Just past a hall featuring planets, space stations, and interstellar scenes, some 50 Native students listen as a young man from the Diné nation harks back to traditional values as he urges them to get an education for the 21st century.
He spoke at Native American Science Career Day April 15, an annual event presented by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s Department of Anthropology and Native American Resource Group for elementary and middle school students in the Indian Education Program of Denver and Jefferson County public schools.
It wasn’t all nose-to-the-grindstone advice—students also got to view the Real Pirates exhibit, enjoy a special planetarium program with a Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS) scientist, and catch T-shirts Becenti tossed to lucky audience members.
But Becenti’s remarks to the students included eternal verities dear to the hearts of parents and grandparents everywhere: To start getting to college, show up at your grade or middle school but also participate, ask questions, stay involved, challenge yourself, take care of yourself and, above all, never give up.
“American Indians may not often be considered as confident, smart and achieving” but instead are subjected to less-flattering stereotypes, he said, though the stereotypes can be challenged through achieving an education and developing self-worth.
“Native people are the most resilient people on this planet,” he said, pointing out that tribes are still here even though “the country was about to extinguish everybody.” He told the Navajo, Lakota, Arapaho, Cherokee, Ute and other students present, “You are all my brothers and sisters here.”
Educational effort is “done in memory of our ancestors,” “to preserve a rich culture, and “to protect sovereignty,” he said, urging students to “play your role to contribute back to your community.”
Balance and harmony constitute a Native philosophy, he said, and “If you treat your body right, it will treat you right.”
He urged students to embrace change, to create short- and long-term goals, to live life with a purpose, to use curiosity to reach for answers, to persevere, “but have fun, be happy.”
“The difference between a wise and a foolish man is his response to what he already knows,” Becenti quoted, noting that students already know education is important. “To change, you must take action.”
After his presentation, Becenti estimated that University of Colorado enrollment of Native students increased 10 to 15 percent in 2008-2009, the latest year for which figures are available, despite hurdles that include a lack of encouragement, resources and role models.
Crow Medina, Mescalero Apache, recently named director of Indian education for Jefferson County, brought some 30 students to the event and said she wanted them to take away not only an interest in attending college, but an interest in science.