Over the summer I had the honor and privilege of working with a group of Native (and some non Native) youth, who were more sophisticated about certain things when I was their age.
The camp was a week-long activity that started out with a presentation about the High School Drop-out rate on a particular reservation. The presentation was conducted by the local Tribal Education Department and was an emotional eye opener that became quite personal for several youth. In fact, the reality of the statistics that were gathered and presented, silenced the classroom. Imagine twenty-two 9-11th grade students sitting in a classroom that was so quiet you could hear your own heartbeat. I can tell you the experience is something I will never forget because the expressions on their faces was emotional. For those Native youth (and everyone in the classroom) the information was dismal and their reactions were pure and reflective in the digital videos that they created by that week’s end.
After that first day of class, the students were assigned to do a project with the expectation to find an person to interview and create a digital story about the individual who may have dropped out of high school (or not). The intent, as assigned by the project director, was to provide an opportunity for the youth to hear a personal story that would influence them in a positive way. After the first day, not all youth returned. For those students who did return, it was an amazing process that included some team building activities and leadership reflection. As I think back I believe the week-long day camp was a success especially for those students who returned because not only did they display concern and awareness for an ongoing issue, they expressed an “interest” in learning how they “can be a part of the solution.”
I was proud of the youth that I had the privilege to work with and each day was filled with activities that included some physical activity to help them digress away from some of the deep and emotionally heavy topics that related to; parental drug use, misuse and abuse of per capita “privilege”, alcoholism, domestic violence, and “no motivation to want more than a rez life” (as quoted from two 15 year old’s). It was amazing to see these incredibly talented young people, our future leaders of Indian country, set a standard for themselves by stating what they wanted in their lives, more importantly about what they did NOT want. During that week, despite these shared stories that were personal and related to extended family, friends, and members of their community, these students discovered for themselves that they do not want to become a statistic. Not only were these students amazing, they were a beautiful example of resilience.
As I watched these kids, I looked at my own standards and self expectations. They taught AND showed ME it’s possible to turn a leaf with each new day despite challenges. It was a call to action and I believe I needed to hear what the youth felt and believed about themselves. The experience made me think about Native youth throughout Indian country and how we as a community deal with adverse situations. Today, I acknowledge that we all have different types of coping mechanisms, and would like to learn more about how we cope with the above mentioned issues? During that week, it was obvious to me and the other counselors that this outstanding group of Native youth want to be more than what is expected of them. Sadly two students shared that there was a teacher or two who had low expectations of them and as stated by an individual youth, “we need more than 50% of the community to believe in us”… I gathered a very important message from that statement… the students weren’t addressing the teachers in that moment, they were also addressing their Native community.
How does a Native community help their youth? The answer is simple, go and ask the youth. Native youth know what they need, but more important, they know what they don’t want and what they don’t have. I am 100% certain we as a Native community will not be able to solve all problems over night, but listening to our Native youth certainly can make a difference. In order to understand what the realities of rez life really means, let’s stop talking to our youth and let’s start listening to our youth.