Normally, the five Denver teens who gathered for breakfast at the Egg & I restaurant would have been cooking their own meals at the Four Winds American Indian Council building.

The recent diner meal was a rare exception for the youth, all participants in a summer camp for Native American teenagers. Still, it was clear from their conversation that tradition is at the core of the free eight-week experience.

Seventeen-year-old Katrina Her Many Horses, who recently graduated from the Denver Center for International Studies, talked about her family’s 22-hour drive to Louisiana for a powwow the previous week.

Roberto Ballesteros, 12, takes a seed packet from Shannon Francis, who teaches indigenous gardening.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Roberto Ballesteros, 12, takes a seed packet from Shannon Francis. Sisters Taloa Cardinal and Jasmine Anderson stand nearby.

Twelve-year-old Roberto Ballesteros, a student at West Leadership Academy, pulled up a picture on his smart phone of the red and white beaded bracelet he’d been making at camp. Jasmine Anderson, a soon-to-be senior at Denver’s South High School, shared photos of the traditional ribbon shirts the campers planned to work on next.

Formally called “Let’s Move in Indian Country Youth Cultural Camp,” the camp is the second iteration of a program begun last summer by the Denver Indian Family Resource Center in Lakewood. The first version was for students age six-17, but leaders decided they wanted to focus on teenagers.

“We know programs aren’t adapted to that generation of kids,” said Daryle Conquering Bear, healthy living assistant at the center.

A niche for Native youth

The camp provides a gathering place for Native youth, who often comprise small minorities in their schools.

With its focus on health, culture and leadership, there isn’t anything else like it in the area, said Terra Her Many Horses, co-leader of the camp and healthy living supervisor at the Denver Indian Family Resource Center in Lakewood.

The campers meet three days a week at the council building on 5th Ave. in Denver.
The campers meet three days a week at the council building on 5th Ave. in Denver.

In the 10-county Denver metro area, 48,000 residents consider themselves Native American, Alaskan Native or some portion thereof, according to 2012 estimates from the American Community Survey.

Elias Her Many Horses, 15, said the camp is a place “to bond with other kids” and has “a lot of activities to…keep us occupied.”

Fostering healthy habits among participants is also a priority.

“We know that historically there’s some health disparities in Indian Country,” said Conquering Bear. “With the rates of diabetes …and making healthier choices with eating.”

Sixty-five percent of Colorado’s American Indian and Alaskan Native adults are overweight or obese, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In addition, data from the federal government’s Office of Minority Health indicates that nearly 18 percent nationwide have diabetes, compared to about 7 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

Such statistics are part of the reason that campers learn gardening, take cooking classes and make breakfast and lunch together on most camp days. On their culinary to-do list this summer will be creating a healthier version of a fast food burger and a nutritious family meal with just $10 to spend at the grocery store.

Elias, who next year will be a junior at the Denver Center for International Studies, said cooking is one of his favorite parts of the camp. Among the dishes they’ve made so are are yogurt parfaits, turkey meatballs, chicken wraps and salads.

“Pretty soon we’re going to be able to grow some of our own ingredients,” he said.

Backyard transformation

That’s where the indigenous permaculture class, taught by Shannon Francis, comes in.

The idea is to teach the teens grow their own food, including traditional crops like the “three sisters” trio of corn, beans and squash. It’s also meant to incorporate Native American values such as respect, mindfulness and reciprocity.

Katrina Her Many Horses and camp co-leader Daryle Conquering Bear water the garden.
Katrina Her Many Horses and camp co-leader Daryle Conquering Bear water the garden.

These themes came through on a recent morning in the fenced back yard of the council building. Francis instructed the campers how to turn over the soil with their metal shovels.

“You’re not going to do too much stabbing because there’s a bunch of worms in here and you don’t want to chop all the worms in half,” she said.

Later, as the campers poked shallot, radish and mustard seeds into the loose dirt, Francis reminded them, “Always remember to keep talking to your seeds.”

Katrina Her Many Horses doesn’t have a home garden because she lives in an apartment, but said she enjoys gardening with Francis at camp.

“This is what our ancestors did back then, this type of gardening,” she said. “You know how farms have it in rows and stuff…This is more natural.”

Mixing traditional and modern

This summer, a dozen youth attend the camp, which meets all day Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. As was true the day of the breakfast outing, turnout tends to be lower on Thursdays since many families use it as a travel day to attend pow wows.

The camp is funded with grants from five organizations including the Colorado Health Foundation, the Denver Indian Family Resource Center, the Peyback Foundation Running Strong for American Indian Youth and the N7 Fund.

Elias Her Many Horses helps move an old tire out of the way as the campers work to expand their garden.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Elias Her Many Horses helps move an old tire out of the way as the campers work to expand their garden.

In addition to traditional crafts, cooking and gardening, the camp puts an emphasis on physical fitness. Besides typical camp sports like swimming and horseback riding, participants will learn traditional Native American sports like lacrosse and its precurser, stickball.

“Everyone is coming from tribes that were physically active, so that’s what they’re trying to get back to,” said Terra Her Many Horses.

“We do a lot on how their ancestors lived,” she said.

There are also some distinctly modern elements woven through the experience. These include field trips to Native-owned businesses such as the restaurant Tocabe, Lakewood’s Belmar shopping center and the Denver-based American Indian College Fund. The campers, even the ones still in middle school, also practice writing college application essays.

“We really want them to think college,” said Conquering Bear.

Some of the older campers are already well on their way. Katrina has already earned a spot on the basketball team at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling for the fall. After that, her sights are set on the Ivy League.

“After this junior college, after I’ve given basketball a shot, I want to transfer to Dartmouth University,” she said. “That’s my main goal, to go there.”

Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Colorado Health Foundation.