Billy Mills, Oglala Lakota (Sioux) is Running Strong’s National Spokesperson. An Olympic gold medalist at the 1964 Olympics, Billy has dedicated his life to serving Native American communities.

In Uncertain Times, Native American Communities Overcome Together

In these times of a worldwide coronavirus pandemic, and despite the serious challenges facing our partners throughout Indian Country, and the Native American children, families and elders they serve, they are — as they always have — persevering.

At Running Strong for American Indian Youth we are continuing to strive to meet their needs, and throughout this crisis, we remain dedicated and committed to our mission of assisting them in any, and every, way we can in the knowledge that together we will all get through this.

And what gives us the most faith is the hopeful words we hear from our partners on practically a daily basis as to how they are soldiering on to maintain as much of a sense of normalcy in a time when nothing is “normal” anymore.

Among them is 2016 Dreamstarter Jenna Smith (Osage) of Skiatook, Oklahoma, who realized her dream to bring the art of ballet into the Osage school system, with a focus on her tribe’s cultural knowledge.

This spring, Jenna’s dream is continuing through her Dance Maker Academy on the Osage Reservation in Pawhuska, OK. As her students were in the midst of working so hard preparing for their spring performance, they learned that schools would be closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“We didn’t want them to have to suffer loss because they were staying home,” Jenna told us. “The performance was to be their reward for a year of hard work.”

Working with the director of dance, they began live online classes for the students.

“I can’t begin to tell you the feeling of joy that I could feel when they joined class on that first day! They were so happy to be ‘together’ again, even though it was via the internet.”

And the best news of all in these troubled times?

“Our students are still working hard to prepare for their performance,” says Jenna. “We don’t know when it will be, but we promised them that they will be able to perform their pieces as soon as we can begin meeting again!”

In Sapulpa, Oklahoma, our longtime partner, Halay Turning Heart, program director of the Yuchi Language Project, reported that while classes and offices have been closed for weeks, “we continue speaking and learning the Yuchi language because it is vital to who we are.

“Our language revitalization work has always been 24/7 and the COVID-19 pandemic has only clarified the importance of retaining our Indigenous languages, cultures and ecosystems,” she told us. “In these challenging times, we see that the Yuchi language is a source of wellness and healing for our community.”

With classrooms closed, the Yuchi Language Project is using modern technology to continue its mission by implementing distance learning options to hold virtual classes, listening to old Yuchi recordings online, making total physical response language videos, language quizzes, online flash cards, and audiobooks.

Halay had this message of hope and gratitude she wanted to share with the supporters of Running Strong:

“Our prayers are with all of the Indigenous families affected by COVID-19, especially those dealing with increased financial stress, health issues, and domestic violence.

“Our elders taught us that our Indigenous languages contain the wisdom and knowledge we need to address any problems we face in this world.

The elders have brought the Yuchi language this far and we are doing our part, with the help of Running Strong for American Indian Youth, to carry it into the future.

“Ôk’ajU TahAê Ôk’âfA (Together, we carry on!)

On the big island of Hawaii, Amoo Ching Kainoa, mentor of 2020 Dreamstarter Clyson Igarashi-Marquez explained that with schools closed Clyson has had the time to hike and gather native plants for his Dreamstarter project.

It has also given time for Amoo to work with Clyson on the land where he will be planting his native plants, as well as with other youth of Clyson’s mentor organization, Kohala Unupa’a.

“I just say my prayers to keep us all healthy,” says Amoo. “We hang out, play board games or go hiking and walk to the shoreline below our homestead. We are BLESSED.”

2017 Dreamstarter Riel LaPlant (Blackfeet) of Olympia, Washington, had a dream to nurture urban Native resiliency and identity by creating a space for Native students to share the stories and create art.

Today, Riel is a biology and health teacher who feels it was, and still is, “my duty to help students understand the mechanics, impact and potential solutions to situations like the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is my hope that when quarantine ends that people, communities and cities will not return to harmful environmental practices, that clean air and water created by peoples’ absence will inspire them to create infrastructure that helps them live harmoniously with their local ecosystems.

“Ideally, I wish when this was all over I could take my students on a big bus and bring them on a long remote hike through the Olympic National Forest. I’d want them to feel the sensation of freedom, fresh air, and community, which has likely been deprived from them for weeks.”

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