A member of the Hopi Nation, Stephanie Autumn directs EDC’s Tribal Youth Program, which seeks to prevent delinquency and improve juvenile justice systems for American Indian and Alaska Native youth. She and a colleague recently traveled to the Red Cliff Reservation in Wisconsin, home of the Red Cliff band of the Ojibwe tribe, for a site visit.
“The Red Cliff Reservation was out in the middle of nowhere—rural, isolated, but absolutely beautiful—on the shore of Lake Superior. Trees were turning color; it almost looks like New England, with lots of agriculture, apple orchards, and fields.
Across the way is Madeline Island, a very spiritual place for the Red Cliff Nation. It’s sacred for the Ojibwe people as one of the original places where their spiritual ceremonies were held. Several times a year, tribal members come from all over—Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota.
We were taken there so we could better understand the significance of the island to the Ojibwe people at Red Cliff. That’s what makes our work different—we try to understand how the people connect to the land culturally and historically so we can better understand the community.
American Indian and Alaska Native communities have a special style of coming together. Before any visit, you can ask, ‘What should I be doing?’ ‘What is going to work?’ In meetings, you need to be respectful and pay attention to whatever the protocols are for that community—for example, having an elder present.
Any meeting needs to have a traditional opening piece, taking time to learn who’s at the table and why. Non-natives sometimes have difficulty at trainings when participants take longer to share these things. In Indian Country you have to listen—especially to elders—or people won’t participate. It’s important to sit or work not in rows, but in a circle, with the idea that everyone has an equal voice and is included.
I left there feeling that yes, it was work, but it was a blessing.
You also need to resist being too direct. That won’t be successful. Before you roll up your sleeves, you need to talk first, at the pace that the community dictates. You need to be flexible—go with the flow, even if it’s not how you would naturally do things. It’s really all about building relationships.
I have worked extensively with tribal youth programs. In the past two years, our EDC team has created a program that is proving very effective. We hired people who are from Indian Country, who know the community, know their programs, and can work effectively.
Indian Country has never had that kind of culturally based technical assistance before. Assistance used to be waved at them from across the room: ‘Here are some materials!’ That didn’t work. Now we have a real person to help, on the phone or over e-mail, with a site visit or two. We assist with planning, implementation, sustainability, and evaluation, alcohol and drug prevention, court-involved youth, and access to mental health services.
I love doing this work. It gives me a better understanding of my people’s needs. A big issue in Indian Country is lack of resources. I’m glad to help be the bridge between the tribal grantees and the federal government, bringing them closer together and helping to open the floodgates to get culturally competent and economically feasible resources to the tribes.
American Indian people embrace the philosophy that we are all related to each other and to every living thing, with equal responsibility to care take of the Earth and future generations. I’ve worked in Indian Country for a long time. I was at Wounded Knee when I was 17, and it changed my life.
With the Red Cliff visit, we took away more than we brought. I’ve wanted to go to Madeline Island my whole life, and the deep sharing of tribal information, tribal history, and spiritual stories was incredible. It was clearly important to them that we understand the history of the people and the place. I left there feeling that yes, it was work, but it was a blessing. Through my job, I found myself in this truly special place. It was really a moving experience for me.”
Originally published on January 29, 2010