Navajo youths come to Minnesota
RED LAKE INDIAN RESERVATION, Minn. -- They came as strangers, young people from the Navajo Nation in Arizona who had never seen anything quite like the massive body of water the Aniishiinabe call Miskwagami-wizaga-igoniyg for its beautiful sunsets.
Red Lake, they said, looked like an ocean.
They slept in tents, swatted mosquitoes and shared scary stories around the fire. They fished, created artwork and learned about the history, the culture and traditions of the Red Lake Nation.
In turn, the Navajo youths shared of themselves with their Red Lake counterparts.
Young people meeting young people.
Arriving as strangers, but leaving as friends.
So it went last week, when six Navajo youths and their adviser, Patrick Blackwater, spent four days on the Red Lake Indian Reservation attending a cultural learning camp.
The Chief Meskokonaye Youth Cultural Learning Camp was one of more than 15 such camps offered on the reservation throughout the year. Darwin Sumner of Red Lake, Minn., started the camps 20 years ago as a way to help young people on the reservation learn about the outdoors and native traditions.
"The kids, if they don't have things to do, they're going to find other things -- probably stuff that would get them into trouble," he said.
Chief Meskokonaye, or "Red Robe," was Sumner's great-grandfather. A statue of the Indian leader stands in Thief River Falls.
Learning the culture
Sumner, 54, said he didn't have anyone to show him the traditional ways while growing up so he had to learn on his own. The goal, he said, is to help young people -- especially those from about sixth grade through middle school age -- avoid the mistakes he made.
"They're more vulnerable to the crime and drugs and alcohol; they're easily swayed at that age," Sumner said. "The whole concept behind what I'm doing with the kids is teaching youths to teach youths -- youths tutoring other youths.
"I feel there's a big need to keep that connection with Mother Earth."
Blackwater, the adviser for the Navajo youths, said the idea of visiting Red Lake originated last December during a conference in Las Vegas. Sumner and Blaine White II, a 12-year-old student from Redby, Minn., also were attending the conference.
Blackwater, who is an extension services liaison at Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz., said a flyer for the Chief Meskokonaye camp caught his attention at the conference.
"Our college does youth camps, and the kid sitting next to me at the conference was Blaine, who was pictured in the flyer," Blackwater said. "I was talking to Blaine about what they do and what we do."
Blackwater met Sumner that afternoon, and they talked about bringing youths from their respective tribes together.
"It all started in Vegas, and we're out here right now with the kids," Blackwater said last week.
The six boys from Arizona, who ranged in age from 9 to 14, were selected for the Red Lake exchange based on their behavior at the college's summer youth camps, Blackwater, 39, said.
"This was kind of a reward for those kids who were really helpful," he said. "In our program, I try to encourage leadership roles, especially with the guys and young men. I noticed Darwin does that, too."
Thanks to a tribal youth development grant the college had received, Blackwater said he was able to pay for airfare and other trip-related expenses. They flew from Albuquerque, N.M., to Grand Forks on Aug. 2 and returned home Tuesday morning.
"For most of them, too, it was their first time on a plane," he said. "They were really excited about it."
Nicolas Anderson, 14, of Red Mesa, Ariz., said he'd never been as far north as Minnesota. Anderson said he was surprised by the abundance of lakes and trees, compared with the desert-like terrain where he lives in the Four Corners region adjacent to Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
"There are a lot more lakes than where we are, and the lakes where we are, are man-made," Anderson said. "There's mosquitoes -- but not like here."
It was about that time Blackwater remarked about a T-shirt he once had seen with a picture of a giant mosquito and a caption reading, "Minnesota State Bird."
"Is it really the Minnesota state bird?" Anderson asked.
That got a laugh from the others within earshot.
The recent camp originally was supposed to focus on berry harvesting, but a hard frost this spring wiped out the blueberry crop, Sumner said. Instead, he shifted the itinerary to fishing on some of the small lakes within the reservation, one of which also served as the campsite for the youths.
Last Friday -- the first full day of the camp -- a thunderstorm with heavy rain descended right on schedule, forcing organizers to scramble to keep the youths busy. They visited the reservation community of Ponemah, Minn., and toured the Red Lake Nation Fishery plant in Redby, where the Arizona kids got their first look at the walleye that are so important to the people of the reservation.
Blaine White II, a Red Lake camper who'll be a seventh-grader in Clearbrook, Minn., explained that some people on the reservation believe Lower and Upper Red lakes are their guardian's footsteps because they look like moccasins.
Blackwater said he was impressed by how much the Red Lake youths knew about their home.
"The kids really knew the history of the area," he said.
Despite their geographic differences, the two tribes share cultural similarities, including the taboo against whistling at night, a practice believed to attract bad spirits.
They also face similar economic challenges, Blackwater said.
"When you leave the farmland and drive into the reservation, you see where the economic development stops," Blackwater said. "It's just like our reservation."
Art and learning
After the fishery tour, the youths returned to camp for lunch and spent the next couple of hours learning to make "dream catchers" from Adele Zephier, a woman who specializes in making the traditional willow-hoop artwork.
Early that evening, Sumner and Blackwater took some of the boys to fish in nearby Sandy Lake before dark clouds chased them back to camp. When the thunderstorm hit, it was severe enough to drive them from camp for the night to the shelter and safety of Sumner's home.
The weather didn't always cooperate, but the campers made the best of it, Sumner said.
"We got dumped on, and the berries weren't there, but it was a complete success," he said. "We got a lot accomplished with the cultural teachings and the history."
Sumner said plans are in the works to form a nonprofit -- the Chief Meskokonaye All Nations Youth Cultural Camp -- to help in securing grant funds to expand the exchange program.
"We want to be able to travel to each other's reservations across the country and share cultural authorities and traditions and just do a whole bunch of fun things based around their cultures," he said. "Some of our teachings are the same, and that goes for a lot of tribes across the country."