Indian Culture Strives to Survive

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One would be hard-pressed to find two more disparate settings than the noisy bustle of urban America and the rural homogeneity of a Native American reservation. Although some reservations sit within 20 miles of a city, the distance between them – measured by services and cultural identity for Indian youth – is far greater.

Little national research has been done recently on the needs of urban Indian youth, but statistics indicate that they perform better in school and drink less alcohol than their counterparts outside the city lines.

But other challenges face Indian youth in urban settings. Regional studies point to higher dropout rates than non-Indian youth, health problems (particularly diabetes) and fitness as the top problems.

J.R. Cook, head of the United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), says these youths need more cultural awareness and health
programs. Seemingly simple things like competitive sports are not as available for urban youth as for those on reservations, he says.

“In the rural areas, at least in Oklahoma, there are just more opportunities to [play competitive sports] than in these large urban high schools,” says Cook, whose Oklahoma City-based organization spearheads a network of 220 Indian youth councils in the United States and Canada.

Basketball is always mentioned as a favorite among Native American children. Almost every youth worker will speak about how much the youth enjoy basketball, only to lament that low self-esteem, high league costs or intense competition keep Indian youth on the sidelines in urban schools.

Another disturbing trend is the large drop in the number of Indian youth who graduate from urban schools. In Phoenix, 47 percent of Native American students drop out between eighth and ninth grade, according to a 2000 study by Arizona’s Department of Health Services. In Minneapolis/St. Paul, a 1998 Urban Coalition study showed that there were 474 sixth-grade Indian students compared to 238 ninth-grade students. By 12th grade, the population had dwindled to 71.

Conversely, the Urban Coalition study shows that Indian teens in the Twin Cities show significantly lower levels of alcohol consumption than do their counterparts in rural areas.

Those working with Indian youth say the common denominators in their educational, self-esteem and health problems are lack of positive cultural identity and pride, coupled with a lack of accessible services.

On reservations “you’re taken care of” with access to health care and other benefits, “but a lot of youth lose eligibility when they live in cities,” says Bonny Beach, director of the Phoenix-based American Indian Prevention Coalition. Other youth workers say that many Indian families living in cities pay tribal membership fees, but are not eligible for services on nearby reservations.

Many youth groups working with urban Native Americans use programs rooted in tradition and values that also encompass health. Following are profiles of programs in cities with a high population of Native American youth.

Little White Buffalo Project

522 7th St., Ste. 211
Rapid City, S.D. 57701
(605) 716-3200

“Don’t Feed the Red Creek Niggers” is scrawled in brown paint on the side of a bridge just down the road from Rapid City’s Central High School in South Dakota. It is the same bridge under which six Native American men were drowned in a slew of murders in 1998 and 1999.

Such is life in the racially charged city just northeast of Mount Rushmore. Native Americans make up more than 10 percent of the population in the city, often referred to as the “Old Mississippi of the North” by Native American activists. And although nearby poverty-stricken reservations are sometimes bolstered by large youth service providers like Boys & Girls Club of America (BGCA), Susana Geliga says she feels lonely in the Native American youth service field.

That’s because Geliga’s Little White Buffalo Project (LWBP), a language-intensive program, is one of the few services in the city specifically for Native American youth.

“A sense of cultural inferiority has been instilled over the years, and there are no resources to help [Native American] kids out. So, you have these kids who are brown, but don’t have any knowledge of self and hate their heritage,” says Geliga. “Young, angry, isolated brown kids. And educationally, they are in trouble.”

Native American youth represent 16 percent of enrolled high school students in Rapid City, but almost 40 percent of the 228 dropouts in 2001.

“The biggest misconception is that there are services available to Indian youth in the city,” says Geliga, because there are plenty of services provided to their relatives and tribesmen living on reservations. But they are often not eligible. And although the new Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Boys & Girls Club is open to all 307 Indian youth members of the Rapid City’s Boys Club, it is 60 miles from town.

The 3-year-old Little White Buffalo Project centers on teaching Lakota, a language Geliga says has been lost over the past generation. “Grandma and Grandpa speak [Lakota], but the parents don’t,” she says.

Around the language classes, Geliga brings in guests to speak on Lakota cultural history, touching on spirituality issues such as the meaning and importance of buffalo. She also conducts weekly workshops on preparing traditional foods and making native crafts.

Geliga works with about 35 kids at a time (ages 10 to 18), many of whom she met teaching Lakota at Central High and as a former cultural manager at the Youth Development Program, a local Christian youth organization.

Geliga wants to expand the operating budget from $30,000 to $65,000 over the next year. She hopes the agency’s new permanent facility downtown will attract new donors and fatten contributions from current funders, primarily Native American groups that include the Seventh Generation Fund, Friends of the Four Directions and a local group, the Dakota Indian Foundation. The Christian Relief Society has recently helped Geliga start a food program, providing a refrigerator, microwaves and hundreds of snacks and meals over the summer. LWBP’s biggest donor is Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a grant-maker based in Lorton, Va.

American Indian Prevention Coalition
609 N. Second Ave.
Phoenix, Ariz. 85003
(602) 258-4477

Phoenix is home to the largest proportional Indian population of any U.S. city, with more than 83 tribes represented.
Reservations lace the area around the city.

While many Phoenix youth are tied to these reservations, tribal benefits – health services, scholarships, housing opportunities – are available only to those who can prove a large “blood quantum” to one tribe.

For example, a person with 80 percent Indian blood who is not 25 percent Apache does not qualify for services provided by Apache reservations.

This “general lack of access to positive things for kids that don’t require transportation or money” is part of the overarching problem for Indian city kids, says Beach, director of the American Indian Prevention Coalition (AIPC).

On top of that, says Beach, urban kids are “disconnected from tribal support systems, extended families and people that will help with their care.” There is also little access to traditional ceremonies like sweat lodges, Native American churches and youth rites-of-passage ceremonies.

AIPC’s Circle of Health Program focuses on substance-abuse prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery services to children and families. The treatment program is run from a downtown Phoenix office, but youth are reached mostly through the after-school prevention program done once a week at five Phoenix schools.

Program Director Herman Schildt takes his 9- to 14-year-olds through four hours of activities designed to address cultural identification, physical fitness and academic support.

Schildt, assisted by his one full-time assistant and two part-time staffers, begins each session with a talk circle, inviting everyone to share their thoughts from the past week. The group employs the Project Alert curriculum, which uses role-playing and small-group activities to develop non-drug norms for youth, although Schildt tries to substitute games and outdoor activities for academic portions. This follows Beach’s view that Indian youth and other minorities learn better in situations that involve more senses than they would use in a classroom.

Schildt’s cultural activity time also centers on this ideology. Young people work with crafts that spark dialogue about cultural practices and beliefs. Recently they made their own dream-catchers and tooled their own leather pieces.

Physical activity is also a mainstay in the after-school program. Youth play basketball, baseball and classic Indian stick games. Beach stresses the importance of this opportunity in light of the lack of gym time in schools and the costs of joining city-run leagues. “A lot of these kids are the poorest of the poor,” she says.

The program moves on to academic mentoring and concludes at 6:30 p.m. with a prayer circle or blessing.

AIPC is in its fourth year of operation, and the money has been rolling in. In its first year, the office operated on $12,000. The next year added little room for expansion, but 2001 brought a $100,000 matching grant from the Department of Justice’s Drug Free Communities Support Program, to which AIPC added another $150,000.

This year, a federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) grant for three residential treatment centers has helped boost AIPC’s yearly operating budget to about $1 million. Beach, who once relied on two paid staffers and a handful of volunteers, now directs a staff of 32 and draws on a list of 150 volunteers.

“We try to apply in a diverse area [of grant-makers]: state, federal, business, whoever is giving,” Beach says.

Beach says indicators from AIPC’s data collection about the prevention program show improved attitudes among participants about avoiding substance abuse. What has most surprised Beach – but perhaps signals an absence of other Indian youth programs – is the program’s ability to retain youth over the years.

“We don’t lose kids to attrition,” she says. “They complete our eight- to 12-week programs, and just enroll again. We have had to start changing the activities to accommodate it.”

Golden Eagles
1530 E. Franklin Ave.
Minneapolis, Minn. 55404
(612) 879-1708

In the Twin Cities, where 33 percent of Minnesota’s Native American population is concentrated in neighborhoods along East Franklin Avenue, healthy choices and future planning are a grave concern to Golden Eagles Director Amy McNally and her staff
of 17.

The Indian youth dropout rate among 12th-graders is 41 percent, four times higher than youth of any other ethnicity, according to a 2000 public school annual report. And McNally says that the high diabetes rate among Indian youth is a direct result of obesity.

Golden Eagles draws on cultural history that city kids otherwise would go without to correct those trends. It focuses on providing culturally relevant material that ties into a number of hot-button issues for Indian youth, particularly substance abuse and dropout prevention. The group provides recreational fitness, art development, monthly sweat lodges and youth intervention programs to reach more than 250 city kids.

The youths meet at the Minneapolis American Indian Center. Each day, a different age group comes in for a presentation by curriculum director Hope Flanagan. They tackle different themes each month. In April (Children of Alcoholics month), Flanagan taught about the introduction of alcohol to native culture. In another session, the youths study traditional uses of tobacco, comparing those with more harmful practices embraced by popular culture.

Golden Eagles draws on cultural history that city kids otherwise would go without.

That is the approach Golden Eagles takes: drawing kids into a fascination with culture, and harnessing that interest to enhance their decision-making abilities. McNally credits Flanagan’s flair for engaging and capturing the interest of her youth as the key ingredient to the program’s success. “She really does a great job making the lessons interesting for each age group,” McNally says.

Lessons generally take about 45 minutes of the two-hour daily program, the rest of which is devoted to free recreational time.
McNally also runs a weekly workshop in which youth work with native artists, performers and writers. They exhibit their work twice a year at the Hennepin County Government Center downtown, and a mural the group made hangs in Calhoun Square Mall.

The group’s youth intervention program sends staff to work on behalf of 9- to 18-year-olds who are in the court system or are flagged as at-risk. Many of the youth in the intervention program are Golden Eagles, while others participate by judicial order.

The program (working on 120 cases at a time) includes family consultations through home visits and verifying that youth are following the conditions of their probations. The agency recently received a $90,000 grant from the state Department of Corrections to work with truant youth facing court dates.

Golden Eagles was established in 1989 as Soaring Eagles, changing its name in 1993 after closing for a year. Its operating budget of $1.3 million is funded by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, several state departments, Greater Twin Cities United Way, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and local grant-makers the Bush and McKnight foundations.

Creating a Personal Vision

Youth Council
Indian Center
1100 Military Road
Lincoln, Neb. 68508
(402) 438-5231

When the Lincoln Indian Center hosts a night for Indian youth to play basketball at the city’s YWCA facility, kids turn out in droves to play pick-up. “Some of them are really good,” gushes center Youth Program Director Misty Thomas. But even a love for basketball, she says, has not yet pushed them into competitive play.

Health problems among Indian youth in Lincoln are exacerbated by their unwillingness to join organized recreational activities. This phenomenon, Thomas says, is largely a product of chronic low self-esteem.

“[The youth’s] parents are not pushing them even to go to school, let alone play sports,” she says. “They just aren’t involved as much as non-Indian parents. They are not pushing them to succeed.”

That’s why Thomas expanded the center’s youth fitness programs by hosting a pilot project in partnership with Oklahoma City-based UNITY and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Dubbed “Celebrate Fitness,” the grant provides $40,000 over two years to nine Native American groups to promote fitness in communities and improve nutritional habits.

Lincoln is the only urban site for the project, one of the first large-scale efforts to address fitness issues among Indian youth.
Thomas and her Creating a Personal Vision Youth Council, a 15-member board of teenage Native Americans, plan a year of events to expand fitness and health programs. In place of a one-night basketball get-together, the council is trying to create a city league for Indian youth.

Thomas hopes that playing in the league will help convince some of the kids that they can compete at the high school level.

The fitness program kicked off in May with a community event that featured a Native American health expert and a free lunch – low-fat Subway sandwiches, Gatorade and pretzels – that Thomas hoped youth would like and recognize as healthful.

The big activity for the summer was the three-day Native American Youth Campout in July, where youth played in a basketball tournament and worked with substance abuse and suicide prevention experts. The group has also planned swimming, volleyball and hiking.

Fitness is not its only focus. The council’s adopt-a-grandparent program links local youth with native elders in an effort to foster cultural learning and appreciation.

The youth program’s overall operating budget for last year was $114,000, the major funding coming from a maternal and child health block grant from the state, Tobacco Free Nebraska and the United Way of Lincoln/Lancaster County.