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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Groups Aim to Develop New Native American Leaders
by Dennis Wagner - The Arizona Republic
credits: photo by Mark Henle - The Arizona Republic
PHOENIX — As special adviser for Indian affairs at Arizona State University, former Navajo Nation president Peterson Zah spent the past 16 years trying to develop Native American youth leaders.

He pressed students to get educated, return to their villages and build a future on the reservation. But that message began to ring hollow over the past year as his own tribe became mired in power struggles and corruption scandals.

Zah says students came to him filled with confusion and embarrassment, asking how they can make a difference.

"I was just agonizing over this," says Zah, 73, who resigned his Arizona State job this month to return to the Navajo Nation as an ambassador for tribal civility, service and integrity. "The only thing you can say is, 'That's one example of what we need to correct. We're training you to be different.' "

Zah's angst is shared by many Native American leaders who see a breakdown in Indian country leadership at a time when the 565 federally recognized tribes of the United States are pressing for greater sovereignty, with support from the U.S. government.

Dozens of Native American organizations and tribes are pressing to cultivate youth leadership skills through programs that often combine cultural heritage and public service, personal responsibility and civic action.

Earlier this month, President Obama met with more than 300 Indian leaders at the White House Tribal Nations Conference and announced support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls for independent self-governance of native peoples around the globe.

"Tribal nations do better when they make their own decisions," Obama said in a speech.

Zah and others in Indian country worry that such rhetoric won't become reality unless Native Americans can inspire their youth to lead ancient cultures into a modern world.

Zah says heroes are scarce in Indian country because many historic figures came to tragic ends and because today's reservations are mired in upheaval.

"Particularly with elected leadership, we just don't have role models that kids can look up to," he says. "So, the new generation, they've got to deal with it."

A powerful bond
The U.S Census Bureau estimates there are 4.9 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives in the United States, less than 2% of the total population.

They belong to hundreds of tribes that have distinct languages, cultures and circumstances. Yet they are bonded by a history of conquest, and, in many cases, by disproportionate social problems such as poverty, high dropout rates, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, and suicide.

Kristen Dosela, 20, who recently served as president of the Gila River Indian Community's youth council, says she began losing friends in junior high, watching them drop out of classes and succumb to inertia in the empty desert southwest of Phoenix.

"After eighth grade on the reservation, kids don't really focus on education," she says. "They get into alcohol, drugs, gangs, getting pregnant. I've seen it happen to so many friends I grew up with."

Although young people in any society may struggle, Dosela says developing a sense of identity and purpose can be especially tough for Indians trying to engage the future while retaining tradition.

Dwayne Lopez, 25, youth council manager on the Tohono O'odham Nation in southern Arizona, says the lack of leadership is magnified as young people from dysfunctional homes repeat the failures of parents.

But many are trying to break the pattern, says Lopez, whose family is heavily involved in tribal government.

"I want to become chairman of my reservation one day," he says. "Always remember who you are and keep your himdag— what we call culture — within you."

Avoiding victimization
Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota and director of the Native American Leadership Program at Wellstone Action, a national training center in St. Paul, says her message to young Indians is simple: Become active in the community and avoid temptations to wallow in victimization.

"Civic involvement is a fertile earth from which leadership grows," Flanagan says. "But also know who you are — your family, your culture, your values, goals and purpose. You can't look forward unless you know where you came from."

Pershlie "Perci" Ami, a Hopi from northern Arizona who founded Native Leadership Pathways in Phoenix, also warns against resentment toward whites, urging students to absorb the good from modern society and eschew the bad.

"If you're blaming people, they're holding you captive — and you're never going to change. " Ami says.

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