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Colorado’s Urban Indian Listening and Learning Session Discusses Doing More First Priority

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Native people relocate to Denver for various reasons—the hope of better jobs, housing, schools, lifestyle—but they often encounter barriers, none more baffling than the shyness that may keep them from asking for the help they need.

That was the conclusion of some participants in the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs’ (CCIA) Urban Indian Listening and Learning Session held November 7. The renewed attention to urban Indians hinges on their greater numbers—more than 70 percent of the overall Native population, according to the CCIA.

“People who come from the rez are nervous in the city and are afraid to ask for help—they ‘clam up,’” said Sarah Watson, Oklahoma Choctaw/Oglala Lakota, who struggled with homelessness herself although she is a long-time Denver resident.

An American Indian shelter for women and children is needed, “especially for those from the [reservation] who are too shy to ask” about resources, although it’s important that they do because “eventually, you [can] end up losing your kids,” said Lynn Eagle Feather, Rosebud Sioux from South Dakota, who said she had been homeless much of her life.

Shyness or fear does not necessarily constitute the core problem, however. Although Natives are 1.2 percent of Colorado’s population, they are 20 percent of those repeatedly incarcerated and about 10 percent of the homeless, resulting in a “revolving door” to jail, said Richard Martell, Canadian Cree, a member of the Denver American Indian Commission.

During the problem-centered discussion, Lt. Gov. Joseph Garcia, CCIA chairman presented a proclamation by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper honoring American Indian Heritage Month.

The laudatory proclamation recognizes the state’s two tribal nations—the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian tribes—as the state’s “oldest and continuous residents,” but it includes all other tribal nations and Alaskan Native residents in the state. It “honors the contributions of American Indian people” and praises American Indians’ “unique and distinguished role” in American history and culture.

The proclamation also says that Colorado “explores the needs of the American Indians in this state” and makes legislative recommendations,” presumably including those that would help Indian people who have battled homelessness, joblessness, incarceration, substance abuse and grinding, bottom-line poverty that supports other social ills.

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“Where do we start, and do we address these issues?” Garcia said, noting that many of the problems, like substance abuse, are related to homelessness and to a higher Native incarceration rate. “These are really challenging issues.”

“If Native Americans were that important, it would be a priority to get them graduated,” said Solomon Little Owl, Crow Nation, University of Northern Colorado (UNC) director of student services. He’s worried because he sees “fewer and fewer Native [college] students along the Front Range” and “there may be no Native American students left in the next 10 years.”

Garcia, who is also head of the state’s higher education department, said, “We have to train teachers to work with students who don’t look like them.”

Rose Marie McGuire, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, program manager for Indian education in Denver schools, said of some of her 1,200 Indian youth, “They’re scholars, but they’re proud to be Native students as well.” Natives are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) although “it’s where we’ll get the skills to be successful.”

Denver’s Indian focus school program is partnering with quality schools rather than being placed in those which have empty capacity, she said.

Coordinating or partnering programs may provide another means to positive change, as in the joint location now occupied by the Denver Indian Center and Denver Indian Family Resource Center (DIFRC), termed “collaboration in action” for “one-stop shopping.” DIFRC’s Indian Child Welfare Act program is pressing for more coordination with tribes, while UNC is advocating for Native-oriented teaching and studies in southwest Colorado and Arizona reservation areas.

Ernest House Jr., Ute Mountain Ute, CCIA executive secretary, described a new tribal consultation policy as a “big, landmark step” in coordinating state departments with tribes and in bridging the gap between reservations in the Four Corners area and Indians living along the Front Range, addressing the needs of both groups.

Garcia termed the needs of urban Indians and the approaches to meeting them “complex,” but he called for more discussion on the problems, closing the free-form, lengthy session with “we must do this more often.”