MVHS youth leadership return with lessons from D.C.
In February, five members of Kayenta’s Student Cultural Advisory Committee and two of their teachers were offered the chance to fly to Washington, D.C., and learn of modern tribal leadership via the National Congress of American Indians.
Letresia Todecheene, the cultural youth development specialist and trip chaperone, was the one who saw the opportunity and took it to the school, believing it would be very informative for the young leaders in SCAC.
The members of SCAC voice and represent the student body, from middle to high school, giving a student’s opinion on specific issues and decisions made in their school district.
The trip was made possible with the partnership and support of the NCAI Youth Summit.
“It was meant for 15- to 21-year-olds, but they made an exception for our school to attend,” Todecheene said. “We were the youngest group there. They told us Navajos had never attended this conference before, and they were so surprised and very welcoming to us. It was kind of like we were put on a pedestal the way we were treated.”
The students who went on the trip were Mallorie Johnson, the SCAC president; Anya S. Begay, the SCAC secretary; Tricia Clark, the SCAC treasurer; Gabriella Fletcher, the SCAC/KMS representative; and Kierra Todecheene, the SCAC/MVHS representative.
According to Todecheene’s report, the SCAC group left Kayenta at midnight Sunday, Feb. 19, for Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix for its 6:40 a.m. flight.
The group flew six hours to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport Station and then rode a bus to McPherson Square, where their hotel was close, giving them a partial view of the White House.
The next day, the group checked in with the NCAI Summit, which gave them a schedule. It included a tour of the nearby attractions. They visited the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial. One student recognized the Lincoln Memorial as where an emotional scene from the movie “Forrest Gump” took place.
On day three, the group traveled to the National Museum of American Indians, where the NCAI’s State of American Indians Address occurred. The main speaker was NCAI President Fawn Sharp, who called for unity among the Native tribes, addressed the federal government for not upholding all their promises to the Native people, and called on the people to focus on helping one another as the NCAI continues to fight for representation.
The speech inspired Clark to record it. She believes much needs to be fixed on Native lands, and people should help one another while doing it.
“I joined the youth group because I wanted to help my peers and the people that work at the Kayenta school district,” Clark said.
The trip was a fantastic experience for her, learning much and finding the tribal meetings inspiring, even if the issues discussed were sad. Meeting and talking to tribal leaders were a little frightening to her but were ultimately exciting.
Afterward, SCAC was allowed to explore the museum. The group walked among artifacts that stretched back to the first European landings.
Kierra Todecheene was fascinated by a regalia tunic from the Battle of Little Big Horn that had natural human hair sewn into it. To some tribes, cutting one’s hair meant death, leading her to assume that the one who wore this cloth into battle had accepted death.
“It was very experiencing for me to go out there and get out of the Navajo Nation and to experience what it’s like to be outside the reservation,” Todecheene said.
Seeing all the new places and people was fun for her, even if the initial plane flight was “scary.” She was moved by what she learned at the museum, including how Pocahontas was possibly the first known case of a missing Native woman taken from her homeland. Still, she had learned a lot, met necessary delegates, and seen incredible sights.
Johnson was of a similar mind. Although she immensely enjoyed visiting the national monuments, the museum was something else.
“The one (place) that I really loved the most was the Native American Museum because they represent all the tribes and the history behind them,” Johnson said.
Johnson joined SCAC because she felt like there were a lot of problems in Navajo, but few people were talking about it, especially other kids. She hopes the trip and what the group will share with others will inspire other students interested in learning or making a change for the tribe.
On day four, SCAC attended NCAI’s First General Assembly and listened to the reports and policies shared, with President Sharp insisting they must keep pushing for a larger budget to help the tribes further.
Begay was impressed by the tribal leaders and was interested in how other tribes had problems similar to and different from what she experienced in Navajo.
“The trip was educational,” Begay said. “It was really interesting to hear about how the other tribes get to help their communities and how they give back to them.”
Begay joined SCAC because she wanted to make a difference for her school and people, to help improve their lives.
Later, the students attended youth sessions in which they were taught how the NCAI develops public policy and how it works. They were also offered internship opportunities with the NCAI.
Tribal action initiative
On the last day of the summit, the students were tasked with creating a tribal action initiative under which an issue statement would be made with initiative and evidence.
The SCAC students discussed the issues faced by the Navajo, ranging from lack of infrastructure to losing the Navajo language.
They then decided to focus on the Navajo language, how they knew it wasn’t being widely taught, how that could be fixed, and how they could gain support for it. They made a poster board containing all this information and presented it to NCAI members and leaders from different tribes. They explained their presentation in detail, from their sources to their solutions.
Johnson said it was a bit daunting talking to the leaders, but she slowly grew confident, and in turn, the leaders were impressed with their knowledge and presentation.
Then the group attended a final gathering of NCAI members before ending with one last hotel stay before embarking on their trip home to Navajo.
Fletcher enjoyed the trip. She was amazed to learn there were over 100 tribal leaders in attendance for the summit.
She said Washington, D.C., is a nice place, very charming, with many nice people and good food. She also commends her fellow SCAC members for giving a good presentation before the leaders and representing the Navajo tribe.
“The trip was very educational and inspiring,” Fletcher said. “I joined this group because I want to show my leadership skills in representing or advocating for the students in our school.”
Todecheene thanks the KUSD Diné Cultural Center staff for their support and hard work in the department. The Indian Educational Committee Members, the KUSD administration, the principles from KMS and MVHS, and bus drivers Wayne Thinn and Leonard Manygoats.
She also thanks the parents for supporting their kids’ educational endeavors.
Another chaperone and administrator assistant at the cultural center was Toni Cly. She was impressed by the student’s presentations and how confident they were before the tribal leaders. She believes the SCAC group is essential as it gives kids confidence and a voice to speak with, especially when they see something wrong and want to invoke change.
“It’s amazing that they worry about things that we wouldn’t even think they’d be worried about at all,” Cly said. “A lot of the stories we heard from them are their personal experiences, and some of them are heartbreaking.
“I’m glad that they’re not ashamed of their personal experiences, and they’re using it,” she said. “This is the only way things could change, and I’m really proud of them. I’m proud of the things they did.”