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Udall Foundation scholars spread awareness on issues

WASHINTON - For 10 years, the Morris K. Udall Foundation has provided scholarships, internships and fellowships to the best and brightest college students across the country.

And to celebrate that milestone, 13 of its alums were chosen to climb aboard the Udall Legacy bus tour. Along the way, the young scholars plan on stopping in about two dozen locations to spread awareness about pressing environmental and Native issues. And the bus itself runs on clean-burning alternative fuels.

The sojourn kicked off June 12 in Washington, D.C., and returns to the foundation's headquarters in Tucson, Ariz., Aug. 4. Meanwhile, the motor coach will travel to select cities, Native communities, college campuses and national parks.

''The scholars came up with the idea,'' said Christopher Helms, the foundation's executive director.

Udall, an Arizona congressman from 1961 - 1990, was renowned for his dedication to Native and environmental issues. For example, he worked on legislation that helped pass the Indian Child Welfare Act, Indian Gaming Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act - among many more historical moves. He passed away in 1998 from Parkinson's disease.

Eli Zigas, communications manager for the tour and one of the lucky 13 alums boarding the bus, said they will visit six Native communities.

The first stop on the Native agenda will be in Ithaca, N.Y. Martina Gast, tribal co-coordinator, said details are pending for the June 23 visit, but it involves meeting a Mohawk tribal member who is currently working on a water treatment program and visiting the American Indian Program at Cornell University.

Gast, 21, an undergraduate majoring in anthropology and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin -

Madison, said this is her first internship. She is affiliated with the Red Rock Ojibwe First Nation Band, located in Nipigon, Ontario.

''I am hoping to learn a lot and hope that people learn from what I know,'' she said.

On July 6 the alums plan to visit the United Houma Nation, located about 80 miles south of New Orleans. Thousands of tribal members' homes suffered damage when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.

Brenda Dardar Robichaux, principal chief of the United Houma Nation, said the tribe plans on hosting a workshop that will reveal all of the challenges of coastal erosion, hurricane threats and rebuilding homes post-Katrina.

But first, the scholars will tour the Houma community.

''They are going to go out on a boat and visit the swamps and hopefully see wildlife, such as alligators and things like that,'' Robichaux said.

Besides engaging in tours and workshops, the young alums plan to lend a helping hand wherever possible on the tour.

''We will try to find a painting or small construction project that will help an elder while they are here,'' Robichaux added.

On July 8, the scholars will make a stop in Oklahoma City to participate in a Native health symposium sponsored by the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. ''This event is going to be open to the public,'' Zigas said.

From there, the scholars will tour Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., July 10. Plans for additional activities there are pending.

Next is a stop at Salish Kootenai College, located on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Pablo, Mont., July 18 - 19. Zigas said they plan to meet with students and faculty from the irrigation and tree-planting programs for some hands-on projects. ''I am not sure how it's going to work, but I am sure they will provide some shovels,'' he quipped.

For their final Native visit, scholars are slated to visit the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon July 25. So far, they plan on spending the day helping the tribe with projects involving the construction of a campground on pow wow grounds.

On June 21, the Legacy bus will be certified under the University of Vermont's new ''Green Coach Certification'' program. It is a breakdown of 80 percent ultra-low-sulfur diesel and 20 percent biodiesel fuels. And it also comes equipped with emissions-monitoring hardware.

Biodiesel fuel is a cleaner-burning diesel fuel made from natural, renewable sources such as vegetable oils. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, ultra-low-sulfur diesel burns 90 percent cleaner than traditional diesel.

''We can show by example that there are other alternatives besides traditional fossil fuels,'' Zigas said.

Anyone can track the nearly two-month odyssey by visiting the Udall Foundation's Web site: www.udall.gov. Supporters can also view blog entries, videos and photos, and leave comments at the site.