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Program helps youth learn and appreciate tribal culture

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By Don Cox -- Reno Gazette-Journal

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - The sun was setting, the temperature dropping and winter storm clouds were moving over the Sierra when Timmee Osorio sprang to his feet, yelling with delight.

''We've got a fire going!'' said Timmee, smiling as he made the triumphant announcement.

Finally, warmth and another step forward for Timmee in ''Project Venture.''

Only moments before, Timmee, 11, and eight other young members of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, had occupied a very cold spot of bare ground at the south end of Carson City.

Timmee's fire was the first. But soon after his shout, two other small piles of brush and twigs burst into flames as separate three-kid teams successfully completed their assignment in a vacant area near the recreation center of the tribe's Stewart Community.

The 7- to 16-year-olds had learned to build campfires, one of the first in a series of projects that will culminate in June. That's when about 50 of the tribe's children and teenagers spend four days in the woods as their final exam in a program the Washoe tribe hopes will preserve old traditions and prevent modern trouble.

''We can get them involved in outdoor cultural activities,'' said Ryan De Rose, a wilderness expert hired by the tribe to guide the youngsters through Project Venture, ''instead of being bored, which leads to gangs and drug use.''

In February, there was fire making. Later will be rock climbing, outdoor survival and other lessons.

''It allows them to see nature,'' said Waldo Walker, elected in October as chairman of the 1,800-member Washoe Tribe. ''It allows them to get a chance to do things we didn't get a chance to do when I was growing up.''

Project Venture is more than camping out.

The program, which combines weekly classroom instruction with monthly outdoor excursions, is being used not just by the Washoe Tribe, but on reservations across the country, where youngsters such as Timmee are hiking through forests, rafting rivers and climbing mountains.

''Ultimately, it's a prevention program,'' said Liz Garcia, Washoe Tribe director for Project Venture. ''It's about health and wellness, [preventing] drugs and alcohol [use].''

Project Venture is part of the tribe's after-school program of activities - which range from cooking to Washoe language instruction - that take place daily from about 3:30 p.m. until 6 p.m.

''We provide a safe educational environment for our children,'' said Wanda Batchelor, chairman for the tribe's Stewart Community. ''A lot of our parents work and aren't home until 6 o'clock. We target those times.''

Stewart is one of four Washoe neighborhoods in the Carson City-Carson Valley area. Project Venture classes are conducted in each community, and the project's participants come together for monthly outings.

''With children, you always hear: 'There's nothing to do. There's nothing to do,''' said Richard Varner, a retired state law enforcement officer who is head of the tribe's police. ''You hear that everywhere from kids. This is an effort on the tribe's part to keep them interested in something positive.''

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The Washoe are running Project Venture on a $60,000 annual federal grant. But organizers aren't sure whether the grant will continue. They're looking for funding within the tribe.

''One problem is, we can only take so many [participants],'' De Rose said. ''They want you to start a program and have it self-sustaining.''

The tribe's Project Venture organizers are looking for help, including 50 backpacks and sleeping bags for the week in the woods in June.

''We need equipment,'' Garcia said.

Project Venture started in the 1980s as part of the National Indian Youth Leadership Project. This year, young members of tribes in 20 states are taking part. In Nevada, along with the Washoe, the Elko Band of Western Shoshone is participating in the program.

''We're trying to develop youth positively, making young leaders,'' said Ben Soce, Project Venture's national coordinator, whose office in Gallup, N.M., borders the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Reservation. ''We try to empower them, to let them know they are in control of their own lives and future.''

A study of Project Venture participants last year showed 63 percent had improved grades in academic subjects and 31 percent had improved school attendance. There was also a reduction in fighting and lower acceptance of drug use.

Alexiss Rodriguez, 7, probably wasn't thinking about any of that as she gathered twigs and brush to help her older brothers Michael, 14, and Jaconn Rodriguez, 10, build a fire. Alexiss just seemed to be having fun.

''I like the stories,'' she said.

Before the kids build fires, Garcia reads them a tale that's been told by the Washoe and other American Indians for hundreds of years about a coyote and fire.

''Coyote knew how to get fire out of wood, and he went to the village of men and showed them how,'' Garcia said, finishing the short story. ''He showed them the trick of rubbing two dry sticks together and the trick of spinning a sharpened stick in a hole made in another piece of wood. So, man was from then on warm and safe through the killing cold of winter.''

Alexiss, Jaconn, Michael and the other Washoe youngsters didn't rub sticks together to build their fires. The automatic starter devices issued by De Rose were quicker.

The point wasn't to build fires the old way. The kids were learning another in the Project Venture's series of outdoor lessons that will increase in intensity as the youngsters continue, and discovering some of their own history.

''Whatever we do, we're trying to learn words [for it] in Washoe,'' Garcia said of teaching some of the tribe's language. ''When they see a plant, they learn the word in Washoe.''

It's the start of the second year for Project Venture with the Washoe Tribe. In 2006, the program's last activity was a two-day hike from Carson City up the Sierra to Lake Tahoe, following the same route used by tribe members hundreds of years ago.

The hike is still talked about by the tribe's young people who participated and adults who went along.

''It comes up all the time,'' De Rose said. ''A lot of those kids felt a huge sense of accomplishment.''