Recently, Mary and I had the privilege of returning to Shepherdstown, West Virginia to join over a hundred Native youth at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) located on the banks of the Potomac River. The event, the Native Youth Community Adaptation and Leadership Congress (NYCALC), occurs each summer on this campus, attracting the brightest and boldest young thinkers from high schools in places around the U.S. and its territories—mostly from ‘Indian Country’ or tribal reservations.
The focus of this gathering is conservation and environmental stewardship surrounding climate change. Students apply online to participate and those who create the best essays on the topic are brought to the NCTC where they connect and collaborate with like-minded youth from other tribes, forging friendships that I imagine will eventually be of great benefit to the health of this beautiful planet.
Mary’s perspective on gatherings such as this one always opens my eyes to the inspiring ways in which non-Native people are frequently affected by Indigenous ways. So I’d like to share her thoughts on this recent week of events with you.
By Mary Marshall
As I watched the activity within this group, witnessing expanding connections between the inspired participants, I was reminded—yet again—of the reverence Indigenous people have for this Earth, and how it is typically instilled as soon as a small child begins to comprehend.
Often raised with their grandparents living under the same roof, and by other Tribal Elders who live close-by, Native children are literally viewed as the future and the protectors of their Tribal heritage. So typically, it truly is a village that molds these young people into adept knowledge-keepers and environmental stewards who will grow up to view the lands as everything from market to medicine cabinet—the ultimate provider of all that is needed to live healthily, productively, and happily.
Yet as history repeatedly reminds us, not everyone shares the views of Indigenous Peoples when it comes to our sacred Earth. As we learned from recent clashes at Standing Rock (which happens to be only one of many battles currently involving Native Americans working to protect the health of our lands and waters), the corporate or capitalist mentality can often sway individuals into accepting the sometimes epically-degrading practices of development. Yet these kids know that resource extraction does not have to be degrading and polluting, or leave illness-causing toxins forever upon the land. These concerns were paramount in the discussions Jon and I were a part of during NYCALC.
And it’s in these constant conversations about environmental stewardship between the youth where the non-Native attendees such as myself can suddenly see the light.
Since Native youth are taught by the Elders about their traditions and relationships with the natural world (Mother Earth) from such an early age, talking with them about the environment is more often like talking to a 70-year-old earth scientist than a 15-year-old teen.
Not only do these kids carry what they learn from the Elders in their souls, they also learn to share the stories of their traditions and the experiences of their people verbatim. They are required by those who teach them to repeat these knowledge exchanges back to them often, ensuring that no detail is lost and no information is relayed inaccurately.
During a break in paddling the beautiful Potomac, we celebrated the river, the gathering, and each other!
(Video by Garrett Vene Klasen)
And then we formed a circle and floated away … (Video by Garrett Vene Klasen)
This brings me to our Saturday night at the NCTC, when our group was joined in the auditorium by a well-known comedian from NYC named Pete Dominic, an opener for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Pete introduced himself and then immediately admitted he’s “not Native.” He went on to tell us that in his first hour on campus, he joined the discussion of one working group and was literally rendered speechless by a polite 16-year-old girl from Montana who seriously, albeit accidentally, schooled him. How? She turned her focus from her group as they discussed the various hardships in their lives and asked him one direct question: “Will you please tell us about the challenges you face as a white man?”
Pete continued to share that after a long, awkward pause, and a weak effort to compose himself, he replied to her, “Uhhh… I face no challenges as a white man. Oh my God… I face NO challenges as a white man …”
The exchange clearly rang his bell, and he made no joke about how small and un-enlightened her question made him feel. So that night, instead of doing the stand-up routine he’d prepared for this unique audience, he pulled several chairs up onto the stage and asked that this teen from Montana and a few of the other students join him for a tough discussion about life.
And there is where some serious enlightenment took place.
Though Jon and I both thought Pete might not be able to handle the responses his questions would provoke from his panel and audience, he listened more than he spoke—and when he did chime in, his contributions were meaningful and profound. There was an especially difficult moment when one young man told about the night he and his best friend were pulled over, and his friend was shot and killed by the police—right there in the cab of his truck.
That was hard. But Pete owned it, just as these students did.
One thing is clear where Jon and these kids come from in Native America: there’s not much sugar-coating going on. When you ask a hard question in Indian Country, you’ll likely get a harder answer.
And that is why I’m most hopeful for this young, amazingly wise group of high-schoolers. They aren’t afraid to address really tough issues, and together they are learning the ways in which their bonds (along with their pursuit of higher education) will advance the causes of their people and our planet.
We need this type of fearless focus by our youth today, because when you think about their causes, the concerns of these Native American teens, you realize that they are really the causes and concerns of all people. These guys want clean air, clean water, and clean land.
So here’s my question for you:
Thanks to my partner, Mary Marshall for sharing these words.
As always, I thank you for reading.