Former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, founder of the Center for Native American Youth within the Aspen Institute, was prepared for some penetrating questions from Native American students about their future prospects and challenges in the local community.
He got some of that, but he also fielded a lot of questions about sports figures and others: “Have you met Justin Bieber?” asked one student. He said he hadn’t, but listed a number of prominent performers he had met, including the Black Eyed Peas, a group he said is one of his favorites.
Dorgan, former chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, used humor and personal experiences to connect with Native American students in middle and high school at the Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS), a top-rated school that this year became an Indian focus school offering a Native language and culture program.
He said the center was founded using $1 million in leftover campaign funds to bring greater national attention to the issues facing Native American youth, with emphasis on youth suicide prevention, substance abuse, education and other areas.
Dorgan’s meeting August 24 with the DCIS students wasn’t all about sports and pop music, of course, and his open-ended questions elicited some frank observations, like the one from a sixth grade student who said he doesn’t like “seeing other people like me on the streets begging for money.”
Another student said she and other Natives were sometimes called “rednecks” simply because they are Indian, not because of political or social characteristics. Moving from the negative to a more upbeat topic, students, encouraged to share their talents, passed around photos of champion powwow dancing and talked about singing, creative writing and others activities they enjoyed.
After one of the students talked about a difficult transition from reservation schools to Denver, Dorgan was asked about his own school days.
He recalled his Regent High School class of nine students, but pointed out that despite attending a small, rural school in Regent, North Dakota—population 250—he had become a U.S. senator and later an author.
Dorgan said he was meeting with youth to find out what their challenges are, but he stressed that they can accomplish what they want, citing the inspirational stories of his 91-year-old uncle who competes as a champion runner and a former janitor who obtained a degree from the college where she had cleaned floors.
What it takes, he said, are students who want to learn, teachers who know how to teach, and a supportive family. If those three components are present success will occur, but if one of them is missing, there are problems.
Dorgan said it is important to find opportunities in education that offer students the likelihood of having well-paid jobs later that can guard against problems of poverty and related social ills that exist in many Indian communities, both on the reservation and in cities.
“It’s all going to start with how educated are you. What kind of life can you have if you get the right education?” he asked the students, who represented many tribal backgrounds and whose aspirations ranged from being a roller-coaster engineer to becoming a translator.
The U.S. has shortchanged Native students, despite guarantees of education in many treaties, said Dorgan, who was given the tribal name Cante un Wiyukcan—Thinks with His Heart—by the Standing Rock Sioux.