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Youth reconnect to the earth and America

During the two-week-long Native American Camp, students learned about the history and tradition of the Ojibway and Dakota-Lakota tribes, including the importance of the buffalo by visiting Belwin Conservancy in Afton and participating in a mini pow-wow. (Bulletin photo by Amber Kispert)

A summer camp in Afton and beyond for youth ages 6 to 12 is aiming to dispel misconceptions about American Indians.

School District 833, in cooperation with the South St. Paul School District, the Indian Youth Enrichment Program and St. Paul Area Council of Churches, recently wrapped up a two-week summer program called "The Native American Camp" that taught children the values and the ways of both the Dakota-Lakota and the Ojibway people.

"The program is primarily to introduce Native American ways, values, culture, into today's lifestyle and let people know what they watched on TV is not true," said camp coordinator Donna Stein, who is a member of the Ojibway tribe. "We need to break down the prejudices between cultures, between races and let them know that Native Americans weren't naked people running through the woods yelling 'Ugh.' We're intelligent people."

During the camp, approximately 80 students learned the values of the two tribes. Activities and lessons were taught at two locations, the Valley Branch Environmental Learning Center in Afton and Prairie Island Indian Community Buffalo Project in Welch, Minn.

The children participated in a variety of activities that included various native crafts, nature hikes, plant and animal identification, a visit to Fort Snelling to learn about the history in association with American Indians and learned about the importance of the buffalo.

"Native Americans have been invisible for a long time, but we no longer want to be invisible -- let them know that we are still here and that we are still standing," Stein said. "The values of the Native Americans need to be kept alive."

One of the central focuses of the camps is the importance of the buffalo to American Indian culture, and in order to teach this to the children they visited two different buffalo ranches, one of which was the bison on the prairies at Belwin Conservancy in Afton.

At Belwin, the children learned more of the science side of the importance of buffalo, such as the ecological relationship on the prairie, and the role that bison play in working soil, spreading seeds and interacting with plant life. Students also learned about prairie plants and their uses.

At Prairie Island, the children learned the spiritual significance the buffalo hold for the Dakota-Lakota people.

One activity had the children making prayer ties and placing them on fences surrounding the buffalo, after reciting a prayer.

"It's not to push religion on the children, but to explain how the spirituality of the animal is important to Native Americans," she said. "Whatever that prayer is that you're praying for, you don't share that, that's only between you, the buffalo and God."

In addition to teaching the children about the beliefs and values of a culture that so few people know about, the camp is also helping children realize that nature is a beautiful thing and that it must be preserved and taken care of.

"We are making kids more aware of their surroundings because we need to keep these types of things alive, not everything can be chopped down and turned into concrete," Stein said. "More people need to pay attention, more people need to be more aware of, not just the Native Americans, but of nature -- we need to keep our Mother Earth going. You never know what's outside for you, you just don't know, and that's the beauty of it."

During the last meeting on June 26, all of the children came together at the American Indian Magnet School in St. Paul for a mini pow-wow and buffalo burgers.

Stein said the program has continued to be a success among the children because they enjoy learning and participating in the culture and she believes that this is the first step to dispelling prejudices against American Indians.

"If we can open their eyes in a good way, then we should do that -- the children of today are our future," she said. "I want the prejudices of old time to be wiped out and I'd like to see us join more together because we're all American, we're all Native Americans, you were born here, you're a native of America and the only way to wipe out ignorance is to ask questions."

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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