August 2015

Summer Policy Academy

Voices of Our Indigenous Youth


Christian White


The SPA gave me a new outlook and perspective on policies and brought multiple indigenous representatives together, giving me a sense of how many of us have similarities in government and in the traditional ways of life.” – Tyrell Westika (Zuni Pueblo, SPA Fellow)


My experience at SPA was great! It helped me broaden my mind and gain knowledge I can use to help my community. It was also fun meeting new people and learning why they were here.”

Sunny Rose Eaton (Tesuque Pueblo, SPA Fellow)


There has been a lot said about the sacredness of our land, which is our body; and the values of our culture, which is our soul; but water is the blood of our tribes, and if its life-giving flow is stopped or it is polluted, all else will die, and the many thousands of years of our communal existence will come to an end.’” – Frank Tenorio (San Felipe Pueblo), 1978



Tyrell Westika and SunnyRose Eaton are two of the 17 exceptional student fellows who have positioned themselves as young tribal leaders at the Santa Fe Indian School’s 2015 Summer Policy Academy (SPA). These individuals originate from the 19 pueblos of New Mexico and other Southwest tribes. Together, they are learning about policy and how it affects them on personal, family and community levels.


Their goal is to explore the many ways they can contribute and help their native communities. Although most are still just completing high school, they have been discussing issues that concern tribal governments today such as blood quantum, land and water rights, cultural preservation, environmental protection and language loss. Another fellow, Eddie Humetewa, a SFIS senior, quoted his grandfather, Frank Tenorio, in a discussion about environmental sustainability. His concerns about the environment motivate his research for his Senior Honors Project. Drawing on their own knowledge and upbringing, tough issues are never left off the table and, in fact, are dissected to understand underlying causes such as discrimination and historical trauma.


The Leadership Institute (LI) hosts the SPA every year, along with several other institutes, to focus and guide the development of potential tribal leaders as they talk about important issues. SPA is a three-year fellowship for high school students to engage in the policy-making process, shifting from local, state and national perspectives.


Throughout the program, students have heard from guest speakers such as Kelly Zunie (Secretary of Indian Affairs), Ken Lucero (tribal liaison for Martin Heinrich), Phoebe Suina (High Water Mark, LLC), Carmen Lopez (College Horizons), Mark Erickson, Ph.D. (SFIS), Robert Tenorio (Kewa potter) and many others. SPA partners with organizations such as the Native American Voting Alliance (NAVA), Tewa Women United, IMPACT Personal Safety, American Indian Law Center (AILC) and the University of New Mexico’s Center for Native American Health. These partnerships allow the fellows to travel to experience different learning environments. They have also visited the state capitol, Taos and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. The activities and workshops have uniquely touched upon the LI’s issue areas of governance, law, health, art, economy, language and education, as represented within Pueblo communities.


The fellows are immersed in discourse around what constitutes policy, what kinds there are, and effective ways policy can be changed. Regis Pecos, codirector of the LI, has shared his knowledge and incorporated “The 100 Years of Federal Indian Policy” in his teaching. This history has provided the backbone for the program, with such topics as the Pueblo Revolt, treaty making, Indian removal, the Reservation Period, Indian Reorganization, and self-determination.


Although it is initially not a welcoming history for young student fellows to be introduced to, Pecos focuses on the strengths of the surviving communities. Even though federal and state agencies have made great efforts to eliminate Native peoples, the fact that Native communities still exist and thrive reflects their fortitude. Throughout Pecos’ presentations, he emphasizes Native people’s history of cultivating young tribal leaders, such as the fellows. This reinforces the necessity for well-informed tribal youth and their potential for contributing to their communities.


For Native people, leadership is pivotal to their community’s survival. The New Mexico pueblos rely on their governmental administrations, along with traditional leadership, to maintain a balance between external political factors and the need to preserve the cultures passed down from their ancestors since time immemorial.


At the end of the SPA program, each student works on a community-based project that allows him or her to put newly found knowledge into practice. Students have worked on creating programs, researching Native history, building parks and bridging gaps in their communities. Each fellow chooses a challenge within his or her community and creates a project to raise awareness or help fix issues such as language loss, drug abuse, water and land issues, just to name just a few.


Caitlyn Tafoya, who currently lives in Albuquerque, wanted to learn more about her language and her community, so she lived with her family in Taos, made a video of her experiences and presented it to an audience of more than 300 community members. Tafoya describes the project as “one of the most intense two weeks… I learned a lot about my community and also myself. It was fun and definitely one of my best experiences.”


With the completion of the student fellows’ projects, the students received certificates and a gift of a laptop for their dedication. It was another successful year for the SPA. The graduating students now move on to SPA II, where they will travel to Washington, D.C., to propose bills to U.S. senators. Having graduated more than 200 fellows, the SPA is approaching its 10-year anniversary. Through its longevity, the SPA and the LI have demonstrated their importance to the Native communities of New Mexico.



Christian White is currently an intern at the Leadership Institute at SFIS. He graduated from Columbia University this spring with a double major in political science and in race and ethnic studies. White cofounded a nonprofit organization called AlterNATIVE Education and is active in social-justice issues. He will be attending UNM in the fall to pursue his master’s degree.



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