Committed to changing lives, a generation of Native American youth steps up

July 5, 2011

Offering Native American youth opportunities "that help change lives" and keeping them safe are among the ambitious goals Brandon Martinez has set as the new director of the Hózhóní Youth Center in Holbrook, Arizona.

At 20, he is the first Native American hired to oversee the center, and the first Native youth to be hired in a full-time role in the Diocese of Arizona – achievements he takes seriously but also holds lightly.

"What I hope to accomplish is to draw more kids into this program and expand our faith to help change lives," Martinez said in a recent Facebook message to ENS. "I also want to show younger kids which path to follow, instead of getting dragged into negative lifestyles."

Martinez is among a growing number of Native American youth "exciting to watch" throughout the Episcopal Church because they are very focused on leadership and on "making an impact and helping the next generation," said Sarah Eagle Heart, missioner for Native American ministries. "It's really quite amazing for me right now to see so many young adults taking responsibility in this way."

In many cases, the tough realities of reservation life have prepared them "to be called into youth ministry. They want to help the next generation. They want to shield the next generation … they are the emerging leaders of the Episcopal Church," Eagle Heart said.

Hózhóní Youth Center

The word Hózhóní, from Navajo, means 'together we walk in beauty'. The center, which offers homework help, computers, mentoring and other after-school activities to youth aged 12-18, grew out of the Spirit Journey Youth ministry begun by Kaze Gadway about 11 years ago.

"I am so excited about this," Gadway, 70, said about Martinez' appointment, during a recent telephone interview from the center. "The center is unique in that it's youth helping the youth, Native American youth helping Native American youth."

The drop-in center is located in the town of Holbrook, which has a population of about 5,000, located about 226 miles northeast of Phoenix in Arizona's high plateau country, near the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

Spirit Journey Youth (SJY) members Katy Yazee and Jeremy Blackwater say the center gave them not only hope, but also a vision of future possibilities.

"It is really unbelievable that Brandon has been hired," Yazee wrote in a recent Facebook message to ENS. "It makes us proud. Most of us Natives have jobs that pay us under the table or minimum wage.

"Brandon is the first of the Spirit Journey Youth to have a professional job," added Yazee, 22, an accounting student and the mother of two young children, who joined SJY at 16 and still volunteers at the center. "The next accomplishment will be a safe house for youth, either in Holbrook or (nearby) Winslow," she said.

"It is a great sign for all of us that a 20-year-old could get a job in the church giving back to the community. When we can hire Natives in the church, it makes a difference in how people look at us. I think that all of us who have come from poverty and violence in our homes have a hard time believing that the church would have our backs, but we have gotten a lot of support from different Episcopal churches for our programs," she added.

Until Martinez became director in June, founding the center "was the biggest thing that ever happened to us," said Jeremy Blackwater, 18. "For once, we were giving back to the community rather than being the charity cases."

Now, "Brandon is the first one of us who is hired on a salary," Blackwater said in a recent Facebook message to ENS. "We can relate to that. We all want the same respect that brings.

"Brandon is a good choice for director," he added. "He is hard working and gentle with the youth of Holbrook. Our next step is to get a full-time Native American youth minister to be the minister to the Spirit Journey Youth.

Yazee agreed. "Several of us want to get a college education and learn to be youth ministers. Brandon is the first (center director) … people in the church maybe don't realize how important it is to see those of us who are not old to be paid to serve in the church. It gives us respect from our family and friends who don't think much of the church."

Tyson White, 24, helped create a nine-week "culture camp" this summer on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation as a combination leadership training and cultural preservation program.

"It's a kind of history lesson, showing kids how … to relive what some of our ancestors did," said White during a recent telephone conversation from Eagle Butte, South Dakota. "It'll include everything from digging turnips to talking about agriculture, food, and horsemanship," he added.

He is a youth activities coordinator for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (CRST), a ministry he finds "tough going" at times and which often coincides with his youth church activities.

But the culture camp is a way to reclaim the past and empower the future, he added. "This is the age that's trying," he said. "We've had a lot of difficulty recruiting older kids to participate in activities. As they grow up they forget or don't reflect on what they were taught as kids. A big portion of this program is to help them remember, to give them back that sense of pride and culture."

Reflecting on his own tough times growing up, he added: "We lost our dad when I was in junior high school. Being in a one-parent family was difficult. Church, St. John's Episcopal Church in Butte, was huge for me."

Consequently, he was both a planner of and a presenter for "Why Serve: Discerning God's Call", a vocational conference for young adults of color in the Episcopal Church held at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee in June 2011.

"It's important," he said of the conference, "because too often youth are left out. We are overlooked in the church. It's about getting kids involved and it's really hard, because often kids see church as too strict, as someplace where there's not a lot they feel they can do."

For the Rev. Terry Star, empowering and mentoring youth on the Standing Rock Reservation is a ministry best measured incrementally and through a hopeful lens.

"I've seen the things that God can do, even the tiny things. I'll see a prayer answered, even a tiny, small prayer answered and it excites me and gives me hope," said Star, 37, during a recent telephone conversation from his North Dakota office.

"I'm really big on mentoring; mentoring is the backbone of the ministry we're doing here," added Star. "I tell adults all the time, you don't need fancy degrees or a title behind or in front of your name. You just need a heart like Christ and to find the belovedness in kids and help them find the belovedness in themselves. Kids are thirsting for attention, positive and encouraging attention."

The average life expectancy for the Lakota and Dakota who live on the Standing Rock Reservation is 47 for men; 58 for women, Star said. He believes that 90 percent of the population is affected by diabetes. At least half are 18 or younger; yearly per capita income is about $7,700; unemployment hovers around 75 percent. About ten percent are Episcopalian.

"Suicide rates on the reservation are something like 100 times the national average," he added. "One of my girls attempted just yesterday … luckily she was stopped in time."

At 18, she'd already lost both parents and after drinking and reminiscing with friends, decided she wanted to go join her mother, who died just a few months ago, he explained. "It's a fairly common story here on the reservation," he said. "I've been ordained four years now and we've buried lots of teenagers."

In addition to summer camp, Star, an enrolled member of the Dakota Nation, said he holds weekly evening youth group meetings and this fall will begin a leadership seminar, in which youth will do bible study and create a multi-media message to present to their peers.

"I get a lot of energy working with the kids, although it has its challenges," said Star, 37, who serves several Standing Rock congregations as youth minister. "We do what we can with what little we have."

And there is hope. Several years ago, when he asked youth about their future plans, "they'd say, 'I don't know, my dad and uncle and cousins are all alcoholics, I'll probably be one, too.' They had no vision of college, no vision of any kind for a productive future, just what everybody else is doing.

"Now that's changed," Star said. "They see a bright future, they're making plans for it."

On the South Dakota side of Standing Rock Reservation, the Rev. Brandon Mauai was recently hired as the first full-time Native youth minister for the diocese of South Dakota.

Coaching football, basketball and other athletic events helps him connect with young people who, for a variety of reasons, are turned off from church. So does being Native, "because I've come up in that community and I know the ins and outs," said Mauai, 25, who is Lakota and Polynesian.

"Like many communities, what has happened in the past between the church and Native Americans, we're at a point where Native Americans are saying they don't want anything more to do with the church, so as a Native person I'm able to say I believe everything about my culture and it's synonymous with what the church teaches."

Prayer is a huge connection, he added. "The Dakota/Lakota pray about everything," added Mauai. "They call upon the Creator. It's a different name but we pray to the same God, the one God, Everything, the virtues of generosity, love taught in Scripture is synonymous with what the ancestors have taught for generations. We're able to show them that we believe in the same God, the one God, the true God, no matter what you call him."

Quinetta Harrychin, 18, says that participating in youth and other activities at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Bull Head, South Dakota, "changed me. As a young child I was not very disciplined or respectful," she recalled during a recent telephone conversation from the church, where she was helping to make blankets and quilts for an upcoming Ladies Aid fundraiser.

"It helped me grow. It's still helping me grow, every single day helping me grow as a person. It made me very aware that other people need help."

Preparing to serve as a summer counselor at the diocesan Thunderhead Episcopal Camp, she said she hoped to help others view the church "as a safe place. Some teens think it's shameful to go to church. I want to let them know it's okay to care about God, that there's nothing wrong with going to church."