Bridging cultural differences and developing youth leadership
Adolescence can be a hard time for many children, a time when they need assistance building their self-esteem and making good choices for their futures. Children on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation face the added pressures of racism and fear as they prepare to enter the critical high school years. Children attend grade school on the Reservation and then are bused to a high school in Minocqua, where they suddenly find themselves a minority amongst the white students.
The Lakeland Union High School Intercultural Leadership Initiative (ILI) Transition Day Program was started in 2004 to bridge cultural differences and build self-esteem amongst 8th graders, before they enter the new world of high school. Eighth grade students from all area schools participate, as do their 8th and 9th grade teachers.
The sessions are similar to an Outward Bound program, in which the children participate in activities designed to build trust, cultivate cultural awareness and acceptance, increase self-esteem and allow the children to develop new friendships in a supportive setting. There is one session in May, at the close of eighth grade and another in September as the students prepare to start high school. Both are held in the forested area behind the high school.
Transition Days has become an annual event. It has been so successful that in 2007 the school district took over financial responsibility for the program (with ongoing organizing and facilitation by the ILI program staff). They have also implemented ILI's recommendation that the 8th grade May Transition groups be broken into "families" that become their homerooms for the next 4 years of high school.
ILI staff also worked with the school administration to set up the Lakeland Area Transition Committee made up of guidance counselors from each of the elementary schools and the high school. The purpose of this committee is to oversee Transition Day events as well as beginning a regular dialog between the schools on other transition issues such as discipline, substance abuse prevention and common curriculum.
Said one student, "Before I went to Transition Days I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get along with anyone. The program changed my whole way of thinking about high school!"
Creating a healthy local economy and family-supporting jobs
"I had always dreamed about coming back to where I grew up," says Kiesha Beltz. "It was hard to do because I have kids and needed to support them and opportunities on the Reservation were limited. NiiJii changed that."
Kiesha now owns her own hair salon, Natural Colors. She works in Adaawe Place, a business incubator sponsored in part by NiiJii to provide a space for Native entrepreneurs to get their start in retail. For Kiesha the discounted space is only a part of the help provided to launch her business.
"I had to learn to budget," says Kiesha. "NiiJii has provided the training and support."
"I went to several banks for the money to start the business, but I kept getting turned down because I had no collateral. I even went to the Tribe for help. That is where I learned about NiiJii giving business loans. Another Native business client referred me."
"This program gave me the opportunity to come back to the Reservation where I grew up, work near my home, spend more time with my children and become a successful business owner," concludes Kiesha.
Preserving Native language and culture
Vernadine Longtail's aunt and uncle taught her to speak their native language when she was a young child. She then taught herself to read and write the language. Now, as a respected elder in her Sokaogon Chippewa Community, Vernadine wants to teach her native language to children and adults before it dies and is lost forever.
Vernadine first got involved with NiiJii as a worker in the Elder Worker C-Sep Program. At that time, she had not been working and was not engaged productively in the community, despite her educational attainment. She needed support.
"My self-esteem was very low, but staff from NiiJii encouraged me to apply for the position of Cultural Preservation Director," said Vernadine. "This helped me get back into teaching my native language. History is embedded in language. The more we, as Native Americans, know our native language, the more we know who we are as people. Where we are from and where we are going is very important."
NiiJii went on the fund the production of tapes, manuals, classes and language camps for adults and youth to preserve this invaluable cultural resource.
Meeting basic needs and protecting the environment
In 1997, the Menominee wastewater treatment lagoon system was overstretched by 110% and water distribution systems were failing.
Lew Boyd, then Director of Economic Development, was given the job of finding a way to attract resources to the Reservation for infrastructure development. The following year, Northwoods NiiJii Enterprise Community was formed, bringing with it access to special set-aside dollars for infrastructure and public works.
Since the spring of 2003 the wastewater and water improvement projects for the Menominee Reservation have brought close to $10 million in capital improvements and publics works projects. After Neopit's waste and water improvement projects are completed, USDA Rural Development will have extended close to $14 million in financial assistance to the Tribe.
"Without NiiJii's help, the Menominee Tribe would have been hard-pressed to get the infrastructure problems rectified and other pressing public works needs tended to," said Dave Corn, Menominee County Administrator.
Indian Health Service honored the project managers with an "Outstanding Performance" award in a special ceremony.
Amidst a moving drumming ceremony and prayer in celebration of the construction of the Keshena Water Improvement Project, and surrounded by dignitaries, partners, elders and community members, then Menominee Tribal Chairwoman Karen Washinowatak reflected on the importance of water to the Menominee Spirit. "Water has always been spiritually very important to the Menominee people. We are grateful to have help in providing good water to everyone."