Native American event aims to bridge gaps

Kids tackle issues like racism, wealth disparity at youth summit

Posted 9/17/18

Elizabeth Osterhoudt, a Native American teenager from Castle Rock, said aside from her brother, she knows one other youth with Native American heritage. That's her friend Delia Abila, also a Castle …

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Native American event aims to bridge gaps

Kids tackle issues like racism, wealth disparity at youth summit

Posted

Elizabeth Osterhoudt, a Native American teenager from Castle Rock, said aside from her brother, she knows one other youth with Native American heritage.

That's her friend Delia Abila, also a Castle Rock resident.

Both girls say they see little diversity in their school and community and face racism at the local level.

For Abila, 15, it's happened when people made assumptions about her race or ethnicity, and then insulted it.

Osterhoudt, 16, has been told she gave someone “an angry Indian face,” has been asked to “speak Indian” and has been asked “how much” Native American she is.

These experiences can feel isolating, they said. So on Sept. 7 they went to the Cherokee Ranch & Castle in Sedalia for a chance to talk about those experiences, they said.

Native American youths, some from the Denver metro area, some from out-of-state, and Douglas County teens, about 35 in total, recently came together for a summit held at the Cherokee Ranch & Castle, where issues like racism, wealth disparity and education took center stage.

Lori Ventimiglia, a spokeswoman for The Tipi Raisers, a nonprofit working to support Native American people, said they hoped to build trust “across tribes, across native and non-native lines.”

The 2018 Youth Summit was the culmination of several events Cherokee Ranch has hosted in partnership with The Tipi Raisers, all aimed at raising awareness for Native American issues and bringing people together. It's meant to be the first of many, Ventimiglia said.

Cherokee Ranch's Executive Director James Holmes said the organization started working on the project three years ago when he met The Tipi Raisers' executive director and Lori's husband, Dave Ventimiglia, through a mutual friend. The Tipi Raisers work largely with the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Holmes said they wanted to recognize that despite Douglas County being one of the nation's wealthiest communities, and Pine Ridge being one of the poorest, “the kids have issues in common.”

Racism, he said, wasn't planned to be the summit's focus but came to the forefront of conversation as teens from places like Castle Rock, Arvada and Pine Ridge discussed their daily lives.

Organizers planned several activities of the three-day summit asking kids to discuss issues they shared and issues they may be able to learn more about from one another. Non-native students attended as well.

Jo'ella Red Willow, 19, traveled from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as an ambassador for The Tipi Raisers. She shared her personal struggles with unemployment, how “there's not much job opportunity at all” on the reservation.

Rhyia JoyHeart, 20, came from her home in Arvada and spoke of Native Americans' struggling with substance abuse. Her mother was a cocaine addict. Her father was a meth addict. True to native tradition, she said, she uses laughter and humor as medicine.

And Apollo Casias, 18, came from Gallup, New Mexico, saying he learned non-native individuals care more than he expected about native issues.

“I used to think it didn't matter to them,” he said, “but it does.”

During a panel discussion led by Colorado State University's Native American Cultural Center, it wasn't long before someone — Castle Rock parent Kara Boyd — asked how the university planned to address the widely publicized incident from April, when a parent called police on two Native American boys touring the school.

NACC leaders said they increased cultural sensitivity training for tour ambassadors on campus and formed a task force to evaluate how similar situations can be avoided in the future.

Douglas County teens said the CSU incident is one example of racism Native Americans face at an institutional level and at the local level.

Boyd has a son attending CSU. She's also organized clothing and food drives for Pine Ridge and echoed Abila and Osterhoudt, saying she's heard racist comments directed toward Native Americans.

Despite discussing potentially divisive topics, Holmes said he was impressed with how youths handled subjects throughout the summit.

“They had mutual respect in the conversations,” he said. “They had dialogue, and not conflict. Built real bonds.”

Osterhoudt ended the summit by attending a powwow on its final day at the Johnson Dairy Farm, located along U.S. Highway 85 near Sedalia. The experience, she said, helped her meet and form relationships with other native youths.

Holmes said he was pleasantly surprised to hear that feedback from local youths.

“It allows those kids who are in a minority group in their community to connect with people,” Holmes said. “And instill a sense of pride in their culture.”

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