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Shinnyo-en Sponsors the Native Youth Academy

December 2-5, 2010

Last week the Shinnyo-en Foundation was invited to participate with Native American Middle School and High School students from across the country to explore their roles as environmental warriors through the auspices of the Native Wellness Institute at the Native Youth Academy December 2-5, 2010. The Native Youth Academy provided youth, adults and elders the opportunity to collectively explore their roles in advocating wellness and environmental stewardship within their home communities.

Sara Mizner, Intern

Upon arrival we knew that the coming days were going to inspire growth and transformation that would continue to impact communities across the United States for years to come. Jill Sherman-Warne, the Executive Director of the Native American Environmental Protection Coalition opened the Academy by asking a room full of native youth, some from as far away as Alaska,   “What is Environmental Stewardship?”

Young voices began to speak up.

“It is buying less, reusing and recycling.”

“It is caring about our rivers and our lakes.”

“It is about protecting our culture through the protection of the earth.”

The adults in the room sat in quieted awe, watching the students expressions evolve as they listened to one another and began to build confidence in the message articulated through their collective voice. With patience the native adults listened until the students responses slowly dwindled. Then the elders spoke up, without telling the students they had it right or wrong they instead responded with support and positive affirmations to ideas and feelings expressed by the youth. We immediately knew that the students would leave this Academy filled with bright ideas, confidence to put those ideas into action and support from caring adults.

 Abby Nathanson, Program Coordinator

Medicine wheels are used by many Native American cultures to teach, heal, and conduct rituals throughout the life cycle. On the second day of the Native Youth Academy, Native American Middle and High School students learned about wellness through the indigenous lens of the medicine wheel. Students developed competency in understanding physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional components that comprise the cycle of wellness for each person. They discovered that if one piece of the wheel is out of sync, the whole wheel is affected.            

In an effort to engage students, facilitators encouraged discussion within small groups about their personal beliefs and attitudes towards physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional wellness. After discussion and sharing in small groups, students reported their summaries and findings to the whole group, primarily addressing a panel of elder Native American women in the room. Among the themes identified in discussion was a desire to be positive and respectful, with an emphasis on connecting with tribal culture and identity, and staying physically and mentally healthy through eating well and exercising. The panel of women provided positive feedback to the students and emphasized the importance of wellness within Native communities.

Implicit in the message from this workshop was a desire to empower Native American youth to speak up and lead on behalf of themselves and their communities. Elders among the facilitation team shared a strong desire to develop Native leadership within the next generation. Over the span of this three-day conference, students gained skills and confidence to speak up and share with each other, which promoted a sense of hope for all participants as they left to return to their respective communities at the end of the conference.                      

 Yuri Nanami, Administrative Assistant

One of the highlights of the Academy was the talent show, which started after dinner on December 4th  and consisted of a variety of dances and songs that were performed by Native American high-school and middle-school students.  Each tribe presented their dances and ritual customs with flair and enthusiasm.

Unlike anything I had ever seen, Native American dance is unlike any other dances in the world. Not only did the youth share dances that evoked joy, but the movements were a spiritual practice in itself. Dance can be a form of prayer, a way of expressing joy or grief, and a method of becoming closer with nature. I learned from the young adults that dance can have healing powers, not only for the dancer, but for the audience as well.

 One student in particular,

Brisa Aguilera, a 13 year-old youth performed a lasso ritual that left the audience in awe, with the amazing technique and effort on behalf of the student.  The talent show was a reminder to everyone the importance of the diverse cultural heritage of the Native American people, and that these traditions and customs should be passed on, from generation to generation.

By watching the expressive dances I gained a deeper understanding into why these same students were able to respond so quickly when asked, “What does it mean to be an environmental steward?” Some of the dances that evoked nature carried an important message, not only is the preservation of our environment important but an integral part of history, traditions, and existence. To bring to light the significance of this connection, all those in attendance were asked by a few of the students to form a circle and with our own bodies click our fingers and rub our hands to symbolize the sounds of rain and the creation of fire.