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Nebraska Teen Program Teaches Self-Knowledge, Leadership

The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs recently held its second year-long Sovereign Native Youth Leadership Project for Native kids throughout the state using funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Being a leader isn’t being the loudest person around,” said 15-year-old Bart Kennedy. “It’s being the one who knows what to do at the right moment.”

Kennedy gleaned this lesson from a day-long presentation on the Lakota hero Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall, Sicangu Lakota. “Crazy Horse was quiet and shy, but he acted to help the tribe when necessary,” explained the soft-spoken Winnebago teen.

Marshall’s appearance was part of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs (NCIA) year-long Sovereign Native Youth Leadership Project for Native kids throughout the state. Now in its second year, the program uses funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and others to bring influential Native Americans to inspire and instruct the students. The idea is to develop a generation who can be change agents by leading from within their communities.

This past October, 28 teens from the Omaha, Ponca, Santee and Winnebago communities took part in the 2012-2013 program’s kickoff—a weekend at Ponca State Park with presentations by Marshall; Nez Perce broadcaster Hattie Kauffman; Winnebago human-rights activist Frank LaMere, Blackfeet attorney and entrepreneur Gyasi Ross and others. The students attended lectures, learned traditional archery, kayaked and made friends.

“We’re instilling values and supporting self-esteem,” said Rachael WhiteHawk Strong, of NCIA. “The program engages our teens with a holistic approach to life and learning.”

For Xerxes Long, a 16-year-old Winnebago who plans to become a choreographer, rubbing two sticks together to make a fire was the weekend’s “aha” moment. “It was very hard to do and showed the significance of fire to our ancestors. It taught me that as Native people, we treat fire and all of creation with holiness and respect.”

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Both teens enjoyed hearing presenters’ life stories. The takeaway? You don’t have to follow a conventional path—four years of high school, four years at one college, then right into a career you stick with forever, the teens agreed.

Said Kennedy, who wants to be a teacher or coach: “The guest speakers showed us that by knowing who you are, you’ll live the life you want. They didn’t necessarily follow the usual path, but now they can do whatever they want with their lives.”

During the camp, some of the mentors’ advice came from history or tradition; some was contemporary. But all of it was applicable in the here and now, the two teens agreed.

“Last year’s group toured Ho-Chunk Inc., here on the Winnebago reservation,” said Joi Long, Xerxes’ mother and assistant to Lance Morgan, the Harvard-trained lawyer and Winnebago tribal member who runs the international corporation. “The visit, and the program as a whole, opened students’ eyes and gave them a greater perspective on what’s possible.”

In the year ahead, NCIA plans to take the group to Ho-Chunk Inc. and other businesses, a major hospital, a university, a cultural organization, the state capitol and more. NCIA has set up a Facebook page and Xerxes and Bart said the kids keep in touch via text and personal Facebook pages.

“The mentors the students meet and the friends they make through this program will be with them for a lifetime,” said WhiteHawk Strong.