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Native American Youth Leadership Academy kicks off its third year

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The 2016 Native American Youth Leadership Academy (NAYLA) kicked off its third consecutive year Oct. 13 at the Puyallup Tribe’s Little Wild Wolves Youth and Community Center. Attracting between 100-150 students from 18 area school districts, NAYLA’s primary objective is to bring Native American students together to learn leadership skills and to draw strength from the gift of being Native people.
There will be four day-long Academies held during the 2016/2017 school year, and an exciting new development for this third year is a two-day youth conference in March that the NAYLA students will plan and execute. The conference will be open to all students, and 200-plus are anticipated to be there. More information on this conference will be available in the coming months.
NAYLA day one this year was all about the students getting to know one another, building relationships and trust with each other. Afternoon activities involved the students working in teams so it was important that they felt comfortable in their space.
“We’ve got lots of new faces that I don’t recognize,” said Mary Wilber, Native American Education Director at Lake Washington High School and chair of the Western Washington Native American Education Consortium. A key organizer of NAYLA, Mary Wilber has been there from the start. “It’s pretty incredible to watch,” she said of the students meeting one another. “When they first come they’re all sitting in their groups and by this afternoon they’ll be smiling and getting to know other kids.”
All kinds of activities were planned for the day, with the students having a strong voice in deciding what would be on the NAYLA agendas throughout its run.
“We will pool the students and find out the direction they would like to go this year,” Mary Wilber said.
In between the scheduled Academy dates, the students are given “homework” – duties and responsibilities to take back to their school districts and replicate what they learned.
“That’s what they’re supposed to do – give back to their community, their Title VII program, their tribes – putting those leadership skills they learned here to work in their communities and that helps them become more involved,” Mary Wilber said. “They’re not just coming here for a one-time deal.”
Tommy Segundo is the Native American Education Program Liaison for the Renton School District. He too has been part of NAYLA from the start and said he is looking forward to another NAYLA experience this year.
“Every year it has built upon the previous year so we’re looking to building on a good year from last year,” he said, noting that this year there will be an emphasized focus on higher education and career planning.
“That’s something that’s very important for our people because our numbers are so low in colleges so we want to push that more this year,” he said. “That’s something that I am very big on – higher education – and letting them know they can do it and that we can help them get there. I know that all they need is a little extra support.”
As Tommy Segundo is Haida from Southeast Alaska, he sang a Haida friendship song to welcome the students and showed them the gesture for “thank you” – raising the hands – and he asked the students to do this while he sang.
Sara Michelle Ortiz, Native Education Program Manager at the Highline School District, said to the students: “A big part of this experience is just being together and as present as possible no matter where you’re from or what tribal nation you are, no matter what city you grow up in, which neighborhood you live in right now…. The fact that we all come here together in this shared space is about empowering each other and being strong for one another.”
She and Academy facilitator and educator Arlie Neskahi acknowledged that some of the students may be completely unfamiliar with their Native heritage, and that’s okay.
“Whatever you’re coming with, all the knowledge you have is beautiful and powerful. You are Native and you should be proud in that fact. We’re stronger together,” said Sara Michelle Ortiz.
“Some of you may have grown up in situations that were very chaotic and the people around you may not have been able to share this knowledge with you,” Arlie Neskahi said. “Some of you may have even grown up in homes as foster or adopted children – some even come from families who for generations denied their ancestral heritage and that comes from the oppression that happened to our people and from the United States to leave all the behind.” He reminded the students that gathering together feeds the soul as much as the mind, and that every student there had a lot to offer to their peers and community.
After North Kitsap students sang the Chief Dan George Prayer Song to welcome the students, all the youth gathered for some fun ice-breakers then discussed a series of questions including what they hoped to get from NAYLA and what the students would contribute. At the end of the day students completed this sentence: “Today you were AWESOME because…” and gave each other “validations” – writing down what one student appreciated about another and handing it to that student. These are precious to each student that received them. “I’ve never seen one left behind,” Mary Wilber said. “They take it home.”
She gave sincere thanks to the Puyallup Tribe for allowing NAYLA to take place at the Youth Center on the Tribe’s reservation.
“We’re always grateful to the Puyallup Tribe because they allow us to use this facility free of charge. It’s nice to be able to come to a place of this caliber, with a kitchen and a gym… The space is very, very nice.”
The following school districts are participating in NAYLA this year: White River, Puyallup, Fife, Bellevue, North Shore, Lake Washington, Renton, Seattle, Highline, North Kitsap, Suquamish, Federal Way, Auburn, Edmonds, Bethel, Kent, Tacoma and Puget Sound ESD.

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