High school students' voices help reconnect the circle

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CANASTOTA, N.Y. - Reconnecting The Circle, a new organization that hopes to promote a positive view and better understanding of Indian country, awarded 10 high school students a cash prize for their winning essays.

Five Native and five non-Native high school students answered the essay question, ''Why is reconnecting the circle with Native Americans important today?'' The 10 winners came from various states, tribes and schools across the country and each of the winners were awarded a check for $2,500.

''This essay contest encourages Indians and non-Indians to thoughtfully examine the contributions of American Indians over the last several centuries and positively looks for ways those contributions are to be valued by the American society. It is a way to see through triteness, stereotypes and ignorance that so often plague Indian country,'' said Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, in a press release.

Danielle Gaines, president and founder of Reconnecting The Circle, said she wanted to create a project that would help students, Native and non-Native, examine the topic of what the American Indian culture means to this country.

''I was really excited about the concept of an essay contest,'' said Gaines, who started Reconnecting The Circle in the summer of 2006. ''With an essay contest, you provoke kids to research and think about a topic.''

When students begin to research Indian country, they begin opening the dialogue with their parents, teachers and peers, Gaines added.

''It's amazing what these kids wrote,'' she said. ''You can see the disconnection; you can read it, especially in the essays from the non-Native students. They are really trying to piece together the information they have about Indian country.''

Gaines said that this will help reconnect the circle and that is why she wanted to include non-Natives as part of the essay contest, which took place in November during American Indian Heritage Month.

''It's good to see both sides,'' she said. ''It creates a platform where both sides can now start a dialogue.''

High school students from ninth through twelfth grade, from tribal, public, private and parochial schools in all 50 states were invited to participate in the contest. Reconnecting The Circle teamed up with the National Congress of American Indians and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to promote the contest. Cherokee Nation Education Corporation was also a partner.

Contestants were judged by a team of 12 reviewers who scored their essays against a criteria matrix consisting of originality and creativity, relevance to topic and structure. Reviewers included both Native and non-Native people. The top finalists' essays were then reviewed by a panel of three judges. The panel included David Anderson, Choctaw/Chippewa, an entrepreneur and founder of The LifeSkills Center for Leadership; Jacqueline Gant, Oneida Nation of the Thames, the executive director for the Native American Business Alliance; and Robin Butterfield, Winnebago/Chippewa, a board member of the National Indian Education Association.

''I found the essays moving and inspirational,'' Gant said in a press release. ''It was an honor and a privilege to participate as a judge.''

The winners have all received their checks for $2,500; $2,000 of which they must spend on higher learning and the rest of money can be spent at their own discretion.

Gaines said the contest will continue this November.

The mission of Reconnecting The Circle is to encourage people to learn about contemporary Native American's and their cultures, and to develop a more positive, meaningful and complete perspective on Indian country. For more information about RTC, please visit www.reconnectingthecircle.com.

***

By Karissa Trahan

Why is reconnecting the circle with Native Americans important today?

Circle, huh?

Today, why today?

Why wasn't it important the moment the circle broke?

Either way, I guess that wasn't the original question asked. Right?

Excuse my inquisition and on with your question.

''Why is reconnecting the circle with Native Americans important today?''

Okay, well let's say the ''circle'' was disconnected, oh say about five centuries ago when the ''Euros'' (let's just call them that, in substitution for a few other more vulgar ones instead, ha?) decided to waltz on up to our land with their great big culture-raping-immersed boots and set camp.

That's about right? I mean that truly is around the time our little circle was disconnected. When we were unwillingly converted and forced to forsake our traditions. Yeah, I think that pretty much summarizes that little ditty up.

Well now assuming that we all agree about the genuineness of those sequence of events, ''the beginning of our happy little story'', I uh, guess I can continue to the point of all my seemingly irrelevant ranting.

I guess after analyzing this, I can somewhat understand why we haven't done anything to mend our detached circle. We're just now barely getting back on our feet. I am in no way implying that we're weak, that it's taken us nearly five centuries to spring back. Because considering the things we've gone through, everything we've endured, I think we've made quite a speedy recovery.

So, yay for us.

But now that we can actually attempt to do something about our once sturdy circle, I think we should get a tad bit better of a game plan. True?

Because honestly, I don't think anybody is really taking us seriously. Not to add the fact that some people don't even think that we're still alive.

It's true. A girl from the UK actually thought we were ''extinct.''

Jesus, what an ill-fitted word, given the situation.

As if we were dinosaurs or something.

Anyways, the point is, we need to eliminate uneducated ''rubbish'' like that. We really need to stand up for ourselves, despite how cliche that may sound to you, it needs to be our everyday reality. Don't get me wrong, we've definitely done a respectable amount of much needed rebelling. Just, apparently not enough given the fact we're still being mocked.

The mascots are still there, I should know, I go to school where: ''We are the chiefs.''

The cartoons still unrelentingly make a mockery of headdresses and face paint.

And most importantly, and ironically the most unnoticed at times, we're still addressed by the name ''Indian.'' Which we aren't, we're not from India.

Our whole entire identity is ''politically incorrect.''

Unfortunately and almost ill-prepared of me, I don't have even a clue as to how we would go about that whole ''improving'' thing. At least not anything that hasn't already been suggested at one time or another. Except my realization that our tactic isn't exactly working, ha, how ignorant do I sound? I'm criticizing something that I have no clue as how to make the situation better. Well I guess we'll have to figure that all out some other time.

You can waste away your life with me.

Day by day our crooked, not-quite-lined-up circle gets new additions.

Baby after baby, adding another generation to a generation.

They'll grow and we'll grow, old.

And our culture will eventually perish.

A life and a death.

To think that at one time you were the new generation, and one day we'll think the same.

Can you just imagine the experiences from generation after generation?

In ways improving, in ways worsening.

But always more positive changes than negative ones.

If what we're going through right now is nowhere near as bad as it was then, then just imagine how unbelievably good it will be generations after generations from now.

Because no matter what, eventually things are going to get better.

As long as we at least attempt at improving the situation, just think how much that little bit will impact the generation that will be generations from this very moment.

''One day everything will be alright.''

I'm just now reading this over and I realize how generic I sound and how tired and overused my points are, but I couldn't care less, because I mean it. So, I guess what I'm trying to say is, forget just about everything I said earlier about making better tactics.

Because every little bit counts.

So now, get ready for my actual answer, the one not smothered in babbles.

If you don't want to take the time to improve your own situation, due to the fact that you're in no way selfish, pure laziness or just lack of care. Then do it for the ones who aren't here yet, or not here anymore, the ones that don't even have the choice of ''should I get up and do something about this or should I sit back and wait for the passing?''

Do it for the grandkid you'll have that isn't yet born because their future mother, YOUR child is only two years old.

Do it for the tupiyah that wanted you to have everything she didn't have growing up.

If not for yourself, then do it for them.

That's why, reconnecting the circle for Native Americans, for us, for them, is so incredibly important today.

- Karissa Trahan, Salish/Ponderelie

11th grade

Ronan, Mont.

***

By Stephanie Tsosie

Our elders are an important part of our lives today and make us think differently about the world and how we see it. If our elders weren't here today, our life wouldn't be the same and we wouldn't know anything about our culture and heritage. I think that Navajos have made a big difference in everyone's lives by helping with World War II and the Navajo code talkers. Without anyone knowing who we were, we wouldn't be so important to the world and the United States.

It is important to reconnect Native Americans and stay in touch with your culture because in the long run it could help you with things in life and take you that extra mile to go where you need to go. For me, I think that being Navajo is the best thing about me. It makes me who I am and proud of what my people have done. I like to stay connected with my language and culture because every day I learn something new and a get to teach it to others along the way. Being Native American doesn't mean that I get treated special or differently; it just makes my ethnicity well known to others and aware of what background I carry that made our people so unique. There are many qualities to being a Native American, especially a Navajo. I learned where my people came from, what things our nations have accomplished and what our tribe can do for others in need of assistance.

When I was growing up, my grandparents always told us how important our heritage was and where we all came from. They would tell us stories about the great leaders and what they did for our tribe to get us to where we are today. My grandpa would tell us what we could and couldn't do when the time came, and to this day we still stick to our tradition as much as we can. Even though our elders are slowly going away from us, I would like to keep the tradition going so I can tell them to my children and grandchildren. Without knowing what we are and where we came from, there wouldn't really be anything special about us. By keeping our tribe connected with one another, it lets us know what is to be expected and what we are to teach to our younger ones.

Our family is pretty well known for what we do and what we have done for others. My great-grandmother was one the Gold star mothers who lost her son in WWII and she had several kids, one who is my grandmother, Annie Nelson. My grandmother has nine children, 30 grandchildren and on her way to having 10 great-grandchildren. My uncles contribute to our people and our culture by supporting our background and showing the world how important it is to be a Navajo and why you should be proud. My aunts, including my mother, also help out by teaching us girls how to respect others and welcome them into your home. But out of all, my grandmother always talks to us in Navajo, tells us stories about her days and teaches us not to make the same mistakes she has made in the past. I love my family because they always try to keep the culture going, whether we're all there or not. They all talk to us in our language and every now and then we'll get together to plan family events, so we never lose touch with one another. I just hope that I can also pass on that tradition on trying to keep the family together while I still can. I know that I can't really make a big difference now, but I know that through teachings I have learned and observing, I know I can accomplish anything I want.

So those are the many reasons on why Native Americans need to stay connected with one another and why Navajos are a big part of my life. I hope that through time and effort I can change others' minds to always put their family first and love one another. I plan to try and change others' minds on Native Americans and let them see for themselves how great our culture can be. This essay really got me to see how much I care for my family and how much I am willing to keep it together no matter what.

- Stephanie Tsosie, Navajo

12th grade

Winslow, Ariz.