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Native leaders transcending borders and barriers

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WASHINGTON - Even after decades of debate, some members of the media continue to stereotype Native Americans. Consider the overwhelming focus on gaming - as if the word Indian were now spelled "C-a-s-i-n-o." Meanwhile, a generation of highly committed and innovative Native leaders is at work throughout the United States.

"News media are missing larger and more important stories about this leadership," says Kathleen D. Sheekey, president and CEO of the Washington-based Advocacy Institute. Leadership for a Changing World is a partnership of the Ford Foundation, New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and the Advocacy Institute.

American Indian leaders, including several recipients of the Ford Foundation's 2002 and 2001 Leadership for a Changing World award, are transcending the borders of reservations - and even nation states. In addition, these leaders are pursuing causes beyond their own self-interest. Among them: environmental justice, education, substance abuse, and regional economic development.

Rufino Dom?nguez is executive director of the Binational Oaxacan Indigenous Front (BOIF). Dom?nguez works for the rights of indigenous peoples - from the Mixteco to the Chinanteco - who hail from the Southern Mexican state of Oaxaca but work in Northern Mexico and California. Many of them speak only their indigenous language, and suffer abuse even from non-Indian Mexican migrants. "I am driven by the indignation that I feel about the discrimination and poverty suffered by indigenous people everywhere," says Dom?nguez.

In January 2003, he led a group of Leadership for a Changing World award winners to Fresno, Calif., and Oaxaca to explore the challenges that indigenous workers face while migrating between the two regions. The trip was also part of an effort by Leadership for a Changing World research partner, the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University, to better understand how good community leadership works. Though Dominquez does not fit the traditional U.S. definition of American Indian, his work exemplifies the increasing boundary-crossing nature of indigenous leadership.

Terrol Dew Johnson and Tristan Reader, co-directors of Tohono O'odham Community Action, are doing pioneering dietary work that may well have implications far beyond the boundaries of the Tohono O'odham (previously known as Papago) Nation in Arizona. Their work focuses, in part, on returning the O'odham to a traditional diet in order to combat the highest rate of diabetes in the world. They lead a multidisciplinary task force that brings together tribal programs, federal programs and community members to develop local approaches - which may someday have international application - to the prevention and treatment of diabetes. Johnson, a Tohono O'odham, and Reader, who is not Native, are also pioneering an economic development initiative involving traditional arts, and using the Internet to communicate - and sell - this approach to the broader public.

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Denise Altvater, program director of the American Friends Service Committee Wabanaki Youth Program, is building bridges between the young people of her Wabanaki (or "People of the Dawn") reservations, spanning Maine and Canada, and teenagers of diverse ethnic origins throughout New England. In addition to combining the youth programs of five reservations, Altvater hosts youth groups from Boston, Chicago and other cities and towns and sends Native youth to those cities. She is also a leading voice raising the alarm about the devastating impact of OxyContin in Maine, with the nation's second-highest per-capita abuse of the highly addictive legal drug, which produces a heroin-like high. Altvater warns that the drug may devastate vulnerable reservation populations across the nation.

Sarah James is a leading international spokesperson for people opposing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Her central goal is to help preserve the environment and culture of the Gwich'in Athabascan (or "Caribou people"), the northernmost indigenous nation in North America. She argues that oil drilling will disrupt the caribou herd, potentially destroy the sustenance and soul of her culture and rob the earth of one of its last, pristine environments. In addition to traveling worldwide to spread the message, James is using some of the newest communications technologies to spread the Gwich'in message around the world from her remote community. On March 20, the Senate narrowly rejected oil drilling in the wildlife refuge; James is preparing to counter new attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Donald Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland, Ore., helps preserve salmon runs and protect tribal treaty fishing rights, linking this work to economic development for Native and non-Native people throughout the Northwest. Sampson helped start the Salmon Corps program, which teaches salmon restoration to youth from nine tribes. Previously, as chairman of the Umatilla tribe, Sampson helped reverse the severely depressed tribal economy and integrated it into the burgeoning regional economy. Sampson hopes to apply the successful Umatilla River regional model of cooperative salmon restoration to the larger Columbia River basin. He is now building long-term partnerships and strategic alliances among businesses, environmentalists, tribes, grassroots organizations and state and federal agencies.

Such stories will be increasingly important, as our nation's indigenous population - though relatively small - is growing at a higher rate than that of non-Hispanic whites and blacks. And not every Native American was born in the United States. In fact, six percent of the nation's Native Americans were born elsewhere, mostly in Canada and Mexico.

Current events will accentuate Native American interconnectedness. Early this year, Sen. Daniel Inouye, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he would introduce a bill to restore full sovereignty to tribal governments, thereby challenging recent Supreme Court rulings that have weakened their standing as sovereign nations. The bill, he said, would be included as part of a homeland security package.

"Clearly, the future of Native Americans is increasingly entwined with the well-being and security of the larger community. This is both a national and an international story," says Sheekey. "And these leaders can tell it."