Native Village
Youth and Education news
January 1, 2011 Volume

Groups aim to develop new Native American leaders
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Arizona:   Peterson Zah is a special adviser for Indian affairs at Arizona State University. For 16 years, Zah has guided and encouraged Native American youth to become leaders and help their people.  Zah tells them to get educated, return to their villages and build a future on the reservation.

He also warns them not to buy into the power struggles, corruption, and scandals that can plague Indian Country. 

"I was just agonizing over this," said the former Navajo Nation president. "The only thing you can say is, 'That's one example of what we need to correct. We're training you to be different.'

Zah's angst about breakdowns in Indian country leadership is shared by other Native leaders. And the timing couldn't be worse: America's 565 federally recognized tribes are pushing for greater sovereignty and finally have support from the U.S. government.

"Tribal nations do better when they make their own decisions," said President Obama at November's Tribal Nations Conference in Washington D.C. 

Zah worries these new opportunities will be lost unless Native Americans inspire youth to lead their ancient cultures into a modern world.  Tribes and organizations have begun nurturing their youth with programs in cultural heritage, public service, personal responsibility and civic action.

Zah says heroes are scarce in Indian country. Many historic figures came to tragic ends, and today's reservations are mired in upheaval. "Particularly with elected leadership, we just don't have role models that kids can look up to," he says. "So, the new generation, they've got to deal with it."

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 4,900,000 American Indians and Alaskan Natives live in the U.S. This is less than 2% of the total population.  They belong to hundreds of tribes with distinct languages, cultures and circumstances. Yet all tribes are bonded by a history of conquest and today's enormous poverty,  dropout rates, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide and other social problems.

Kristen Dosela, 20, is past president of the Gila River Indian Community's youth council. Kristin began losing friends in junior high as they dropped out of school and became lazy. 

"After eighth grade on the reservation, kids don't really focus on education," she says. "They get into alcohol, drugs, gangs, getting pregnant. I've seen it happen to so many friends I grew up with."

Dosela says developing a sense of identity and purpose can be especially tough for Indians trying to engage the future while retaining tradition.

Dwayne Lopez, 25, is the youth council manager on the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona. He says many Native youth dysfunctional homes repeat the failures of parents. But some are trying to break the pattern.

"I want to become chairman of my reservation one day," he says. "Always remember who you are and keep your himdag what we call culture within you."

Peggy Flanagan from the White Earth Band of Ojibwe directs the Native American Leadership Program at Wellstone Action in Minnesota. Her message to young Indians is simple: Become active in the community and avoid temptations to wallow in victimization.

"Civic involvement is a fertile earth from which leadership grows," Flanagan says. "But also know who you are your family, your culture, your values, goals and purpose. You can't look forward unless you know where you came from."

Pershlie "Perci" Ami, a Hopi from Arizona, founded Native Leadership Pathways in Phoenix. She warns against resentment toward whites and urges students to absorb the good from modern society and shun the bad.

"If you're blaming people, they're holding you captive and you're never going to change. " Ami says.

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