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A vast array of literature or accounts about social problems on Indian reservations are made public almost weekly but few solutions are offered. The following account involves a six month travel experience that shows solutions can come from unlikely sources!
In the past six months, I have had the opportunity to travel to 13 different Indian reservations as part of my job requirements with a nationally funded Housing and Urban Development grant. The program hosts youth leadership retreats, targeting housing authority residents, in different parts of the country.
At these retreats, a typical team of 8 youth and two adult sponsors will learn about leadership, conflict resolution, gang intervention and about themselves during these 2-3 day sessions. The main objective for a team is to develop an action plan to combat an issue in their housing development.
After a couple of months have gone by, I go to the reservations and conduct a site visit to check on the progress of the action plan.
That is how my travels came about, and at the same time how I received an education about how tribal life is outside my own reservation.
The high points to my travels were many: I have seen the beauty of the mountains in Montana, experienced the heat of Oklahoma, saw the swamps and alligators of Florida, stood at the base of historically significant mesas in New Mexico, walked in great canyons in Arizona, drove long stretches of Highway Five in North Dakota, saw the baked conditions of Texas and visited my ancestral homelands in Wisconsin.
Yet, there are low points to travel. After awhile the airports, Holiday Inns and the food all look and taste the same. One time my car failed to start in McAlester, Oklahoma and a kind Black man, who had never seen me before, helped fix the problem when no one else would take the time to stop.
The worst feeling was having my rental car towed away, in North Dakota, allegedly for parking in a handicap zone. Strangely, there were no signs posted and I received no ticket but I still had to pay a $30 towing charge.
On another occasion, I contributed some of my travel money to a casino in Louisiana and the machines offered very little return on my original investment. I had to learn a lesson in humility again and had reduced spending power for the rest of the trip.
Most of all, evenings get lonely when you're hundreds of miles from your family and home, but thanks to modern conveniences of AT&T, those miles are greatly reduced. Of course, all of these inconveniences constitute life on the road.
It's great to see other places but to use a term associated with Kansas - "there is no place like home."
All that aside, what I discovered is that Indian people everywhere have the same social problems - some are worse while some situations are better.
Horror stories were everywhere and sometimes it is evident by viewing the people as you drive down streets of border towns or navigating down pot-holed reservation roads. Other times stories are shared by people who want a sympathetic ear because sometimes it is easier to tell an outsider about the problems than your own people.
For example, a teacher in an Indian school system in Montana shared how the social problems of the reservation have left an indelible scar on the community. In her 20 years of teaching, she has lost 55 students to alcohol-related accidents.
Another case, in Arizona, involved a young man of 14 who is growing up physically abused by his step-father, baby-sits his four brothers and sisters most of the time, while his mother is out drinking and as a result his education is almost non-existent. The young man won't say anything about these conditions because he gives unconditional love to his mother, no matter how he is treated and he sure doesn't want to live anywhere else but where he is now.
In Oklahoma, tribes are concerned about gangs making their way into their housing sites from nearby Oklahoma City. The reasons are simple for this expansion: new areas are needed for the sale of drugs.
In fact, on another reservation a person was decapitated in the past year over a bad drug deal. Parents are pleading for help and say "the pushers and bootleggers need to get treatment to get well so they will not be destroying our young people," and "get rid or arrest the people who are selling drugs and liquor on the reservation - everyone knows who they are anyway, make them pay for their law breaking ways."
What makes this so discouraging is that Indian adults are selling drugs to Indian youth. "Laissez-Faire" should not apply here but it does.
Stories of young people beating other youth to death is not uncommon. Child abuse and neglect are day to day concerns. All of this doesn't even include alcoholism which is an enormous part of life on reservations.
Many Indian children are growing up without use of their language. Some want to learn and others don't care one way or the other. Traditions, history and culture are viewed as something of the past, not to be remembered or to dwell on it too much because today's concerns are more important.
Young people are pleading for Indian teachers in their schools or for all-Indian schools. They are fed up with the daily mistreatment they receive at local schools.
And who can blame them? Teachers don't care and parents are indifferent to their education and the young people have to get by the best way they can despite the system.
Sadly, Indian children are searching for someone, anyone to care for them. They are growing up in single parent homes where biological fathers have long gone down the trail, and in the process have given up on personal responsibility and letting someone else, like single mothers and grandparents, assume their roles. Meantime, the children have to suffer for this lack of responsibility and grow up with an inner rage just waiting to explode.
I saw reservations racked by dissension which, of course, is fueled by the quest for power. Young people are not dumb, they see how their parents are affected by the factionalism and have to hear cruel and hateful remarks about their relatives. An outsider, Indian or not, is viewed as someone there to investigate the problem of the day and distrust permeates entire communities to the point where nothing gets done. Xenophobia is not limited to Russia history - it is alive and well on Indian reservations.
I think we all get the mental picture.
Despite all of these problems, I see many, many young people and concerned parents determined to do something about their lives and communities. The positive stories are out there and are blueprints for success and lessons to live by for Indian people.
While some tribes choose to fight over the control of casino revenues, others are doing positive things for the community.
For example, the Menominee Reservation, in Wisconsin, has a state-of-the-art youth center. It has a large room for group activities, a t.v. room with cable access, weight room and meeting rooms. The youth center is an indication of how the youth fit into the long range plan of the tribe. What makes the youth program work here is the parental and adult participation along with the support of the tribal government.
John Teller, the Tribal Chairman, participates in youth meetings, contributes financial support from the tribe and takes an active interest in youth initiatives. A question might be lurking in your mind right about now: "Well, don't they all do that?" No, to that thought, because in these 13 site visits, the only other tribal leader to attend a youth meeting was Santa Ana Pueblo Governor, Leonard Garcia.
The Santa Ana Pueblo, located 15 miles outside of the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is much like the Menominee because it invests heavily in the infrastructure and its people.
Tim Menchego, the Youth Council President of the Santa Ana Pueblo, told about how his group continued on with their action plan despite its sponsors showing no interest after the Kansas City Retreat.
On their own, the youth have cleaned up the parks, the housing areas, and have greatly improved the atmosphere and appearance of the community. This is a valuable lesson: help will come if you work hard and show initiative. Now the youth have parental and tribal support.
In Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, the youth group attends language class two nights a week and also learn about tribal culture and traditions from an Elders Resource Council. In addition, the youth are actively educating the community about the effects of alcohol and other drugs on their culture. This youth group chose to maintain an important part of their culture and to tackle a current issue. The goal is easier to attain for the Lac du Flambeau when there is parental and tribal support.
The Crow Youth Council of Crow Agency, Montana took on the greatest challenge: to decrease tribal factionalism. In reality, this will be a gradual process, so the Crow youth are developing a leadership program to teach a new generation to avoid the problems their parents are going through. Fund-raiser's are a common event on the Crow Reservation. It allows them to attend youth conferences in Washington and Denver and to go to area Pow Wow's. Additionally, community, tribal and parental support is there.
In the Ojo housing site of the Navajo Nation, the youth are correcting the vandalism in their community by painting over graffiti on surrounding walls. They live in an area where there is 27.4 percent unemployment and the average per capita income is $4,106. It is indeed an understatement that the Ojo group has their work cut out for them but I think they will make a difference in their community. Why? Because they take pride in their homes and want to change a recurring problem.
In response to "having nothing to do," the Northern Cheyenne youth organization, on May 26, 1994, became only the second Indian reservation to be recognized by the Boys and Girls Club of America. Shortly afterwards, the tribal council committed financial resources in the amount of $50,000 and today the club has over 700 members which offers a safe haven from the problems outside that front door.
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma will dedicate a million dollar Boys and Girls Club at their Talihina site, June 21, 1996. Funding came from the National Boys and Girls Club, the tribe and youth fund-raisers. Do they have tribal support? Yes, if you can count a 1996 Honda FourTrax 4 Wheeler donation by the tribal Principal Chief, Hollis Roberts, for a youth raffle as support.
Nothing is too much for some tribes. The Santa Ana Pueblo is in the talking stages of creating a program where they will pay single mothers to stay home with their children. While this is not feasible for all tribes, a smaller version of this idea would help a great number of families.
While these are only a few examples of what I have seen, they are an indication that all is not lost or negative in Indian country. Granted, the steps are small when you consider the magnitude of the problems, but nonetheless a move in the right direction. The problems didn't appear overnight but time allows for adjustments. Parental involvement and a return to spirituality are musts to achieve any semblance of success on Indian reservations.
Indian people cannot depend on anyone else to solve the problems; it has to come from within. The young people are working hard to make changes in their community, parents are getting heavily involved in the process and many tribal governments are waking up to the fact that young people are true resources. From top to the bottom, this is how social conditions will change on Indian reservations and we're only fooling ourselves to think any different.