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Agencies are challenged to reflect current Indian country needs

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DENVER – Colorado’s Indian community is changing rapidly – more urban, more aware, more visible – and federal and local agencies should be supportive.

That was one message at a 2009 American Indian Heritage seminar presented by the Denver Federal Executive Board/American Indian Program Council.

“Where We Are: Issues, Challenges and Hope in Indian Country” was the theme of the day-long presentation for members of federal agencies and others.

Rick Williams, Oglala Lakota, head of the American Indian College Fund, said he “urges people throughout federal agencies to be more responsive and to support tribal colleges.” He worked on the advisory committee for the executive order supporting tribal colleges and universities, but noted, “We weren’t getting the agency response we wanted.”

The face of tribal colleges is changing, with the formerly predominant female attendee of about age 30 being replaced as the characteristic tribal college student by younger male and female students.

“And they’re more likely today to want to have internships or other opportunities beyond reservation boundaries – more global or worldly experience,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean they’re not going to come back.”

Jay Grimm, Navajo, director of Denver Indian Center, said on a Colorado Indian Country Dialogue panel that getting accurate population numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau in the upcoming count will be important because of the role the numbers play in appropriations.

The Native population of the Denver area is expected to be 30,000 as the rapidly growing population tries to maintain both urban and cultural connections.

“They’ll say, ‘I wear braids and I wear my hat sideways and I’m cool in both worlds,’” Grimm said. “There’s a whole different story that goes with the urban experience, but our elders have already gone through that process.”

Not everything is changing as rapidly as might be hoped, he noted.

Right now, there is a “sense of hopelessness” in some Native families that live and remain stuck in low-income neighborhoods, where Indian students have the highest dropout rates and lowest achievement scores in Denver Public Schools.

Denver Indian Center is working to create an “indigenized Montessori” early education program at DIC that incorporates an intergenerational approach to ultimately change things for students who go on to higher education, he said.

Ernest House Jr., Ute Mountain Ute and executive secretary of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, said the big question is “What is the next chapter in tribal affairs in the next 25 to 50 years?”

The CCIA continues to work with its traditional Colorado constituents, the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribal nations, but it is paying increasing attention to the 70 percent of Native people now living in cities, primarily the Denver metro area.

He recalled that a federal official, former U.S. Attorney Troy Eid, was instrumental in publicizing the high violent crime rates on Colorado reservations and publicly telling the Department of Justice, “We’re doing something wrong.”

Although some Ute tribal members were embarrassed by the public airing of reservation crime, “We need that data to prove to Washington that we need a change in Indian country,” and part of the result has been a much-needed cross-deputization of federal and non-federal law enforcement.

Other agency involvement has included that of the Bureau of Land Management, which worked with the Ute tribes on updates of the Brunot Treaty of 1879 which ceded the San Juan Mountains for hunting and fishing rights; and of other agencies that will be involved in a first-ever Indian health summit and in other areas, including economic development.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is “probably number one in terms of energy development” in the nation, and they have other holdings, including major real estate developments, he said, citing Spire and Belmar. The former is a new 41-story residential high-rise Spire in downtown Denver and the latter is a new urban living/shopping core in suburban Lakewood, both representing huge investments.

Other panelists who described their programs Nov. 19 included Josh Runningwolf, Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and Canada, director of the Rocky Mountain Indian Chamber of Commerce; Donna Johnson, Santa Ana/Sisseton-Wahpetonwan/Mdewakantonwan Dakota, chair of the Denver American Indian Commission; and Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, Oglala Lakota/Cheyenne, of ACCESS Housing of Adams County.

Runningwolf told attendees the RMICC had awarded 21 $1,000 scholarships to Native students at the organization’s annual gala attended by some 350 people and had also conducted the first annual Colorado Indian Education Foundation Golf Tournament this year.

Johnson said the DAIC, an advisory group to the mayor, promotes awareness of Native people and their issues to the wider community. The DAIC has been meeting with city agencies with an eye to increased Native employment in police and fire departments, among others, and is working to create an American Indian presence in planning for the upcoming Denver Biennial of the Americas.

Yellow Wood noted that although Native people in the Denver area are about one percent of the population, they may constitute up to 15 percent of homeless and consistently have the highest rates of suicide, unemployment, and poverty. Native people prefer agencies where “at least someone will listen to you and treat you in a good way.”