Billy Mills implored them to “follow their dreams”, and by the end of the 2023 Dreamstarter Academy, they are better able to!
The cohort of 2023 Running Strong for American Indian Youth® Dreamstarters and their mentors converged in Alexandria, Virginia (where Running Strong headquarters are located) from across the country to participate in the Dreamstarter Academy held March 29 – April 2.
This year’s Dreamstarters are: Cruz Collin Oglala Lakota), 19, of Florence, Alabama; Autumn Harry (Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe), 30, of Nixon, Nevada; Corice Lieb (Omaha Tribe), 23, of Omaha, Nebraska; Anpa’o Locke (Standing Rock Sioux), 24, of Albuquerque, New Mexico; Sara Powell (Navajo Nation) 16, of Springville, Utah; Noah Proctor (Piscataway Conoy Tribe), 22, of Clinton, Maryland; Sheniah Reed (Oneida), 21, of Greenfield, Wisconsin; McKalee Steen (Cherokee Nation), 25, of Oakland, California; Tillie Stewart (Crow Nation), 25, of Bozeman, Montana; and Loren Waters (Cherokee Nation), 27, of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
All ten 2023 Dreamstarters are sharing their vision of “Environmental Justice” for their tribal communities and during the next 12 months will be using their $20,000 Dreamstarter grant to make their dream a reality.
The Dreamstarters and their mentors began arriving on Wednesday, March 29, at local airports where they were met by Running Strong staff who transported them to the hotel where they would be staying for the next four days and getting to know each other and sharing their dreams.
The Dreamstarter Academy formally began the next morning with remarks by 2022 Dreamstarter Kyle Swann (Piscataway Conoy Tribe), now a member of the Running Strong staff, who welcomed the nine Dreamstarters and mentors in attendance (Autumn Harry was unable to attend) and spoke briefly on land acknowledgments for indigenous peoples.
“It took a lot for all of us to be here today,” said Kyle, adding that they all have “sacrificed in so many ways…with history against us.
“We are all trying to find a true connection – not just to ourselves, but to our people.”
Referring to his own Dreamstarter project for his tribal community, Kyle said that together “last year we made a lot of progress.
“I just wanted to say, ‘thank you’ and I acknowledge all of you.”
Then longtime Running Strong board member Loretta Afraid of Bear Cook (Oglala Lakota) gave a prayer and blessing in her Lakota language while her husband, Tom Kanatakeniate Cook (Mohawk), a former field coordinator and longtime Running Strong partner, performed a welcome song and drum as Yvette Running Horse Collin performed the smudging using an abalone shell and burning sage.
Following the ceremony, Running Strong executive director Sydney Mills Farhang officially welcomed the Dreamstarters and mentors. Sydney noted how the Dreamstarter program has grown since it first began as a five-year pilot project on October 14, 2014, on the 50th anniversary of Running Strong co-founder Billy Mills’ historic gold medal win in the 10,000-meter race at the Tokyo Olympics to commemorate his remarkable achievement.
“We’re excited to have you part of the growing Dreamstarter community and impacting communities on a large scale,” said Sydney, adding that since its initiation the Dreamstarter program “has become such an integral part of Running Strong. You’re Dreamstarter family now!”
Over the course of the first day, the Dreamstarters and mentors participated in two workshop sessions on communication and grant management. Then they began the next rewarding day with trainings, video production and a presentation by Loretta and Yvette on indigenous science.
And of course, the Dreamstarter Academy was not “all work and no play” and as for some, if not most, it was their first visit to the Washington, DC, region, they were given the afternoon off to visit the nation’s capital including the sights at the National Mall (during cherry blossom time at the tidal basin) and the Smithsonian’s National Museum for the American Indian.
Sunday was particularly important, as the Dreamstarters each met with Billy Mills. The Dreamstarters conducted film interviews with Billy during which they explained their Dreamstarter projects and received encouragement from Billy to pursue their dreams and realize their dreams just as he did when he won his gold medal – the realization of a childhood dream as an orphan on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
That evening, the closing ceremony featured renowned drum group, the Zotigh Singers, during a reception where attendees had the opportunity meet and greet with the Dreamstarters and Billy.
Sydney noted that in the past eight years, through the Dreamstarter initiative Running Strong has invested $1.5 million in Native youth and their communities through all of the Dreamstarter programs, including Dreamstarter Teachers, Dreamstarter Creatives, Dreamstarter GOLD ($50,000 for exceptional former Dreamstarters programs) and most recently Dreamstarter Incubator to help Native entrepreneurs help take their small businesses to the next level.
“We’re seeing incredible ripple effects,” said Sydney.
Among the featured speakers at the closing ceremony was Eileen Quintana, program manager of the Nebo, Utah, Title VI Indian Education program in Spanish Fork, who has mentored five Dreamstarters, including 2023 Dreamstarter Sara Powell, and is also a Dreamstarter Teacher.
“I have a philosophy I learned from my mother,” Eileen told the crowd. “’You are not an ordinary person. You are holy. You are sacred. You are a five-fingered being.’”
Eileen cited that research through the “Reclaiming Native Truth” project to dispel America’s myths and misconceptions conducted by the First Nations Development Institute concluded something that Native Americans have known for generations: “the invisibility of Native peoples is persuasive and entrenched.”
But through the Title VI program – and with the financial support from Running Strong Dreamstarter grant funding – Eileen can expand programming for her Indian Education program to include establishing Native American clubs for junior high and high school students at all the schools in the school district, which serves nearly 500 self-identified Native students.
Eileen had been understandably disturbed to learn that in 1998 the school district’s Native American graduate rate was just 37 percent – “that meant that 63 percent of American Indians were dropping out” which compelled her to go to the school board and, as a strong Navajo woman, ask board members “What the hell is going on?”
Today, the graduation rate of Native students is increasing in large part to the Title VI program, “our tiny little program,” as Eileen describes it, in the knowledge they know they have the students’ back.
“We’re making warrior leaders,” says Eileen. “True empowered leaders.”
Following Eileen’s remarks and presentation, the nine Dreamstarters in attendance introduced themselves and participated in a brief panel discussion with each one describing their dream.
For example, Anpa’o explained that her dream is not to tell other people’s stories, her goal is to empower others to speak “in their own voice.
“It’s how we’ve been able to preserve our identity.”
Billy addressed the group telling the Dreamstarters how inspiring they are to him saying, “listening to you share your dreams took me back.”
He also recognized Paul Krizek, a son of the late Running Strong co-founder Gene Krizek, who was in attendance, and recounted his first interaction with Gene who had called Billy out of the blue (shortly after watching the film “Running Brave” based on Billy’s life) to explain his dream of starting a charity to benefit Native Americans on Billy’s home reservation of Pine Ridge, as well as throughout Indian Country.
“I think we can work together,” Gene told Billy, with the result being the founding of Running Strong for American Indian Youth®.
Nearly 40 years later since their first meeting, Billy told Paul: “When I hear the drum, I think of your father.”
And that evening, Billy spoke of the hope that he sees for the future of Native Americans through tribal young people today such as Running Strong Dreamstarters.
“America needs the thoughts and minds of our Dreamstarters.
“I’m humbled. I’m honored to be with our Dreamstarters.”