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July 08, 2013

Native Youth Address Polices that Affect Their Lives

By Patrick Watson  

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Mentor Rebecca Rae introduces Latrell Davis, Tenika Davis, Gabrielle Lucero, Kiley Taptto. The students presented their group research on housing assistance and recommended that the use of traditional building materials, community involvement in planning, and housing assistance for everyone who needs it be incorporated into housing programs.

On Monday, June 24, the National Museum of the American Indian welcomed a group of students from the Summer Policy Academy II, a program of the Santa Fe Indian School Leadership Institute. SPA II gives students the opportunity to travel to Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to research and write policy papers on issues that affect their Native communities. Students are admitted into the program based on nomination by leaders in their communities. At the end of the program, the students travel to Washington, D.C., to present their research and recommendations to their congressional delegates. This year, they made a stop at NMAI to share their work with some of the museum’s staff.

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Trishana Garcia gives an opening prayer.

The students began with brief, individual presentations in which they explained their core values and what is special to them about their communities. The students chose forms ranging from short essays to poems to pieces of visual art. The common themes in these reflections demonstrated the students’ love for their culture, traditions, families, and homes. With the tone set, four groups of students presented their findings on the four areas of focus selected for this year’s program: health issues, the urbanization of Native communities, the protection of sacred sites, and education for Native students.

The students in the group on health issues were Latrell Davis (Zuni Pueblo), Tenika Toya (Jemez/ San Felipe Pueblo), Gabrielle Lucero (Isleta Pueblo), and Kiley Taptto (San Felipe/ Santa Ana Pueblo), assisted by mentor Rebecca Rae (Jicarilla Apache). The group began by highlighting some of the historic factors that have contributed to the decline in health among their communities, such as the loss of practices through which Pueblo people provided their own sustenance and the introduction of, and resulting dependency upon, nutritionally inferior government rations. The group also addressed government sequestration, explaining that even slight cuts in the Indian Health Service’s funding would significantly set back the health of the Pueblo people. Specifically, they requested that the proposed 5 percent cut in IHS spending be reduced to no more than 1 percent. The group made it clear that the programs dedicated to improving well-being in their communities are vital to the mental, physical, and spiritual health of the Pueblo people. 

Students Jacob Shije (Santa Clara Pueblo), Honey Garcia (Santa Ana Pueblo), Trishana Garcia (Santo Domingo Pueblo), Desiree Quintana (Santo Domingo Pueblo), and staff mentor Christie Abeyta (Santa Clara/Santo Domingo Pueblo) addressed the urbanization of Native communities. Drawing from their own, varied experiences, the group pointed out that the environment of traditional pueblos is conducive to the sense of community that is so vital to Pueblo culture, while government funded, subdivision-style housing creates isolation within the community and is detrimental to Pueblo traditions and core values.

Jacob said exactly how they want to address the issue: “We’re asking for the consideration of changes that would include flexibility for the use of traditional materials and involvement in planning to minimize impacts on cultural and social aspects of Pueblo life.” The group cited the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 as an example of a program that would help the housing situation in their communities. They touched on some issues that are applicable beyond the context of Native communities as well, such as the need for housing assistance for all families with inadequate housing, rather than just those that fall within a certain, low-income bracket, and the need for varied designs and sizes to accommodate families with different sizes and circumstances. Community-oriented housing is important so that the Pueblo people may continue, as Jacob put it, to “maintain [their] living history.”

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Pretty Water Duran, Kaitlyn Coyazo, Teran Villa present their research on the protection of land, natural resources, and sacred sites. Their group recommended revisions to existing laws to further protect sacred sites.

The issues surrounding sacred sites and their protection in the face of industrialization and development were tackled by students Teran Villa (Jemez Pueblo), Pretty Water Duran (Pojoaque Pueblo), and Kaitlyn Coyazo (San Felipe Pueblo), along with mentor Veronique Richardson (Laguna Pueblo). The group explained that sacred sites remain important to the Pueblo people’s way of life. As Kaitlyn said in introducing the issue, “Our ancestors fought to protect their religion and sacred sites. We are here to carry on their legacy.” One of the biggest issues in protecting sacred sites is that the sites themselves can range from a particular point to a collection of sites to an entire landscape.

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Teran Villa speaks on some of the things he loves about his community and some that he hopes to change to keep his community strong.
Teran appealed to the importance of the National Historic Preservation Act as a framework that could be applied to “protect the places where our medicine men go to receive natural remedies and provide guidance to our ways of life.” He added that Provision 106 of the act “provides notification and consultation upon potential harm of our sacred sites, but it does not prevent the harm to our sacred sites.” Pretty Water referenced the Supreme Court decision in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, in which “the United States Supreme Court did not agree with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.” Pretty Water also added some personal context: “A sacred site to me is a kiva. A kiva is just like a cathedral, a place where we, as Natives, go and pray and do our ceremonies. Without a kiva, we would lose our language, culture, tradition, and our core values. Even if part of the kiva was destroyed, that is enough to destroy our religious practices.” Teran summed up the group’s recommendations on how to deal with the issue: “It is vital for us Native Americans that the government revisits and amends the American Indian Religious Freedom Act by incorporating the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act that will enforce restrictions and consequences upon harm of our sacred sites.” 

Focusing on educational issues were Autumn Billie (Navajo/Taos and Acoma Pueblo), LaVonna Gachupin (Zia Pueblo), and Eric Jenkins (San Felipe and Santo Domingo Pueblo), along with mentor Preston Sanchez (Navajo and Jemez Pueblo). The group broke the educational issues facing Native students into three categories: access to higher education, transitioning into higher education, and lack of Native history, culture, and language in education. On the subject of transitioning into higher education, Eric stressed the significance of programs like SPA that offer students the opportunity to do serious work on culturally important issues. He said, “SPA gives us the privilege to use our cultural core values to learn about policy.”

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Autumn Billie, assisted by LaVonna Gapuchin, speaks on her transition into womanhood and reads a poem about her family.
On the lack of Native historical and cultural focus, Autumn said, “It’s good to look upon these past 100 years and to think about how we can gain knowledge from history to build stronger communities for future generations.” Addressing the educational barriers that have developed, the group mentioned existing efforts to improve education for Native students, such as the Building upon Unique Indian Learning and Development Act and the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act. Additionally, they proposed their own measure, Building Capacity and Retention to Increase Native American Faculty, which would involve mentorship programs in universities to promote faculty and teaching careers for Native students.

LaVonna shared a personal anecdote about a teacher who suspected she was lying when she needed time to attend to some tribal responsibilities. She said, “[The teacher] came to my house, and she wanted to see if I was actually fulfilling my tribal obligations, and she was shocked that I wasn’t lying.” Having just completed her first year at the University of New Mexico, Autumn said of her experience, “I did not have a single Native American professor,” and that is an apt example of what the group sees as one of the biggest issues with education for Native students.

These students have put in time researching and thinking about the issues that affect their Native communities, but their involvement is much deeper than that. These students do so much more than think about these issues, because they are living them. These are not theoretical matters. They are the realities that American Indians face every day, and it is inspiring to see the commitment to a better reality that drives these students. 

All photos by Maria E. Renteria, NMAI

Patrick Watson is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and an intern with the National Museum of the American Indian’s Office of Public Affairs. He is pursuing a BA in Plan II Honors and English from the University of Texas at Austin and expects to graduate May 2015.

Maria Esmeralda Renteria is an intern with the National Museum of the American Indian’s Office of Public Affairs. She is pursuing an MA in Museum Studies from the San Francisco State University and received her BA in both Latin American Studies and Spanish at UCLA.


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This seems like a wonderful opportunity for those students. I think more people should take pride and ownership of what happens in their communities and the changes they can affect.

I think more people should take pride and ownership of what happens in their communities and the changes they can affect.

I am really inspired by the way of assignments given to students , Its not usual theoretical and conventional assignment where students can copy , and you find 90% of assignments have same answer. Its much more related to their lives , that's why students involvement was much higher.

Meenakshi Garg

Lucky students who avail this opportunity. Thanks for sharing the information.

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