Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
December 11, 1999

Youth helps dispel "Indian Myth" in Denmark
by Garnet1654
from an article in
Oklahoma Indian Times

When Lee Nells traveled to Denmark this past summer he expected to dispel some myths about Native Americans but didn't expect to find that he was the myth.

Lee discovered the very young school children of his "exchange mom" had little knowledge of Native Americans, aside from a few stories they had heard, and the movies. They touched him when he came to class, to see if he was real and not just a story they had heard.

It was all part of the cultural exchange program called "Faces of America," promoting awareness through exchange students who travel across the world. Judy Gamble, family consumer science teacher at Sequoyah High School, said the process is a long paper trail that weeds out all but the most hardy.

"You must be diligent," said Gamble. "It takes a lot of time and most students don't have the discipline to come through. Lee spent hours and hours on the paperwork."

At 16, Lee, who is Cheyenne/Arapaho/Navajo, found himself representing Native Americans in Denmark for six weeks, after the paperwork, interviews and orientation was finished.

The small town Lee visited, located about an hour from the Russian border, was quiet and cool, quite different from the Oklahoma summer he was used to. People, he said, are very environmentally conscious, recycling everything and preferring bicycles and roller blades to cars.

His exchange family, which included parents, Trice and Bent, and 16-year-old Jonas, spoke very good English, Lee said, so he had to stay away from slang. They treated him to museums and other historic sites the area had to offer. Lee didn't miss much television, as there were few Denmark stations.

"Most are American," Lee said, of television. "They love American movies."

Lee accompanied Bent to work, where he teaches computer technology at a vo-tech center. Students, Lee said, can learn a trade there and either seek more education or move right into the work force. Many, he said, opt for the job, as Jonas had.

"He works with computers and knows every 'in and out' of them," said Lee. "He's been working with them since he was about 6 years old."

Lee spent a month with the family before heading for a nearby boarding school where he entered classes of his choice. There were opportunities to experience kayaking and candy-making, but being an award-winning artist already, Lee spent most of his time in art class.

With the American in mind, Denmark malls, clothing and music prevent a head-on clash with culture shock. Food, however, was not as flavorful as Lee would have liked.

"Spices," he said. "I missed spicy food."

Some scenes seemed a lot like home, especially the bigger cities.

"It helped me understand other people," Lee said. "We aren't the only ones who need help. There were also a lot of homeless there, walking the streets."

Lee fit into the exchange family's activities since he travels with his American family and dance group "Little Thunder," dancing and singing traditional Native American songs. Lee's parents are James and Elana Nelis of Moodys. His exchange family, he said, spent many evenings singing together.

Lee still has some traveling to do, since he was recently chosen to go to Washington, D.C. in October to review his Denmark trip with other students and people with the exchange program.

"It will help him later in life," said Gamble. "It taught him tolerance, how to learn to accept their practices. And he learned from them. They want him to spread the word on what the Danish are like."

"You're the only thing they know (about Native Americans)," she told Lee. "What you showed them is what they will remember."

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