American Indian Youth Enrichment students smudging before class.

By Rebecca Fairbanks Dickinson, American Indian Youth Enrichment Coordinator

As the coordinator for American Indian Youth Enrichment (AIYE), I have come to realize that our program offers two things. A challenge and healing. The challenge is this: we are teaching and learning indigenous traditions in the midst of assimilated communities. The healing is this: we provide a family for youth so that they may feel a sense of belonging in their cultural identity and be supported to succeed in school. We saw an example of this cultural learning this summer. A 6th grade student, who we’ll call “Jake”, made important social and cultural gains.

At the start of summer, our staff had concerns about his behavior. He was teasing other kids and he would leave the group when we gathered to smudge with sage. At the time, he was switching from foster care to living with his grandmother, which also meant switching schools. She called me one day and said that Jake was enjoying the program, but felt awkward about smudging. She said their family isn’t traditional and doesn’t want Jake to practice smudging if he’s uncomfortable. So I pulled Jake aside the next morning just to tell him that as long as he lets staff know, he always has a choice in participating. He agreed. To provide more insight for him and the group, our lead cultural teacher, Mr. D, reviewed how and why Native people smudge with sacred medicines. I suspect that he was self-conscious about being one of the older students in the group but never having been taught how to smudge and wasn’t sure if his family would want him to smudge. He didn’t want to look foolish. This is an example of daily assimilated life for an American Indian young man.

By the end of the summer, we noticed that Jake was not only joining in the circle for smudge, but was engaging in the practice alongside his new friends. Jake’s pre-survey to post-survey scores all consistently increased in each category of self-efficacy, academic engagement, and cultural connections. Staff told me he sits by the friends he made this summer at the lunch table. His teachers have noticed him keeping up academically so far this fall.

I believe that our program makes it easier for students to find acceptance in their cultural community despite the trauma, assimilation, or isolation they might have faced. We provide a safe space for indigenous youth who may come from families that don’t feel connected to their indigenous culture and teach the meanings behind our cultural practices. Even if they didn’t grow up on reservations or in tribal communities, they come join our program to learn.

Families have both strength and pain in our St. Paul American Indian community. There are some students who carry so much anger, but who consistently show up to our program because they trust us. We may ask them to sit, and they walk away. We ask them to join a circle, and they pick a spot in the corner of the room, apart from the group. These are signs of pain, signs that they are not comfortable with something. We recognize that pain, and we can also see the beauty in their hearts and spirits. Our ancestors survived so that we could live. Our families and students have much more potential than what the deficits and disparities can produce.

We bring together youth from ages 6 to 13, their families, and indigenous staff from the age of 20 to their 60s to reach our potential. We unite across geographical backgrounds. We come from over 30 different tribal nations. Though we are challenged by oppression or circumstances brought on by poverty, the loyalty we build is strong because we are there for each other. We have accepted the challenge and we show up each day to provide healing. I have heard and believe that kinship is the heart, the very center of being indigenous. It is with this belief that we teach our youth that we are all related; in Lakhota – mitakuye oyasin.

To learn more about the American Indian Youth Enrichment program, please contact:

Rebecca Fairbanks Dickinson
American Indian Youth Enrichment Coordinator, Department of Indian Work