Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
July 1, 2000 - Issue 13

A Test of Faith:
American Indian Youths Learn about Teamwork and Survival
By Stephen Magagnini
Bee Staff Writer
"That's My Big Brudder" art by Leonard Peltier

Coloma, where James Marshall discovered gold in 1848, is ground zero for California's Indians. Within a decade, bullets, disease and starvation would kill off as many as 100,000 Indians.

On Saturday, Tashina Taylor viewed ground zero from a plywood platform dangling 35 feet in the air. She didn't like what she saw.

"I'm scared of heights," Taylor announced, although it was too late for that.

Taylor, a Pomo from Willits, Mendocino County, was one of 68 Indian youths who learned about the relationship between teamwork and survival this weekend. They had applied for a youth leadership encampment along the south fork of the American River a few hundred yards from Marshall's discovery.

"Sometimes the Creator puts obstacles in front of you to help you find answers," said John James, a Miwok spiritual leader from Auburn. He wasn't kidding. On Friday, during the whitewater rafting trip, half a dozen of the biggest youths spilled out of the rafts, only to be pulled out of the icy water by their teammates.

On Saturday, they tackled the ropes course.

Taylor was perched on one of six "islands in the sky" -- six wooden platforms suspended by ropes, each about three feet apart. The idea was to cross all of them and then go back.

She had shimmied up a 40-foot pole, gingerly crossed a 30-foot log, and managed to swing from platform to platform until she froze on the third "island."

Whether she made it to her 17th birthday (which happened to fall on Sunday) depended upon her "clan," the Turtles, a bunch of kids who held onto the rope tied to Taylor's waist and looped over a pulley.

"I ain't going nowhere," she said. "I'm gonna kick it right here. I'm nervous. I'm shaking. I'll fall."

"What happens if you fall?" an instructor asked.

"What happens if you fall?" an instructor asked.

"Nothing -- I freak out."

"Come on Tashina, you can do it," shouted Jennifer Demezes, 18, a Pomo from Ukiah.

Taylor took a deep breath, and jumped from platform to platform -- and then back again.

"I didn't want to, but Jennifer had faith in me, so I trusted her," Taylor said later.

Thus emboldened, Taylor scaled another pole and crossed the "Burma Bridge," three wires hanging 30 feet off the ground. She and the other campers had to balance their feet on a single wire while clutching the other two.

"Oh my God -- I'm going down!" thundered Cal Jones, a 290-pound counselor, as he slipped off the wire, nearly lifting his entire team off the ground. But they held steady and gradually lowered Jones back to earth.

Jones, 18, had flown out of his raft backward the day before. "It was funnier afterward," said Jones, a Pomo/Pauite/Shoshone in shades and a turned-around NFL cap. "It was scary at first. ... A young man grabbed my vest, and they pulled me back in."

Jones -- who will start California State University, Sacramento, this fall -- declined to try the "Leap of Faith," a vault from the top of a rickety 25-foot pole. "If it was meant for me to fly, I'd have wings," he reasoned.

"So true," said Lance Manuel, 20, a Yokut from the Tule River Reservation in Tulare County.

But fellow Yokut J.C. Vega, 15, leaped with abandon. "It was very cool," he said nonchalantly.

The encampment, sponsored by Indian Dispute Resolution Services of Sacramento with a grant from The California Endowment, wasn't all rope burns and ice water.

It included native blessings, songs and dancing, native Gold Rush history not found at the museum up the road, and native rapper Chris LaMarr of "WithOut Rezervation."

The youths, ages 12 to 18, broke into clans. Each clan had to choose a sacred animal and design a shield, a call and a cheer. The White Buffaloes rubbed their feet in the gravel to simulate the return of the buffalo -- and times of peace and plenty.

The Eagles symbolized visionary truth; the Salmon, perseverance; the Mountain Lions, strength; the Wolves, cunning.

Taylor loved being a Turtle. "He's a circle, he's a complete, rounded person. He's slow, because he thinks a lot before he speaks. He has a lot of wisdom."

Taylor flashed some of that wisdom Saturday morning, when the group decided the fate of two boys who broke curfew.

At first, the boys and their bunkmates tried to cover up their pre-midnight stroll, which brought their mentor to tears. She was ready to take them home immediately, rather than risk further damage to the "circle," as Indians call the group.

But Taylor reasoned: "When you take people away from a circle, it's not a circle anymore. You can't leave things unsolved, you can't just walk away angry."

She compared the violation to a broken finger on a hand -- you don't cut it off, "what you do is put a cast or a splint and heal it with love, respect, acceptance and understanding," she said. "It's not about punishment, it's about taking responsibility for what you did. ... They could have gotten lost, fell in the river and busted their head, been kidnapped."

The boys apologized, and from then on worked to strengthen the circle, said Rhonda Herrin, who organized the encampment.

Leadership is about telling the truth, taking responsibility, paying attention, commitment and asking for what you want in a good way, said trainer Maria Trevizo, a Tigua from Roseville. "Be prepared for the worst and expect the best, and you'll have a really good life."

When the 3 1/2-day encampment ended Sunday, Red Cloud Manuel, 14, vowed to learn his Yokut language. "It taught me you can do anything if you set your mind to it," said Manuel, who hopes to become a chemist and an archeologist.

Carlos Villanueva, 12, a Sacramento Miwok, resolved to learn more about his culture and act like a leader. "You have to do good things and know right from wrong." Instead of yakking in class, "I'm going to do my work."

"I feel bonded," said Taylor, one of three campers to win a $250 scholarship. "Even though we're from different tribes, we share the same feelings and beliefs. I'm complete now."

Taylor plans to become a community organizer and help young people keep learning. "I want to go as far as the wind will take me," she said.


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