American Indian students learn about the hemlock plant during a session of Southern Oregon University’s Native American Youth Academy, also known as Konaway Nika Tillicum. - Jamie Lusch

'All my relations'

Richard Brown has attended Southern Oregon University's Native American Youth Academy so often that many people know him by his family nickname, "Peanut," instead of his given name.

"This is the thing I look forward to all year," said the 16-year-old Portland youth, who's marking his seventh session at SOU's annual American Indian cultural awareness program.

Forty-three American Indian students from grades seven through 12 gathered this week on the SOU campus for the academy, also known as "Konaway Nika Tillicum," or "all my relations" in the Chinook jargon, a basic vocabulary shared by many tribes.

They learned about a wide range of American Indian cultures and did college prep work while meeting other students from around the Northwest.

"We try to get the idea across that college is different and you have to focus," program coordinator Chava Florendo said. "There is a broad range of things you can do, but it is a very different environment."

Florendo said two participants came from Washington state, two from Northern California and six flew from Alaska after raising money for a year to pay for their trip.

The students were divided into middle school and high school groups and attended five classes each day. Subjects ranged from public speaking and anthropology to poetry and engineering, all taught by SOU alumni and professors.

After each day's classes, students took a field trip or had free time after finishing their homework. On Tuesday, they hopped a bus to Ashland's North Mountain Park to learn about the Shasta people, who lived in the Bear Creek Valley before European settlers arrived. Park staff led the students in a service projects that included removing invasive plant species and teaching the younger kids about water invertebrates or bugs in the creek.

After a week of learning together, the students will present "Voices for the Seventh Generation" on Friday. The program, which is free and open to the public, begins at 12:45 p.m. on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Green Stage in Ashland.

Poetry readings and art exhibits will be complemented by performances of traditional American Indian dance. Not everything will be old-style, however.

"I'm dancing, only modern stuff and acting silly," Brown said.

Students pay a $50 registration fee when they're accepted to the academy, but the goal is to provide scholarships that cover the $825 cost per student. The Cow Creek Umpqua Indian Foundation's $10,000 donation brought Florendo's program budget within five dollars of breaking even.

Florendo said the Konaway program teaches respect and encourages students to adapt to a college atmosphere. Konaway students live in a dorm on the SOU campus and take their meals in the Cascade Complex Food Court, paying for their meals with swipe cards just like university students would.

"Some have never been away from home before," Florendo said. "We try to make this just like college."

Reach intern Stacey Barchenger at 776-4464, or e-mail her at:

Share This Story