As special adviser for Indian affairs at Arizona State University,
former Navajo Nation president Peterson Zah spent the past 16 years
trying to develop Native American youth leaders.
He pressed students to get educated, return
to their villages and build a future on the reservation. But that
message began to ring hollow over the past year as his own tribe
became mired in power struggles and corruption scandals.
Zah says students came to him filled with
confusion and embarrassment, asking how they can make a difference.
"I was just agonizing over this,"
says Zah, 73, who resigned his Arizona State job this month to return
to the Navajo Nation as an ambassador for tribal civility, service
and integrity. "The only thing you can say is, 'That's one
example of what we need to correct. We're training you to be different.'
Zah's angst is shared by many Native American
leaders who see a breakdown in Indian country leadership at a time
when the 565 federally recognized tribes of the United States are
pressing for greater sovereignty, with support from the U.S. government.
Dozens of Native American organizations
and tribes are pressing to cultivate youth leadership skills through
programs that often combine cultural heritage and public service,
personal responsibility and civic action.
Earlier this month, President Obama met
with more than 300 Indian leaders at the White House Tribal Nations
Conference and announced support for the United Nations Declaration
on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls for independent
self-governance of native peoples around the globe.
"Tribal nations do better when they
make their own decisions," Obama said in a speech.
Zah and others in Indian country worry
that such rhetoric won't become reality unless Native Americans
can inspire their youth to lead ancient cultures into a modern world.
Zah says heroes are scarce in Indian country
because many historic figures came to tragic ends and because today's
reservations are mired in upheaval.
"Particularly with elected leadership,
we just don't have role models that kids can look up to," he
says. "So, the new generation, they've got to deal with it."
A powerful bond
The U.S Census Bureau
estimates there are 4.9 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives
in the United States, less than 2% of the total population.
They belong to hundreds of tribes that
have distinct languages, cultures and circumstances. Yet they are
bonded by a history of conquest, and, in many cases, by disproportionate
social problems such as poverty, high dropout rates, crime, alcohol
and drug abuse, and suicide.
Kristen Dosela, 20, who recently served
as president of the Gila River Indian Community's youth council,
says she began losing friends in junior high, watching them drop
out of classes and succumb to inertia in the empty desert southwest
"After eighth grade on the reservation,
kids don't really focus on education," she says. "They
get into alcohol, drugs, gangs, getting pregnant. I've seen it happen
to so many friends I grew up with."
Although young people in any society may
struggle, Dosela says developing a sense of identity and purpose
can be especially tough for Indians trying to engage the future
while retaining tradition.
Dwayne Lopez, 25, youth council manager
on the Tohono O'odham Nation in southern Arizona, says the lack
of leadership is magnified as young people from dysfunctional homes
repeat the failures of parents.
But many are trying to break the pattern,
says Lopez, whose family is heavily involved in tribal government.
"I want to become chairman of my
reservation one day," he says. "Always remember who you
are and keep your himdag what we call culture within
Peggy Flanagan, a member
of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota and director of the
Native American Leadership Program at Wellstone Action, a national
training center in St. Paul, says her message to young Indians is
simple: Become active in the community and avoid temptations to
wallow in victimization.
"Civic involvement is a fertile earth
from which leadership grows," Flanagan says. "But also
know who you are your family, your culture, your values,
goals and purpose. You can't look forward unless you know where
you came from."
Pershlie "Perci" Ami, a Hopi
from northern Arizona who founded Native Leadership Pathways in
Phoenix, also warns against resentment toward whites, urging students
to absorb the good from modern society and eschew the bad.
"If you're blaming people, they're
holding you captive and you're never going to change. "