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Who Will be Tomorrow's Great American Indian Leaders? - 2002-04-06

What do Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, 19th century Lakota Chief Red Cloud, author and activist Winona LaDuke and Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller have in common? They're American Indian leaders and role models, who've left their mark on Indian, and American, society. Who will be tomorrow's great Indian leaders?

Dave Anderson thinks they could be sitting in one of his workshops today. The American Indian businessman started the Lifeskills Center for Leadership last year to give Indian youth the tools to succeed the same way he did. Having grown up battling poverty and alcoholism on the streets of Chicago, Mr. Anderson knows how difficult it can be to leave the negatives of the past behind and how important it is to have self-confidence.

"I think as Indian people we've given in to expecting handouts. I think as long as we are dependant people, we will never be able to fully experience our culture. And not until we can take responsibility for our own destiny will we ever become powerful like we use to be," Mr. Anderson said.

Since the Leadership workshops began last October, Dave Anderson has taken them to American Indian communities across the country. This February, he brought his workshop to Rapid City, in the western state of South Dakota, to give Lakota youth an opportunity to take part in the three-day sessions. The Workshop leaders use teaching methods that instill self-confidence and self-esteem. According to trainer Heidi Helgemo, these techniques help counter the negative images of Native American culture that bombard young Indians, whether they're growing up on or off the reservation. She says these images can not only weaken their personalities, but lessen their ability to speak up for themselves and their people. "The youth in our circle here have a lot to say. They have opinions and ideas that are important to peers and themselves and their families. And if they're not gonna be speaking out standing up and speaking out they're not gonna be heard," Ms. Helgemo said.

She said the most important tool Indian youth have is their own voice. Dave Anderson's son, James, is also a Lifeskills instructor. He begins this workshop by teaching the participants about the four traditional American Indian Leadership principles: perseverance, integrity, courage, and determination.

"Warriors move forward. Our warriors wore elaborate breastplates on their front but nothing on their back, because there was no turning and running. We come from a strong group of people. They were warriors and protectors," Mr. Anderson said.

On the walls of the classroom are posters that read "Don't wish it was easier, wish you were better," and "The only reason we fail is because we quit too soon." Dave Anderson considers them words to live by, and says the mottoes remind the students that the road to their own success in the workshop - and in life begins with themselves.

"It doesn't matter where you are, it doesn't matter where you come from. The only thing that matters is that you have dreams and that you believe that you can be successful in life. And I think as Indian people we have to come to the point where we quit thinking that things out there have to change. When, in fact, the real change has to happen from within us first," he said.

Those changes begin for the teens attending the workshop with motivational music designed to create images of warriors dancing to the thunder of drums in tipi camps on the open prairie. They move on to exercises based on management techniques that show them how to be comfortable with themselves and other people. There are networking activities that require each teen to interact with everyone in the room in order to complete an interview worksheet. Another exercise has the teens break off in pairs to learn about each other in order to later introduce their partners to the entire group. This is just one of several opportunities to stand and be heard in front of a crowd.

Then there's the "Mission Impossible" exercise, where teams have to use pieces of string to move a tennis ball on a ring from one side of the room to the other. No one's allowed to talk but the team leader. Maneuvering the tennis ball may be nearly impossible, but James Anderson feels that teaching America Indian youth to stand up for themselves and their people is not.

"They don't believe that they have the ability, but they all do. All that they need is within them now, it really is. It's a conscious choice by themselves to realize, you know what, I don't care what those people think about what I'm going to say. I'm going to say it. And I'm confident in who I am as a person, that I know that what I'm saying has merit, has meaning, and it is my opinion and it deserves to be heard, even if somebody doesn't agree with it," he said.

That message came through loud and clear for 18-year-old Erica Rivers.

"It helped us to tell what we really wanted and what we would do to want to get it. And it just helped you to get your voice out and to see what it feels to hear your own voice. This training just moved me so much, I'm just gonna use it wherever I go," she said. Before receiving their graduation certificate, each student has to break a wooden board. But this isn't an exercise about karate or being macho. It's about focus, concentration and reaching those goals you never thought possible. The Life Skills Center for Leadership Workshop has been called "the three-most powerful days in Indian Country". Life Skills trainers bark out commands with enough enthusiasm to make any U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor proud, yet in the end they achieve graduation rates that even the Corps would envy… with 18 of the 21 teens who began this workshop completing the 3 days - their first step on the road toward becoming the Native American leaders of tomorrow.