Summit draws youth into talk of future

(Times photo - Paul Natonabah)

Young people listen to Miss Navajo Nation contestants talk during a Navajo culture workshop on Wednesday in the hogan next to the Navajo Nation Museum.

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Sept. 8, 2011

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Several dozen teens and young adults from across the reservation gathered Wednesday at the Navajo Nation Museum to participate in a Navajo Nation Youth Summit.

They also got a chance to ask President Ben Shelly how he plans to address issues facing young Navajos - a segment of Navajo society that often goes ignored.

"I want to know what you think," Shelly said in his welcome remarks, adding that with innovation and their ideas the Navajo Nation would become a progressive nation. "Your ideas are important and you're important."

The summit kicked off at 6 a.m. with a traditional Navajo prayer and morning run led by Vice President Rex Lee Jim. The ceremony attracted about 15 participants, which grew as the day advanced.

Alray Nelson, Shelly's personal aide and speechwriter, said the purpose for starting so early was to incorporate the traditional ritual of dawn prayer and running to develop strength, endurance and a positive mindset.

"It started at 6 a.m. because that's when we start our day. It's a Navajo teaching," Nelson said, adding that the summit is the first step for the Shelly/Jim administration to address youth issues.

Nelson said Shelly developed four questions to present to attendees to get a clearer understanding of their reality, as well as other concerns they might bring to light.

During the summit's breakout session, sheets of white butcher paper were unfurled and attendees were asked Shelly's four questions: "Describe the Navajo Nation as you see it; Give us an idea of what the Navajo Nation will look in 10 years; What are the problems in your community and your solutions; and How will you contribute to this effort?"

The young people expressed their ideas in comments and drawings, which according to Nelson will be incorporated into an issue paper written by executive branch interns and submitted to Shelly, Jim and the Navajo Nation Council.

Asked by facilitators what she thought about the Navajo Nation's 10-year outlook, Heather Claw of Chinle said it would mostly stay the same.

"It's really not going anywhere, I think," said Claw, 24, referring to the rate of development for casinos and other businesses.

Mariah Jones, 24, predicted that the level of scholarship funding would remain the same, saying the priority is mostly on business development over youth.

"Right now they're really selective on choosing Navajo Nation scholarships," Jones said, explaining that the tribal scholarship is barely enough to pay for her education at Northern Arizona University. "They're (tribal leaders) dipping more into the funds for youth," she said.

Beyond their harsh perspective on progress, attendees did imagine a "more electronically society," "educated youth," "being stronger than ever."

Alcohol abuse, litter, graffiti, stray animals, loss of Navajo culture and suicide were some of the major issues identified as impacting communities.

The summit participants cited awareness programs, an elderly committee for traditional teachings, youth programs, and community improvement with land among possible ways to address the problems.

Naataani Hatathlie, 17, of Coalmine, Ariz., said there are a lot of factors that contribute to the high suicide rate across Indian Country such as depression, substance abuse and poverty. It could be lowered if young people had stronger cultural ties, he said.

"There is a link with that because our tradition and culture doesn't teach us that," Hatathlie said, adding that he is pushing for the establishment of a Navajo Youth Council, which would be made up of representatives from the five agencies, and serve as an anchor to help leaders address the issues facing Navajo teens and young adults.

"This is something I envision," added Hatathlie, who is the president of the Kirtland Central High Dine Youth Council and an executive member of the United National Indian Youth Council.

Megan Badonie, 17, of Kirtland, N.M., said she felt the traditional social order, to the contrary, tends to disempower young people because of the strict rule about respecting the elderly.

"We can't share with them our ideas," Badonie said, who also noted that there is a modern Navajo Nation movement replacing the traditional Navajo Nation.

Badonie said land and water rights issues are important to the future of the Navajo Nation, and that other tribes look to the Navajos for leadership.

"It's a bit intimidating sometimes," Badonie said. "Other reservations know a lot of our issues. We need to lead Native America."

Francine Johnson, a Navajo language teacher at Many Farms High, said she brought her students to the summit for the chance to ask Shelly questions.

"They will get to ask questions," Johnson said, hoping that the summit influences young people to take action in their communities. "They're talking about the same issues."

Ariel Shirley, one of Shelly's summer interns tasked with organizing the summit, said it has been a stimulating experience and the summit provides a moment for youth from throughout the Navajo Nation to feel connected.

"So far the kids are participating and they're engaging in participation," Shirley, 18, said. "It's coming along OK."

"We hope that they go back and make a difference in their communities," added Hatathlie. "And the whole purpose is to get ideas to see what kind of change to make."

Later throughout the day, attendees participated in workshops on alcohol abuse prevention, domestic violence, suicide prevention, sexual transmitted diseases, small business, Dine education, and traditional culture, among other topics.

By the time 9 a.m. rolled around, attendance had climbed to 39 high school and college students representing Chinle, Kirtland Central, Navajo Prep, Many Farms, Career Prep, Arizona State University, Dine College, Fort Lewis College, New Mexico State University, Northern Arizona University, and the University of New Mexico.

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