Earlier this month, the Cheyenne River Youth Project® in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, hosted its second annual “Native Youth Organizing Training” conference through Wellstone Action’s Native American Leadership Program. Thirty-one local teens between the ages of 14 to 19 attended the daylong leadership training event. Held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Thursday, June 9 and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Friday, June 10, the conference began with an icebreaker: The teens had to learn how to build a community among themselves, through the simple and often humorous task of posting sticky notes with compliments on each other’s backs.
“The activity really opened things up with a positive vibe,” reported Elizabeth “Lily” Kroll, who helped organize the event, along with fellow long-term volunteers Saskia Klocke and Holly Ramsay. “It made everyone feel very welcome.” Led by Wellstone Action Program Director Peggy Flanagan and trainers Kevin Killer, Maya Torralba and George Goggleye (Wahwahtay Benais), the conference curriculum encompassed a variety of topics, including community, Lakota values and “Help Wanted: Finding the Leaders We Need in Our Communities.” “The Wellstone trainers made themselves available to the kids, and the atmosphere was so relaxed,” Kroll said. “As the trainers opened up to the participants, the participants were able to do the same. And they served as positive native role models, which is so important.”
To address the issue of community, the Wellstone participants divided into groups and discussed of what they were most and least proud when they thought of Cheyenne River. The teens said they were most proud of the way the community pulled together after the 2010 tornadoes, graduating from high school, school spirit, involvement of students in community activities, the Cokata Wiconi Teen Center, being native and efforts to preserve Lakota culture and language. The teens said they were not proud of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, gang violence, graffiti, teens getting into trouble, lack of family involvement, the condition of the football and baseball fields, the prevalence of homeless people within the community, lack of jobs and opportunities, a dysfunctional school system, drunk driving accidents and lack of respect for their way of life. “I really saw how much these kids are invested in their community and how much they really care about its well-being,” Kroll said. “They’re very passionate about changing things, and it’s wonderful to see that kind of drive in such young people. They’re aware of what needs to happen in the community, and they’re thinking long-term — for future generations, for their own kids.”