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Indigenous youth leaders cultivate adaptation to nurture tribal communities

EJ Tsosie is Diné and lives on the Navajo reservation. Tsosie calls the reservation and New Mexico home and has never left the reservation. It is not for a lack of ambition - Tsosie and the majority of native youth students have not had the opportunity to leave the reservation in the past. That changed when Tsosie and 100 Native American youth leaders from across the nation including four Wisconsin tribal youth applied to, and earned, an opportunity to explore how Native American communities throughout the country have adapted to a changing environment, and how the students can make an impact by leading, cultivating, and nurturing adaptation within their home communities. The 2017 Native Youth Community Adaptation Leadership Congress (NYCALC) provided these Native Youth Leaders with the skillsets and tools to lead in the improvement of their community.
 
Youth from Federally Recognized Tribes, Alaskan Corporations, Hawaii, and America Samoa attended the Native Youth Community Adaptation Leadership Congress at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center in July 2017. For most students, leaving their community to learn about adaptation meant taking the first step off the reservation and into an airport.

Native Youth Leaders arriving at the National Conservation Training Center. Photo courtesy of Lee Symbol/Native Youth Community Adaptation Leadership Congress Participant.

Native Youth Leaders arriving at the National Conservation Training Center. Photo courtesy of Lee Symbol/Native Youth Community Adaptation Leadership Congress Participant.

“I was really nervous, I have never been on a plane before and didn’t know what to expect. At first, I felt alone and I wanted to go home,” said Martin Acuna, tribal and youth leader of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. “On the flight, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like, until I met another native youth and found out he was from around my home. We started to talk and I felt like I belonged.”
 
The Native Youth Congress is a week long experience that fosters a positive environment to provide indigenous youth with exposure to conservation as it relates to their communities, leadership development education, exposure to several federal agencies, resources for resume building, internships, and future jobs, and aid in developing the students’ own personal and professional network of Federal and Tribal connections. The week opened with the native youth leaders taking stage to educate one another about environmental and social challenges in their home communities. Although unfamiliar with one another, each student demonstrated courage to open up about and listen to these issues, which created a safe learning environment.

It takes courage to stand on stage in front of strangers. The line behind the speaker are students preparing to share. Photo by Alejandro Morales/USFWS.

It takes courage to stand on stage in front of strangers. The line behind the speaker are students preparing to share. Photo by Alejandro Morales/USFWS.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I got to NYCALC. I thought people were going to not like me or I didn’t think I would talk to anyone,” said EJ. “But that wasn’t the case, everyone was nice and I made some friends and learned the different challenges we all face in our home communities”.
 
EJ wasn’t alone, by the second day the rest of the native youth leaders expressed how they immediately felt like they were making friendships. Their communities faced similar challenges like lack of youth programs, clean water, subsistence food, health and diet programs, and a lack of knowledge among the youth of the traditional ways of life. Students stated how they felt comfortable sharing their challenges because of the safe environment that was carefully provided by the coordinators, Melissa Castiano from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Rachael Novak from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Castiano and Novak assembled faculty with specialized knowledge of tribal communities, traditional ecological knowledge, Indian education, scientific knowledge, cultural experience, and religious awareness to ensure the native youth leaders had this positive experience.

Native Youth Leaders were able to see that their challenges were common and not unique by posting sticky notes on a board for each other to see. Photo by Alejandro Morales/USFWS

Native Youth Leaders were able to see that their challenges were common and not unique by posting sticky notes on a board for each other to see. Photo by Alejandro Morales/USFWS

During the congress, federal scientists taught students about climate science, traditional ecological knowledge, and how a changing world can impact tribal: environments, health, knowledge, economics, culture and traditional ways of life. Speakers expressed to the students that the traditional ways and tribal life are not fading away because of the way the world is changing, but rather how traditional customs are adapting in response to new ecological, scientific, and social advancements. Presenters reminded students how past generations of Native Americans have adapted to a changing world and encouraged students to find ways to cultivate and nurture adaptation for their community.
 
“During the week I learned a lot, especially in the workshops that were provided. During the Indigenous management and cultivation of oceans workshop, the instructor taught us how not properly recycling effects the environment around us,” stated Kalamanmana Harman, a native youth leader from Hawaii. “Where I am from, there is a huge problem with people not properly disposing of their rubbish. [The Congress] helped me understand more about the importance of disposing rubbish.”

Every room had a student that enjoyed to learn from each other. Photo by Alejandro Morales/USFWS.

Every room had a student that enjoyed to learn from each other. Photo by Alejandro Morales/USFWS.

By the fourth day, each student passionately discussed their cultural values and collectively discussed tangible ways to make a difference in their home communities. Tsosie and the native youth leaders developed groups to brainstorm adaptive methods, lead their own discussions on adaptation, and explored ways to utilize traditional tribal knowledge when addressing changing issues. Youth Leaders mutually identified the critical role of engaging tribal leaders, peers, education administrators, elders and community members.
 
On the last day, the native youth leaders presented innovative ways and ideas to promote community adaptation that would address challenges presented in their communities.
 
“This makes me want to give back to my community,” said Tsosie. ”Instead of sitting back and watching.”
 
EJ Tsosie’s experience during the Native Youth Community Adaptation Leadership Congress is unique to him, but each student unintentionally adapted to his or her world changing. For some students, like Tsosie, adaptation meant leaving the reservation for the first time. For other students, learning adaptation means ensuring their community will thrive by combating climate challenges, water shortages, health challenges, and a rapidly changing world. The native youth leaders stated they are more confident in discussing ways to cultivate and nurture community adaptation with tribal leaders, peers and community members, and hope to make a difference when it comes to addressing new challenges affecting their communities.

ative Youth Community Adaptation Leadership Congress. Photo courtesy of Sophie Honahi/Native Youth Community Adaptation Leadership Congress.

Native Youth Community Adaptation Leadership Congress. Photo courtesy of Sophie Honahi/Native Youth Community Adaptation Leadership Congress.

The Native Youth Community Adaptation Leadership Congress was initiated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and facilitated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, National Air Space Administration, Bureau of Land Management, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Environmental Protection Agency and the South Central Climate Science Center. 
 
By Alejandro Morales
Regional Office - External Affairs


Last updated: December 5, 2017