A spirited teenager visiting the camp and the Southwest for the first time, she appears as if there are a thousand things she would rather be doing than stamping clay under the hot New Mexico sun more than one thousand miles from home. Five days later, Joanne stoops down and affectionately places her hands on the oven, her face glowing with pride. "By helping to build this oven," she says as she prepares to leave camp, "I left part of myself here. I can say, I did that. I helped to build an adobe oven!"
Her response is typical of the campers who have participated in the experiential education summer program at Sacred Mountain Camp, one of many Native American programs for youth rooted in traditional Native cultures and religions. These camps are succeeding where non-Native programs have often failed: putting youth on positive life paths away from drugs and alcohol and towards education and community involvement.
Sacred Mountain camp is nestled at the base of Mt. Taylor on top of a volcanic mesa surrounded by lush pine forests near the Acoma and Laguna Peublos of New Mexico. Here the campers are far removed from the distractions and modern conveniences of the 20th century. Here they learn to appreciate Native customs and traditions, to challenge themselves in outdoor activities that teach lessons about teamwork and trust.
There are approximately 40 young people from various tribal groups attending camp this year. Sacred Mountain Camp is a program created and operated by the National Indian Youth Leadership Project, a distinguished Native American educational program which has received national honors for its pioneering work on behalf of Native American youth. It's emphasis is on positive reinforcement of traditional Native values through indirect teaching, instructing through metaphor and support. The full-time staff of educators are Native American. They teach cooperation rather than competition and encourage each camper to do his own "personal best," whether strapped in a safety harness on the ropes course high above the earth, or hiking through a basin rich in wildlife.
"Our elders taught us that the way to fight negativity is not through talking about it," says Mr. Hall. That is why in my opinion so many of the drug prevention programs have failed. The way to help young people, according to our ancestors, is by stressing the positive, identifying positive ways in which young people can live their lives to be in balance and harmony with nature, sharing their talents and skills with the community to improve life for everyone."
The instructors, Native American educators, take every opportunity to teach through metaphor the value of community. The youth learn through doing, cooperation is valued over competition. The young people are separated into clan groups when they arrive, and the clan groups offer the emotional and physical support during the various activities.
"Sam" gets caught on the ropes and falls off, caught by his safety harness. He has to pull himself up. The instructor uses the experience as a lesson: "Just like 'Sam' has his clan," the instructor says, "you always have your community to depend upon, your language, your customs, your ceremonies. Like your clan members here today, they won't let you down."