range of consumer, financial and investor fraud techniques that affect diverse communities.

“A lot of people aren’t aware that financial fraud is a big problem on many Indian reservations,” said Sarah Dewees, senior director of research, policy and asset-building programs. “I am happy we have been able to continue our work with the FINRA Investor Education Foundation and the Office of the Special Trustee to help community members protect themselves against financial fraud.”

A copy of the pamphlet can be viewed in First Nations’ online Knowledge Center at http://www.firstnations.org/knowledge-center/predatory-lending/research.  To order printed copies, you can email info@firstnations.org.

By Sarah Dewees, First Nations Senior Director of Research, Policy and Asset-Building Programs

Collaboration & Partnerships Expand in Urban Indian Program

Jay Grimm, executive director of the Denver Indian Center, talks about the project

The Denver Indian Center, Inc. and the Denver Indian Family Resource Center are partners in the “Building Strong American Indian/Alaska Native Communities” effort, which is a three-year project that is funded by The Kresge Foundation.

As grant recipients in First Nations’ 2013-2014 Urban Indian Organization program, their project strategy is to improve and expand collaborative opportunities for the two organizations, as well as other partner organizations in metropolitan Denver.  They plan to increase participation in new and existing programs, build resources, explore new ways of working together, and enrich communication that creates the most impact.  Proposed activities involve resource development, case management, outreach, marketing, information exchange, database management, and developing best practices.

The National Urban Indian Family Coalition (NUIFC) and First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) are also strategic partners in this project.  The main objective of their partnership is the amplification of services to the grantees to aid in sustainability and growth.  It is the right business match.  We are committed to the design and co-management of the program with open access to information, networks, resources and skills.  Our tasks are to deliver technical assistance and training along with assessments, site visits, media development, and information-sharing forums.

Partnerships and collaboration are motivating philosophies at First Nations.  Collaboration builds the Native American nonprofit sector.  It is a process that prompts individuals with diverse interests to share their knowledge and resources to improve outcomes, innovate and enhance decisions.  When we share our expertise we become deeply involved in the design and delivery of outreach, programs, and services.  As partners we solve problems, meet objectives, build support, and utilize our strengths more effectively for greater success.

Under the Kresge project, First Nations and NUIFC also selected two other organizations to receive grants. They are the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland, Oregon, and the Little Earth of United Tribes in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Each of the three projects is receiving a $40,000 grant.

First Nations’ and NUIFC’s overall effort aims to help organizations that work with some of the estimated 78 percent ofAmerican Indians and Alaska Natives who live off reservations or away from tribal villages, and who reflect some of the most disproportionately low social and economic standards in the urban areas in which they reside. Urban Indian organizations are an important support to Native families and individuals, providing cultural linkages as well as a hub for accessing essential services.

To learn more about these organizations and the project, please see the First Nations/NUIFC press release at this link: http://www.firstnations.org/node/645.

By Montoya A. Whiteman, First Nations Senior Program Officer