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;Strong roots and strong wings'

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Robert Animikii Horton receives NAHO Role Model Award

CANASTOTA, N.Y. - Robert Animikii Horton, 26, is a recipient of the National Aboriginal Health Organization National Aboriginal Role Model Award.

The announcement was made June 21, National Aboriginal Day in Canada. The ceremony took place in Ottawa at Rideau Hall, where Canada;s Governor General Michaelle Jean presented the awards with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine.

Horton is a band member of the Rainy River First Nations (Manitou Rapids Anishinaabe) in Ontario, a descendant of Long Sault Rapids (''Kaynahchiwahnung'') and a member of the Waabizheshi Dodem (Marten Clan). He shared his reaction with Indian Country Today.

''Words cannot describe the feeling and sense of accomplishment. I am excited, but also very aware of the responsibility that comes with this - but it is certainly a responsibility that is welcomed.''

While the title of role model comes along with the award, Horton hadn't entertained that thought before.

''I don't know if I've ever considered myself to be a role model, by definition. It's not something I consciously consider. However, in anything I strive towards or am involved with or speak out about, strong integrity and conviction is kept central, consistent and seamless in terms of working towards a better life and reality for my people and to try to create opportunities for our youth.''

The award program is organized by Lead Your Way, a NAHO program that recognizes the accomplishments of First Nation, Inuit and Metis youth ages 13 to 30 who inspire other aboriginal youth to strive to reach their goals. The 12 finalists are selected on achievements, leadership and inspiration. The organization described Horton as an ''Ogichidaa scholar, activist and future leader.''

Horton is an honors graduate from St. Cloud State University, earning a bachelor's degree in sociology with an emphasis in political science, society and economics, and minors in human relations and ethnic studies. He is currently a sociology master's student at Lakehead University. He is also strongly considering a Ph.D. in indigenous governance or education to be put towards the best interest of his people.

Horton is a 10-plus year supporter of Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN), involved with the Anishinaabemowin Anjimaamino Bijigaade Treaty #3 Language Revitalization Project, co-founder of the Coalition for Historical Accuracy, four-year member of the Minnesota Indian Education Association Board of Directors, and a trustee on the Rainy River First Nation Community Land Claim Trust Fund, among several other accomplishments.

A youth advocate, sociologist and spoken-word poet, he believes all three areas of his life relate to each other.

''I feel all are very much tied in together. Conviction and integrity to create awareness - socially, politically and culturally - has always been a foundation and keystone in any of these efforts. The method of delivery, whether it is through expressive arts or political and social activism, is the only thing that has really varied. It is all rooted in the conviction and integrity at the fundamental and with our people at heart.''

The chosen role models travel to First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities to attend local events and to speak to youth about making positive and healthy choices. Horton has a key message to share.

''The Creator has given each one of us everything we need to follow our dreams and make it a reality. Realize what you are passionate about in your life. Respect and believe in yourself and the gifts you've been given. It's more than possible to have strong roots and strong wings.''

Not only does receiving this award show Horton's achievements, it's also a testament to the Manitou Rapids community. This is the second consecutive year a member has received this national award. Carissa Copenance (Nigaan-niga-bawik) was a 2007 recipient.

''I am very proud of Carissa and feel very fortunate to be on the same road that she has chosen in her life as a young Anishinaabe woman,'' Horton said.

''As for our community, watching and seeing our elders and youth proud and confident that not one, but two young people from the roots we share have been recognized nationally for our leadership and integrity makes all this worth it. One can only hope and believe that inspiration for one of our young people, or many, will follow suit. I think it has made our community and our youth more proud and confident.''

''Dozens and dozens of traditional, Fancy Shawl, Jingle Dress, and Grass dancers from the Manitou Rapids community and from all over the Treaty Three region danced during an Honor Song played at the sacred drum for Horton at the Rainy River First Nations annual Pow-Wow,'' according to a community member.

The Horton family roots stem from Chief Mawedopenais of Long Sault Rapids - spokesman and negotiator during the signing of Treaty #3 in 1873. Horton's family has a long history of political, educational and social leadership, and played an important role in where he is today.

''This was central to the road that I have made the choice to walk. This is what made me proud to be who I am and instilled the integrity and commitment as an Anishinaabe activist and leader.

''My mother [Shirley Horton] raised me as a single mother for many, many years. She has fought for our people, as an educator and advocate, her whole life, but also worked two or three jobs at a time and still found the drive to earn her master's degree, to encourage me through my schooling, and to instill pride about who I am and commitment to our people, my lifelong dedication.

''Being aware of my family legacy has solidified these convictions. I come from a family where education and social and political leadership and involvement has been fundamental throughout many generations. Holding this awareness dear has kept me focused and driven.

''Our cultural teachings and making the choice to follow in the wake of who I perceived as strong leaders of integrity and conviction brought me to where I am today: A political and social activist. A great deal of this was influenced by the late Senator Paul Wellstone who, in his time, really struck a chord with me in his message that, 'Never separate the life you live from the words you speak ... we can remake the world every day.'''

Given his age, Horton will have more of an impact with the youth he addresses.

''In terms of speaking with our youth, I think that having a common ground and perspectives that can relate to each other is so incredibly important,'' he said.

''That opportunity for effective communication and relative experiences will pave the way and create bridges to share the message that we come from a proud, strong people; that we are survivors.

''This is essential ... but what is most important is to listen and hear what our youth have to say.''

What is the most imperative message he has to share with the youth?

''Above all, be proud of who you are and our people. ... Use the mind and the voice that the Creator has given you. ... Be the change you wish to see. Defy convention. Hope, dream, imagine and inspire.''