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Braveheart Center brings tradition to youth

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MARTY, S.D. - Area teens listened intently as a North Dakota tribal elder shared stories about how tribal elders addressed nearly every facet of life in preparing the younger generation for the future.

The old tribal ways carry a strong message for living, said Mary Louise Defender, a Standing Rock tribal member.

She addressed a gathering of volunteers, supporters and young women at a former adolescent center which has been transformed into a home for the Braveheart Women's Society and its counterpart for young men. The center's goal is to teach tribal traditions in an effort retain tribal culture while working to empower young people.

Defender said she grew up watching her parents and grandparents as they followed traditional ways. She said she was excited about the center giving youth a chance to develop the skills once passed down from generation to generation.

"I wish something like this would happen all over the country for all of our people because I think this will again make us well and make us strong. It will instill in us what our ancestors had."

More recent tribal society has overlooked teaching and treasuring women, she said. In the traditional approach, young women were nurtured and revered. "I think we have neglected the women for a long time. In our own culture, when it was very much alive, there were all the things we did for the women."

Defender explained that women were considered a power force and the entire tribal community offered help to them and supported them. Grandmothers taught their granddaughters about life and defined how they conducted themselves. Building on the qualities of leadership, hospitality, kindness, compassion and graciousness are the strengths the elders offer to the young women.

"We all talk about what makes a Dakota person. We look at the qualities for leadership - somebody that is always helpful. When there is a crisis in the community, look around to see who is helping - it was always the people who helped each other," she said.

"It was that graciousness, hospitality and class. We're looking toward a time when our women will be women of class. It will take some doing and somebody who will relate to you that way."

She went on to speak of tribal members helping those in need of assistance, simple acts of kindness such as comforting and taking food to a family when a caregiver is ill or a death has taken place. The warm hospitality of tribal women greeting a visitor at the door and extending an invitation to sit while continuing to work was expected, she said.

When a traumatic event happened to a young woman, the traditional way of dealing with it was entirely different than today's therapy which explores details of the event.

"The old people were not like that. They would comfort her. Everybody who was going to talk to that person brought a small gift. That person never had to tell what happened to them," Defender said.

She noted the strong connection between tribal people, the land and the animals, sharing stories of their roles in lessons passed down through generations.

The legend of The Woman Who Turned Herself Into Stone is about a grandmother telling her granddaughter how a raccoon taught tribal members to clean their food.

Defender said her grandmother told her good posture was necessary to allow her to breath. "(Mentors) put a little stone on my head and made me walk with it," the 70-year-old storyteller said. Time also was devoted to explaining how expressions on a woman's face made a difference to others.

"You want your face to look like things are always going to be well and that you are happy."

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Defender said elders worked diligently to teach young women how to care for their children. "The old ones used to say that is going to be the biggest job you are ever going to have. They are the ones who will determine what the coming generations are going to be like."

Defender volunteers as a radio talk show host, telling stories and working to save Indian ponies and urged her audience to use leisure time wisely by volunteering.

She explained that not all horses tribal people used were from Spain. The Lakota frequently sought horses from the Crow. "We had our own Indian ponies. Some of the horses are in the national parks. We're trying to get land for that. We have 1,200 acres lined up along the Missouri River.

"In 1928, they had the last clearing out of the Indian ponies. They rounded them all up and killed them. I never really saw an Indian pony until later."

Yankton tribal leaders lent support to the opening of the center which will help youngsters rekindle tribal traditions and kinship with the elders in the community.

"I want to give thanks to all the wonderful women who made this possible and to tell the girls never to forget who you are. You are unique," Chairwoman Madonna Archambeau said.

"I just feel good about what I heard today. I feel good about the teaching here. I'm hoping this will be about teaching values to young men and teaching the culture," said a volunteer working with young men, teaching them about tribal lands and culture.

The center gives young girls a place to meet for cultural and self-esteem development programs. Braveheart members will share it with the young men's society which has focused on stewardship of the land.

Historically, the Braveheart Women's Society was responsible for bringing the dead and wounded back from the battlefields. A project the groups have embraced is recovering remains of tribal members unearthed from the White Swan burial grounds last year by fluctuating levels of the Missouri River.

The young women and girls learning about tradition worked to protect and preserve the bones, said Faith Spotted Eagle, co-founder of the organization.

The girls and boys who attended the opening and the traditional blessing of the center later went to the burial grounds to monitor conditions along the shoreline where the gravesites remain. Both groups are involved in the guardianship effort.

Evelyn Black Moon, a Marty grandmother helping to raise her great-grandchild, promised the group she would help the young women learn about their culture. Black Moon, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, speaks her language fluently and wants to help restore interest in tribal culture.

Her role today isn't much different than the role of traditional grandmothers who were prominent figures in teaching young girls about womanhood and nurturing the society, she said.

Concerned about a high rate of teen pregnancies, she said she wants to share her wisdom to help girls make the transition into womanhood by nurturing in the way her own grandmother did.

The society offers an annual Black Hills retreat for 25 women to heal the wounds of abuse. This renewal plays a vital role in giving women the chance to regroup and better the quality of their lives, Spotted Eagle said.

The center has received support from the American Indian Running Strong organization, which promotes a wide range of programs in tribal communities.

At the moment the center still needs sleeping bags and other supplies for its programs, she said.