Past becomes present

Camp for Native American youth draws on centuries of healthy tradition

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Shannon Francis and Taloa Cardinal, 15, turn soil in preparation for a garden expansion.

Normally, the five Denver teens who gathered for breakfast at the Egg & I restaurant would have been cooking their own meals at the Four Winds American Indian Council building.

The recent diner meal was a rare exception for the youth, all participants in a summer camp for Native American teenagers. Still, it was clear from their conversation that tradition is at the core of the free eight-week experience.

Seventeen-year-old Katrina Her Many Horses, who recently graduated from the Denver Center for International Studies, talked about her family’s 22-hour drive to Louisiana for a powwow the previous week.

Roberto Ballesteros, 12, takes a seed packet from Shannon Francis, who teaches indigenous gardening.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Roberto Ballesteros, 12, takes a seed packet from Shannon Francis. Sisters Taloa Cardinal and Jasmine Anderson stand nearby.

Twelve-year-old Roberto Ballesteros, a student at West Leadership Academy, pulled up a picture on his smart phone of the red and white beaded bracelet he’d been making at camp. Jasmine Anderson, a soon-to-be senior at Denver’s South High School, shared photos of the traditional ribbon shirts the campers planned to work on next.

Formally called “Let’s Move in Indian Country Youth Cultural Camp,” the camp is the second iteration of a program begun last summer by the Denver Indian Family Resource Center in Lakewood. The first version was for students age six-17, but leaders decided they wanted to focus on teenagers.

“We know programs aren’t adapted to that generation of kids,” said Daryle Conquering Bear, healthy living assistant at the center.

A niche for Native youth

The camp provides a gathering place for Native youth, who often comprise small minorities in their schools.

With its focus on health, culture and leadership, there isn’t anything else like it in the area, said Terra Her Many Horses, co-leader of the camp and healthy living supervisor at the Denver Indian Family Resource Center in Lakewood.

The campers meet three days a week at the council building on 5th Ave. in Denver.
The campers meet three days a week at the council building on 5th Ave. in Denver.

In the 10-county Denver metro area, 48,000 residents consider themselves Native American, Alaskan Native or some portion thereof, according to 2012 estimates from the American Community Survey.

Elias Her Many Horses, 15, said the camp is a place “to bond with other kids” and has “a lot of activities to…keep us occupied.”

Fostering healthy habits among participants is also a priority.

“We know that historically there’s some health disparities in Indian Country,” said Conquering Bear. “With the rates of diabetes …and making healthier choices with eating.”

Sixty-five percent of Colorado’s American Indian and Alaskan Native adults are overweight or obese, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In addition, data from the federal government’s Office of Minority Health indicates that nearly 18 percent nationwide have diabetes, compared to about 7 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

Such statistics are part of the reason that campers learn gardening, take cooking classes and make breakfast and lunch together on most camp days. On their culinary to-do list this summer will be creating a healthier version of a fast food burger and a nutritious family meal with just $10 to spend at the grocery store.

Elias, who next year will be a junior at the Denver Center for International Studies, said cooking is one of his favorite parts of the camp. Among the dishes they’ve made so are are yogurt parfaits, turkey meatballs, chicken wraps and salads.

“Pretty soon we’re going to be able to grow some of our own ingredients,” he said.

Backyard transformation

That’s where the indigenous permaculture class, taught by Shannon Francis, comes in.

The idea is to teach the teens grow their own food, including traditional crops like the “three sisters” trio of corn, beans and squash. It’s also meant to incorporate Native American values such as respect, mindfulness and reciprocity.

Katrina Her Many Horses and camp co-leader Daryle Conquering Bear water the garden.
Katrina Her Many Horses and camp co-leader Daryle Conquering Bear water the garden.

These themes came through on a recent morning in the fenced back yard of the council building. Francis instructed the campers how to turn over the soil with their metal shovels.

“You’re not going to do too much stabbing because there’s a bunch of worms in here and you don’t want to chop all the worms in half,” she said.

Later, as the campers poked shallot, radish and mustard seeds into the loose dirt, Francis reminded them, “Always remember to keep talking to your seeds.”

Katrina Her Many Horses doesn’t have a home garden because she lives in an apartment, but said she enjoys gardening with Francis at camp.

“This is what our ancestors did back then, this type of gardening,” she said. “You know how farms have it in rows and stuff…This is more natural.”

Mixing traditional and modern

This summer, a dozen youth attend the camp, which meets all day Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. As was true the day of the breakfast outing, turnout tends to be lower on Thursdays since many families use it as a travel day to attend pow wows.

The camp is funded with grants from five organizations including the Colorado Health Foundation, the Denver Indian Family Resource Center, the Peyback Foundation Running Strong for American Indian Youth and the N7 Fund.

Elias Her Many Horses helps move an old tire out of the way as the campers work to expand their garden.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Elias Her Many Horses helps move an old tire out of the way as the campers work to expand their garden.

In addition to traditional crafts, cooking and gardening, the camp puts an emphasis on physical fitness. Besides typical camp sports like swimming and horseback riding, participants will learn traditional Native American sports like lacrosse and its precurser, stickball.

“Everyone is coming from tribes that were physically active, so that’s what they’re trying to get back to,” said Terra Her Many Horses.

“We do a lot on how their ancestors lived,” she said.

There are also some distinctly modern elements woven through the experience. These include field trips to Native-owned businesses such as the restaurant Tocabe, Lakewood’s Belmar shopping center and the Denver-based American Indian College Fund. The campers, even the ones still in middle school, also practice writing college application essays.

“We really want them to think college,” said Conquering Bear.

Some of the older campers are already well on their way. Katrina has already earned a spot on the basketball team at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling for the fall. After that, her sights are set on the Ivy League.

“After this junior college, after I’ve given basketball a shot, I want to transfer to Dartmouth University,” she said. “That’s my main goal, to go there.”

Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Colorado Health Foundation.

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

Story time

This Memphis teacher’s favorite student didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught him a powerful lesson.

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner teaches at East High School in Memphis.

When one of Daniel Warner’s favorite students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he could feel the tension in himself rising.

It was August 2017, the first week of classes, and Warner said he knew how important setting a tone was during the first few days of school.

“Didn’t my teacher prep program teach me that I have to set high expectations in that first week or the year is lost?” asked Warner, a U.S. history teacher at East High School in Memphis. “If I don’t set those, we’re done for.”

But before Warner reacted, he said he took a few moments to reflect on what could be going through her head.

Chalkbeat TN Storytelling Event
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner tells his story to a crowded room.

It was the Monday after a violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stories of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick were again dominating the news, as he remained ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Instead of punishing her, Warner said, he refocused on what she might be thinking through as a black American high schooler.

“The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers,” Warner said.

Warner was one of seven educators and students who participated in a February story storytelling night hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The stories told centered around school discipline practices, a topic Chalkbeat recently dove into in this special report.

Video Credit: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange. The Social Exchange is a pay-as-you can PR & content creation firm for nonprofits and responsible, women/minority owned businesses.

Here’s an edited transcript of Warner’s story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s a week into school in early August. And kids are just trickling into my senior homeroom mostly asleep, sitting quietly in their desk as 18-year-olds do at 7:15 in the morning…And then morning announcements come on. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

So I stand up, and I say, “Alright y’all, go ahead and stand up with me.” I see these seniors throwing their bodies out of their seats, trying to stand up while they are still asleep. And almost everyone stands up but one girl doesn’t…  

So, my eyes meet this girls eyes as she stays in her seat during the pledge. And I can feel the tension in me of my authority being challenged in the room. And I wonder if everyone else is looking at me, my other students. So I give her a teacher look meant to communicate, “Are you going to stand up?” And she looks at me from across the room and shakes her head and mouths, “I can’t.”

So this student was one of my best students the year before in honors U.S. History. She engaged deeply with the material and personally. She asked questions of herself, of her country, of democracy, what this whole thing is about. She processed the double consciousness she feels of being both black and American. And she did so while being kind, thoughtful hardworking. The student you think of that makes you want to cry, you love that kid so much. I wonder what’s going on, what is she thinking about…

This is a Monday and the weekend before had been the white supremacists march in Charlottesville… When she told me, that she couldn’t stand, I went and sat in the desk next to her…I asked, “What’s keeping you from standing up?”

She started by saying, “I hate,” and she stopped herself. She took a breath, calmed herself down and said, “I just can’t.” And so we just sat there for a second. I could see as I got closer to her that she was flooded with emotion and feeling something deeply. And so we let the announcements end and I tell her, “When I say the pledge I say it more as a hope and a prayer…that there would be liberty and justice for all.” She said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” like a good U.S. History student, but she said “things don’t’ seem to be headed that way right now…

The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers. She showed me that I was a little too focused on how I was being perceived by other students in the classroom. And that I wasn’t focused enough on her and what she might be processing. As teachers, we have all of this opportunity to escalate conflict, I’ve done it plenty of times. But we also have an opportunity to be gracious to students who are working out who they are in public…

This girl wasn’t being disengaged by saying no to me, she was being especially engaged with who she is… When we talk about restorative justice, the first step we have to take is for us as educators and adults, and it’s doing your own emotional work. And we have to ask ourselves questions about our identities. You can only lead someone somewhere if you’ve gone there yourself…

What is it about us when it sets us off when a kid says no to us? Why are we that insecure? … When we pay attention to ourselves, our emotional status, the hurt we’ve felt, the pain we’ve lived through, that is when we can begin paying attention to how formative schools are. They are spaces where folks are working out their identities in public, and that’s when you feel the most self conscious and vulnerable and in need of grace offered by someone else.

So, I hope as we talk about this, we think of ways where we can make school a space for people to be figuring out who they are and not just punished into compliance. In high poverty schools, you talk about compliance like it’s the ultimate behavior. I hope we can make schools where students can learn what it is to seek justice, even when and especially when, things just don’t seem to be headed that way right now.