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Shunktanka 4-H Horse Program provides a place of learning

REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. - Shunktanka, a 4-H horse program for Native students at Redwood Valley High School, sits in the middle of Minnesota farmland country in Redwood Falls.

In 2002, Cedar Rock Ranch owner Bob Starr invited Shunktanka to run its program at his ranch. The program, which began as a girls-only program with eight students, has since grown to a co-ed program for 65 students.

Cedar Rock Ranch sits in the Minnesota River Valley, a large, open ranch with plenty of room for children and horses to run and play. There are miles of trails and lots of ground to cover. And every summer for the past seven years, the children from the surrounding Dakota and Redwood communities have swarmed Cedar Rock Ranch to do that and more.

The Shunktanka program is intended to keep kids in school, improve attendance and ensure high numbers of Native graduates. The program includes building self-esteem, communication, leadership and coping skills.

But the children come for the horses. In the fall of 2005, participants wrote about their experiences with the horses for a girl;s creative writing project sponsored by Shunktanka. Florence Dacey, local writer and teaching artist, guided the students in their creative writing process. Each participant in the project had her work published in the final booklet. The main focus of the writing included Dakota culture and values, and horses.

The Shunktanka program runs each summer for four weeks in June, two weeks for the boys and two weeks for the girls. The students can enter the program in the fifth grade and they can remain in the program until they reach senior high. The program allows students to build lasting relationships and keeps them connected after they return to school in the fall.

Jackie Probst, co-facilitator for the Redwood Valley Schools Indian Education (Success for the Future) program, is one of the staff members for the Shunktanka program. Probst, Ruth Goodthunder, Title VII co-facilitator for Redwood Valley Schools, Rachel Helsper and director Cindy Wittwer serve as Shunktanka's core staff.

''Ninty-nine percent of the children that come to our program have not had any riding experience,'' Goodthunder said. ''As Shunktanka leaders, we use 4-H and horses to connect with our kids, to help them develop respect, responsibility and a good work ethic.''

A Shunktanka brochure titled ''Expanding the Circle, Native Pride'' lists activities such as Dakota storytelling and history, traditional hide painting, Hoop dancing, horse performance and more.

''Shunktanka provides access to unique horse experiences in a trusting atmosphere with caring, non-judgmental adults providing positive influences and appropriate role modeling. The children encounter a variety of experiences which enhance their learning through cultural activities, academics, and assertiveness and equine training. These experiences build confidence, create positive relationships, develop a sense of cultural heritage and enable children to work through issues,'' according to its mission statement.

Programs combining youth projects with therapeutic horse camps have seen a national resurgence over the past 10 - 15 years. Several Native communities, including the Lower Sioux Indian Community, Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux, Standing Rock Sioux and Oglala Sioux, have initiated such programs as wellbriety-based initiatives for youth and families. These projects include health and wellness curriculums, youth rodeo workshops, traditionally based riding schools, memorial rides and foundation-sponsored equine therapy initiatives.

In the Lower Sioux Indian Community in Morton, the entire community has supported the Dakota Wokiksuye Memorial Horse Ride for the past three years. This midwinter ride takes place in late December to honor, commemorate and remember the Dakota men who were hanged in Mankato in 1862 and Fort Snelling in 1864.

Each year, Wittwer sends her horses, tack and students to ride with the memorial riders.

Fifteen-year-old Winona Goodthunder was asked to be a part of the program when she was Shawl dancing in the fourth grade. She liked the idea of going to a cultural summer camp and getting help with her homework. She has now been in the program for five years and attends cultural workshops, goes riding, practices her presentations and writes poetry. Her summer camp days at Shunktanka are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with occasional sleepovers.

Probst said that as a result of the program, a few of the families in Lower Sioux have purchased horses and they have the horses boarded locally. This gives them time to learn exercising and grooming, and the students get to spend more personal time with their horses.

For more information about Shunktanka, call Ruth Goodthunder at (507) 829-3265 or Cindy O'Neil at (507) 829-8982, or e-mail JProbst@redwood.mnmt.org.