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White Earth elders offer some advice for students, teachers

White Earth elders are concerned for the children of this generation, and they have a few bits of advice for them -- get an education, take pride in yourself and know your heritage.

A few members of the White Earth Council of Elders sat down with Joe Carrier, Indian Education coordinator for Detroit Lakes Public Schools, and shared ideas they want to instill in youth, and what teachers can do to help with that.

"Continue to listen. It's not being passed down. No one wants to take on that responsibility," Lucille Silk said of one's heritage. "Know who your people are, who you're connected to."

She said that many youth are ashamed of the negative stories that surround their families and may not know any of the good.

"There's pride in families that kids need to know."

Rick Larson, a pipe carrier who goes into the schools and works with students, said he sees the loss of family roots, too. When he speaks in schools, he always asks, "Do you know your heritage?" He said maybe two out of 10 know.

Silk said kids need to do the work researching and learn where they come from, not just have someone else do the research for them.

Larson said he also sees that Native American students don't speak up as much in class.

Silk suggested that there should be smaller groups so native students get more one-on-one attention and feel more confident.

Elder Muriel Alvarez said that teachers should know that just because someone doesn't speak up doesn't mean they are dumb.

Carrier met with the Council of Elders to cap off National Native American Heritage Month. Other activities in November included a powwow, hoop dancer Dennis Rogers and other activities.

"I'd like to utilize the Council of Elders to integrate culture into curriculum," Carrier said.

Get an education

"I just want kids to know, 'you have to finish school,'" Alvarez said.

She said when she was in high school, her class took a field trip to the Swift turkey plant in Detroit Lakes and it was a real eye-opener for her. Rather than the thought of having that type of job for life, she wanted to finish school and get an education.

"Have them visit the jails -- that's a big deterrent," she said of a field trip for today's youth.

Silk said she graduated from Waubun High School and there was so much prejudice there. There were five native kids in her class that stuck together and encouraged each other finish school. They all graduated.

"I worry about our kids. I don't want to see them working for minimum wage," she said.

Many people have to leave the reservation to get a post-secondary education and good-paying job, the elders said, but many return to the reservation when they retire.

What can teachers do

Carrier asked the elders what message or advice he should give to the teachers of these students.

"Praise them for who they are and what they're learning," Leonard Wells said.

So many native students are put down, he said. His grandpa taught him pride and respect -- pride in himself and respect for everyone.

Elder Leonard Norcross said pride and tolerance are two important ideals to be instilled in native kids.

"Everybody should tolerate each other," he said. "Kids grow up too fast. It's important to be a kid as long as possible," he added.

Larson said that quality time spent with a kid is important.

Through the schools, Carrier said that he's seen an increase in Native American children in foster care. There have always been students living with grandparents or other relatives, but many children are with foster families now.

Not only is that not good, Silk said, it's tiring on grandparents to have to raise more children as well.

The elders expressed concern for the increasing involvement in hard drugs and gangs also.

If youth had more pride, they wouldn't be as susceptible to drugs and gangs, the elders all agreed.

Council of Elders

The mission of the White Earth Council of Elders is to "keep our people well," Silk said. That means not only in physical health but also spiritual health.

The group is politically involved, and they are a part of the White Earth Tribal Council's agenda for quarterly updates on what the elders council is doing.

They also work with veteran affairs and help put people who have questions in contact with sources that will help them answer those questions.

They meet the first Monday of each month. The location rotates around the reservation so that people who can't travel have an opportunity to make the meetings when they are in their town.

The next meeting is Dec. 3 at Elbow Lake.

The council has been in existence for more than 20 years, but as of five years ago, they are no longer affiliated with the national organization. They are a non-profit entity, and raise funds through raffles, bake sales and Bingo.

Elders must be 55 or older to join, and they are always looking for new members.

The Council of Elders is very active with Wisdom Steps, a statewide program started in 1999 to encourage elders to participate in activities that build their health. It is in partnership among American Indian communities and the Minnesota Board on Aging.

While the Council of Elders may concentrate on keeping the older generation healthy, it doesn't mean they aren't supportive and concerned for the younger generations. Carrier said it's good to get the message out to the students that "we have elders that care."

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.