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Video conference unites diverse students with environmental, cultural connections

ANADARKO, Okla. - It's a rare occasion when indigenous Russian students hear the Kiowa Tribe's Saynday stories, or when Kiowa and Kialegee students hear firsthand how the Sarawak people of Malaysia learned to give natural childbirth by observing monkeys.

But on March 14, that's exactly what took place when the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. State Department arranged a video teleconference with Kiowa students from Anadarko High School and Creek students of the Kialegee Tribal Town, who met in Oklahoma City to hear cultural and environmental concerns from youth of the Ufa-Shigiri of Russia and the Sarawak of Malaysia.

The conference, titled ''Our Communities, Our Environment, Our Future,'' was arranged by Cherokee Nation member Jonathan Hook, director of the Office of Environmental Justice of EPA Region 6, and the State Department.

On previous visits to Malaysia and Russia, Hook visited with the indigenous communities of Russia's Ural Mountains and of mainland Malaysia, Borneo and Sarawak. While in Russia, he visited a school that specialized in cultural preservation and environmental protection. When those students expressed an interest in meeting American Indian youth, he decided that it would be best to link the students in Russia and Malaysia with some of the tribes from his region.

Hook made arrangements with Curtis Munoz, director of the Kiowa Tribe's Environmental Program and co-chair of the EPA National Tribal Science Council, and Kialegee environmental director Henry Harjo to bring Kiowa and Kialegee students to Oklahoma City. The students selected to represent Anadarko High School were Rebekah Ahshapanek, Erin Beaver, Kandess Gonzales, and Jered and Josh Sullivan, based on their academic and community involvement, as well as their knowledge of Kiowa language and customs.

The students realized that they share many of the same environmental concerns: water pollution, global warming and destruction of plants used to make traditional medicines.

The Kiowa students shared with the other indigenous youth the Kiowa ''Prairie Dog Song'' and the story of ''Saynday and Mrs. Ant.'' In most Kiowa stories, Saynday is the example of how not to act and this story had a similar message.

''The choices you make now will have consequences later,'' Jered Sullivan said about the story's message.

The students also realized that worldwide environmental problems are not the fault of one single country.

''With environmental problems, it's not just one country,'' Gonzales said. ''It's the whole world. It's not just one country to blame. It's everybody.''

The coordinators of the project each felt that the videoconference was a success, with the students involved wanting to set up another conference and a possible exchange program with the indigenous communities in the future.

''The students' worldview was expanded a little bit,'' said Andarko Indian Education Director David Sullivan. ''It's a totally different thing to hear about things in a TV report or school lessons than to actually talk to someone from that location. It makes it all the more real.''

Munoz said that the videoconference fulfilled a part of the Kiowa Environmental Program's efforts at educational outreach.

''We're sharing with indigenous youth Kiowa culture and giving a Kiowa viewpoint with a global audience,'' Munoz said.

Hook said that the conference was well-received from not only the cultures involved, but by the State Department as well. Currently, Hook is in the process of creating more teleconferences with more communities in Russia and China, as well as possibly the students of Santa Fe Indian School, in addition to the cultures already represented. Hook also wants to form an international indigenous youth conference focusing on cultural and environmental concerns.

''I believe that indigenous communities around the world share a number of similarities in the ways they culturally interact with the environment, in their desire to protect cultural practices and languages, and their desire to protect the land bases we have,'' Hook said. ''More communities can talk to each other and find ways that they're successfully addressing those issues. Those are tools that can be shared as well as relationships that can be forged.''

Making a global impact, one student a time

While conducting interviews with students involved in the EPA/U.S. State Department indigenous youth videoconference, one of the questions asked by Indian Country Today was how the students work on protecting the environment as individuals.

Senior Kandess Gonzales said that one of her local solutions is carpooling, while junior twins Jered and Josh Sullivan talked about keeping trash picked up at the Redstone Kiowa Baptist Church, located outside of Anadarko. Sophomore Rebekah Ahshapanek responded by saying, ''I help pick up trash along the road for the Delaware Nation environmental program.''

Senior Erin Beaver said that one of the things she's helped with is aluminum can recycling at Anadarko High School, as well as working on healthy eating initiatives for Native youth.

''We try to get Native schools back into our school system, so our little kids will know that frybread is not the only Indian food you can eat,'' Beaver said.

Comments such as these fit in well with the ideas of Kiowa Environmental Director Curtis Munoz and how he wants Kiowa people of all ages to be aware of their environment today just as it was in former times.

''If you can improve awareness of the environment, it's a great step forward for our people,'' said Munoz. ''Our environment sustained us and our people as we protected it. We have to take care of our environment for generations to come.''