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Strength in moccasins

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CANASTOTA, N.Y. - Maya Torralba, member of the Kiowa Tribe, has a vision: to help young American Indian women of Anadarko, Okla., take pride in their heritage and community, have high self-esteem, become leaders and represent the community in a positive manner.

Dubbed the Community Esteem Project, the program will focus on strengthening the self-esteem of Native girls. Torralba, program director, works in curriculum research and development at the Anadarko Indian Education Program. She explained how the concept for this program surfaced.

''Through the program Young People For, I was able to take that idea and put it into an action plan, a blueprint. ... They helped out with the seed money to start this, too. ...

''It's my hometown [Anadarko] and I work in the education part. ... I was a tutor for second- and third-graders in town, for Anadarko public schools, and I was a Native American tutor through the Johnson O'Malley program. And I just kind of noticed how young these kids are and when they start their mentality of just giving up and not wanting to participate in academics or feel like their input is needed in the classroom. And a lot of that, from what I've found in talking with the students, stems from their self-esteem and not feeling that their input is of any importance.''

A special component of the project is the root causes tree, adapted from a training session through YP4.

''Some of those causes were the history of Native Americans, the policies for our people to assimilate,'' she said. ''Those policies saying that our culture isn't important, our religion isn't important. ... You know, racism, subjugation; and that leads to poverty and child abuse, and substance abuse in families, and the loss of educational culture. And from that, they have community problems. Where do they fit in? Where do they fit into society?

''I've also had some of these problems myself: substance abuse, being part of a gang lifestyle when I was younger. And getting out of that, I kind of realized that I'm worth something, that I need to work on my self-esteem, and I can see that in these kids.''

Torralba felt that her experiences helped boost her credibility in the girls' eyes.

''Otherwise, it's somebody just talking to them, and they're saying, 'Well, how do you know? You've never been [through this]'; and I've heard kids say it. And I say, 'I have been there, I have felt lonely, and without family or without anyone to reach out to.' Where do you go? You adapt to a subculture. ... It's a source of family.''

Torralba wants the girls to look at themselves as people, as females and as Native females. She thinks a cultural activity will help bring the girls out of their shells and get them to open up about the issues they face.

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''I'd like to have them sit down with ... elders, Native American women, [and] have traditional stories, have origin stories. A lot of those stories have our values in them and our morals, what we live by and what we used to live by. And just sit with these women and make

moccasins, their own moccasins. ... Because in our traditions, we tell our stories and we're always doing something, we're always putting something together, rather than just the Western traditional way of sitting and listening to someone talk.''

Conducting the project in this manner will help to release some of the pressures Native girls face. They can talk when ready or just listen.

''Anything we can do to help them reflect that they are a person that matters and their pride as Native American women.''

Why a focus on Native girls?

''There are programs here that focus on the Native male. ... Native women are really just the backbone of our society. They kept our stories, our language, our songs, our dances when we weren't supposed to have those. ... I see a lot of Native girls that don't realize what we have to offer to society and to help our people. Native women are very strong; it's just not spoken of. And we don't have to blurt it out there - and be really out and about with it - but to internalize, that is the most important key.''

The hope for the project is for the girls to realize the strength they have within them.

''And the metaphor is that their moccasins are their lives. ... And when they put those moccasins on, it takes them on their path, their life. The designs are the choices that they make, the beadwork will be the choices that they make in their lives and how they carry on, on that path with those moccasins, kind of like their vehicle.''

The project is a pilot program in its infancy stage. While the AIEP has donated space and the project is working to obtain a 501(c)3 status, the project is still in need of monetary donations and support.

For more information, e-mail Torralba at