Youth Mentoring Programs Abound in Traditional Teachings, Conservation and Wildlife Management

After reading excellent commentary in a recent issue of Indian Country Today Media Network entitled “Restoring Heritage Cuisines and Indigenous Agroecosystems” by Devon G. Peña, Ph.D. (Chicano/Creek), a professor in American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington, I was curious to learn more about mentoring programs for Native American youth. I started by checking out the Food Sovereignty projects mentioned in the commentary, which lead to a happy discovery: There are programs in place in both Canada and this country with more planned. Most, like The Wildlife Society, have wildlife professionals addressing a growing interest by indigenous students in careers based on conservation and wildlife management.

Dale Carson (center) with her husband and four children

Scholars and professionals are poised to hold seminars and conferences,for which many expenses can be covered by grants. These projects will no doubt grow and ensure many communities get a nutritionally corrected diet that is sustainable as it is born of their own soil, history and culture. Mr. Peña mentioned one of those scholars in his piece. Gary Paul Nabhan has documented the nutritional genocide as well as a format to restore the endangered foods and plants of America. His book, Restoring America’s Food Traditions gives histories of foods, recipes and more with helpful information on recovery of endangered foods, animals and plants.

The concept that “everything old is new again” can apply to tribal elders mentoring the tribal youth today. In traditional families, children were taught lessons from the moment they could understand and remember what they heard. It wasn’t just the parents teaching, but the whole family group and even beyond in close communities. Wild food gathering, agriculture, manners, customs, tribal history and more were gently infused in some way, every day, for children. I was brought up in this manner. No harsh commands from my mother or grandmother, just good examples and kind words to back up what they wanted me to learn. My father was working in another state, but my uncle lived with us and taught me what he could in his way, always full of humor and teasing. Somehow in later years I found I had an inherent knowledge of plants and foods, among other things. Gee, I wonder where that came from. Wink. Today, elders have the opportunity to help the young, and they are taking it. Most parents have to work at jobs away from home, making close encounters time constricted, if there is time at all to interact with the kids. Elders are precious, full of eclectic knowledge and wisdom—they would love to share if asked or invited. Who else could teach life lessons better than those who have learned them by living? Some communities have a program taking kindergarten-age children to nursing homes to visit the elderly. It benefits both ages. Life and mentoring is all about connections, large and small.

Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with her husband in Madison, Connecticut.