The DreamStarter® Academy Grant Program is Running Strong’s initiative to cultivate and support the next generation of Native American leaders. Every year 10 American Indian youth are awarded a combination of financial support, hands-on mentorship, networking, and communications training. Since the inception of the program, over $900,000 has been awarded. These 10 amazing individuals are focused on taking on Native American environmental justice issues, which have had a historical impact on their communities and their culture. Now, it’s time to meet your 2023 DreamStarters® and see how they plan to overcome injustices on Indigenous lands.
Cruz Collin – Solar Panel Project
Nineteen-year-old Cruz Collin is a second-generation Oglala Lakota scientist and activist who is passionate about merging Western science with Lakota science and cultural traditions to improve the quality of life for his people and combat climate change.
A longtime lover of nature, he is on a mission to build a sustainable and cost-effective solar panel – one that is more environmentally safe and affordable than any currently on the market. Even at such a young age, he has already filed two provisional patents for alternative energy systems.
Oglala people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation face adversity every day, but they are resilient and well-equipped with traditional scientific knowledge to combat environmental justices issues. Cruz is committed to demonstrating how Indigenous people will lead the world toward a sustainable future.
“Environmental justice is part of who we are naturally,” he says, “and it is what our societies strove to create. It is key to not only helping us move forward into the future, but rediscovering who we were in the past.”
Autumn Harry – Great Basin Nation Building
Autumn Harry is currently a full-time master’s student at the University of Nevada, Reno where she is writing her thesis on geography, focusing on the reclamation of Numu place names.
A Paiute and Navajo woman, she comes from a family of environmental protectors and is a dedicated community organizer, Indigenous rights and land advocate, and fisherwoman.
Her advocacy work is rooted in the profound interconnectedness of violence against the land and violence against tribal people, specifically women and girls. Resource extraction and exploitation on Indigenous land directly results in increased violence against Indigenous women.
Her Great Basin Nation Building initiative is designed to strengthen and support ongoing environmental justice issues and social justice efforts in her region, train the next generation of Native American activists and community organizers, and offer healing for tribal communities in the face of violence against Native women and their land.
“There is a huge need for strengthening and training young organizers to lead environmental justice projects,” she says, “I want our communities to feel seen and heard while we continue to demand justice for relatives who have been taken [by] violence.”
Corice Lieb – Disaster Relief Assistance
Growing up in the foster care system in Nebraska, Corice Lieb, 24, learned the importance of staying connected to one’s community. After serving in the Marine Corps, he focused on pursuing his education and finding ways to give back to the Omaha Tribe, of which he is a member.
At the University of Nebraska Omaha, Corice learned about disasters caused by climate change and man-made disasters, and he saw how drone technology is beneficial for disaster relief.
Drones enable quicker and easier assessments in the aftermath of a disaster – often going places that humans cannot go. This can alleviate the administrative burdens placed on tribes and enable them to obtain more accurate information and quickly apply for federal disaster relief funds.
Through licensing and training in drone operation and implementation, Corice is committed to sharing what he has learned with other Indigenous youth so they can tangibly strengthen the sovereignty of their own communities through better accessibility to disaster relief funds.
“We want tribes to…not be dependent on state or federal assistance when conducting preliminary damage assessments for FEMA,” he says, “Our youth need to learn about the emerging technologies that will help our Native nations.”
Anpa’o Locke – Indigenous Youth Leadership Conference
Anpa’o Locke, 24, is an Afro-Indigenous writer and filmmaker. Born and raised on the Standing Rock Nation, she witnessed the national media stifle the voices of the water protectors on Standing Rock and the lack of Afro-Indigenous representation in the media. This inspired her dedication to uplifting Native voices and concerns.
She understands the importance of protecting native lands and preserving natural resources for future generations. With her degree in Film Studies from Mount Holyoke College and her excellent storytelling and media skills, she wants to teach Indigenous youth how to leverage these same tools to create more awareness of Native American social and environmental justice issues.
The seven-day Indigenous Youth Leadership Conference will give her the platform to help other Native youth develop their own leadership skills, engage in strategic planning for their own advocacy work and campaigns, and create a network of leaders that can support each other as they undertake environmental justice community work.
“We are looking seven generations ahead,” she says, “and at this rate with climate change, we must create immediate and radical change. I see this change coming from the Indigenous youth on the frontlines of this movement.”
Sarah Powell – Three Sisters Garden
Food insecurity is a historical and generational issue facing Native tribes. Sarah Powell – at just 16 years old – is taking on this challenge in her home state of Utah.
A member of the Navajo Nation, she grew up in a family very connected to their community. When she learned that there were only 16 grocery stores on the Navajo Nation and the very real impact that poor access to food and healthy food options had on the well-being of her tribe, she was determined to do something about it.
Through the Three Sisters Garden, Sara is hoping to engage Native youth with traditional Navajo food systems and teach them how to use their cultural practices to improve food security. Students will be able to grow indigenous plants, learn traditional recipes, and have access to fresh, healthy food. She hopes that better food access and healthier food options will improve the health of her community and also reconnect the youth with their culture and the land.
She says, “I want my peers to learn about Utah’s natural resources, weather, laws, and pollutants so that we can make better choices…Through gardening and gathering food, we can learn more about our ancestors and how they survived so we can keep these practices thriving.”
Noah Proctor – Piscataway Community Garden
A member of the Piscataway Conoy tribe, Noah Proctor has understood the importance of social and environmental justice since childhood. His people were only recognized by the state of Maryland in 2012 after years of fighting for rights to their native land and natural resources.
Now, Noah is a student at Towson University studying Criminal Justice, and he is passionate about giving back to his community, a community that faces the same food insecurity issues that so many other Indigenous tribes do.
Through the Piscataway Community Garden, he hopes to reconnect Native youth with traditional Piscataway foods and growing practices, improve access to healthy foods, and promote food sovereignty.
He says, “Educating other young people about gardening, agriculture, and ecology is part of how we’ll overcome poverty because they’ll grow up understanding how we need to take care of our land so it does not deplete and continues giving us life.”
Sheniah Reed – Water Is Life Conference
Sheniah Reed is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens where she studies Wildlife Ecology, Management, and Biology. She is also an active member of the Wildlife Society, Women in Natural Recourses organization, and university groups that support Indigenous representation and education.
Sheniah has a strong passion for animal advocacy and protecting their natural environments. With the Water Is Life Conference, she will promote productive discussions around water quality, environmental protection, tribal food sovereignty and sustainability, and how to get involved in local and national environmental justice issues and efforts.
Together with the Native American Center and other departments at her university, she is creating an opportunity for non-Native people to learn about social inequity and the environmental injustices that Indigenous tribes have faced for centuries. The conference will be a safe space for Native people to reflect on these injustices and brainstorm how to fight them and increase social and environmental parity for Native Americans.
“I want to look to the future of water and how ancestral knowledge is the way forward,” she says, “Water is life. It deserves a voice and protection.”
McKalee Steen – Indigenous Youth Perspectives and Action on Landback
McKalee Steen, 25, comes from a long line of Cherokee storytellers and protectors of the environment. Raised on a rural farm in Oklahoma to a family of educators, the importance of education and environmental justice was ingrained in her.
Now, McKalee is a third-year Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley studying Environmental Sciences, Policies, and Management. She is passionate about Indigenous sovereignty and the consequences of colonization and land theft, including the resulting intergenerational trauma and institutional barriers Native youth face in pursuit of higher education.
McKalee is working to reclaim tribal lands and natural resources in the hopes of securing a better future for Native youth. This would mean increasing Indigenous representation in academia and training and supporting young Native advocates in their reclamation efforts. That is what the Indigenous Youth Perspectives and Action on Landback Conference is all about.
The first of its kind at the University of California, Berkeley. McKalee will bring Native youth together to discuss Landback efforts in their communities and give them the knowledge and resources to effectively engage in those efforts. She hopes that by partnering with the UC Berkeley Native American Studies Department on campus, she will demonstrate to the next generation that there is a space for them in higher education too.
“Reduction of Indigenous lands was near total,” she says, “This has caused real harm to the health of our people and our ecosystems by at times disrupting our connection to place. However, we are resilient people and have persistently worked to regain access, stewardship, and authority over our lands. One of the biggest successes in righting this historical and environmental injustice is the Landback movement.”
Tillie Stewart – Biawaatchaache Collective
Tillie Stewart grew up on the Crow reservation in Montana and is a member of the Big Lodge clan and a child of the Piegan clan. Currently pursuing a degree in Microbiology and Environmental Health at Montana State University, her mission is to find solutions that empower the next generation of Crow women and lessen the environmental disparities in Native American communities.
Partnering with the Bridge Foundation and 2016 DreamStarter JoRee LaFrance, she created the Biawaatchaache (Good Woman) Collective. This initiative is dedicated to strengthening the voices of young Apsáalooke women and reconnecting them with the land. It helps members learn about the connection between environment and culture, offers workshops on environmental literacy, and works to develop solutions to environmental injustice.
Tillie states that “Environmental injustices that have impacted our community have included the theft of lands and resources, Yellowtail Dam, Crow Water Settlement, U.S. v. Montana, agricultural contamination by non-tribal members, and illegal burning of dumps.
“These challenges are great but…I cannot help but ground myself in the midst of chaos and know that there is so much beauty to celebrate. Despite these challenges and the work ahead, we are seeing so many people step up in the community to address these issues that we face.”
Loren Waters – Indigenous Environmental Films and Activism
A member of the Cherokee Nation, Loren Waters grew up with a passion for storytelling and environmental activism. She received a B.A. in Environmental Studies from the University of Oklahoma and is now combining her love of filmmaking with her passion for the environment.
Her mission is to bring greater awareness to environmental justice issues and combat the underrepresentation of Native American voices. By bringing together Indigenous activists and showcasing Indigenous environmental films, she hopes to inspire her community to fight for clean water rights, demand visibility, revitalize Native culture, and tell their own stories.
One of the featured films is “ᏗᏂᏠᎯ ᎤᏪᏯ (Meet Me At The Creek)”, a documentary highlighting Cherokee elder Rebecca Jim’s fight to restore Tar Creek. About this Loren says, “The Tar Creek Superfund Site is a prime example of a large mining operation coming into Oklahoma, polluting the land, and then leaving. Now, the community is responsible for cleaning it up.”
She explains further:
Thirty years after the Tar Creek was designated for federal cleanup, its residents are still fighting for decontamination and environmental justice issues. Cherokee elders believe that what happens to water happens to us. It is our job to protect it. We must teach our children to honor water. Without it, we cannot move culture forward, and we cannot exist here.
Running Strong is proud of all our 2023 DreamStarters®. To support Native youth leaders and help build stronger, more resilient communities, please consider making a donation today.