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HERALD ARCHIVE: Tapping into Lakota cultural roots, a Spirit Lake program helps at-risk youth find pride and purpose (May 25, 2008)

ST. MICHAEL, N.D. -- The horse was a little skittish. So was the boy. Troyal Thumb, 16, fed the 14-year-old quarter horse a bucket of oats with a little corn mixed in to bring out the shine in his dark brown coat. The horse munched away, slopping...

ST. MICHAEL, N.D. -- The horse was a little skittish. So was the boy.

Troyal Thumb, 16, fed the 14-year-old quarter horse a bucket of oats with a little corn mixed in to bring out the shine in his dark brown coat. The horse munched away, slopping grain here and there as he threw his head to assess all the people crowding his stall.

Thumb worked the coat to a vivid sheen with a curry comb, then led the horse from the stable to one of two small riding rings set up in a converted turkey barn.

Around the dirt ring they walked, the boy leading. From the high metal rail, rancher Neil Whitmer offered guidance and quiet encouragement. Beyond, from his perch on a bale of hay, Kenny Dunn watched, smiling.

"OK, turn him now," Whitmer said. "Move the rope to your other hand. That's it."


Kenny's Bay, the horse is called, because he belongs to Dunn, an elder of the Spirit Lake tribe.

Horse, boy, white rancher, Indian elder -- they are all participants in a model court diversion program started last fall by the Spirit Lake juvenile court system. With support from the Center for Health Promotion at UND's School of Medicine and a grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation, the program aims to build trust, responsibility and self-esteem in at-risk Indian youth.

It's called Shunka Wakan Ah-Ku, or Bringing Back the Horses.

"A lot of kids out there don't have any identity," said Darla Thiele, 47, an intake officer with the juvenile court. "But as Native people, one of our greatest identities was as a horse culture.

"We wouldn't have survived without the horse," she said. "We relied on them to hunt for food. If you wanted to marry, you brought horses."

Working with the animals, taking responsibility for them and earning their trust, "the kids learn about confidence, communication and respect," added Jessica White Plume, 32, a community health researcher at UND, a Lakota Indian from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota -- and a lifelong rider.

"I was a horsewoman before I was anything else," she said, beaming.

"The horse culture at Pine Ridge is still a source of strength and pride, especially for youth, and you can see that in the kids here. With some of them, you really can see how it sparks identity in them. You see the pride.


"Also, being outdoors and getting regular exercise is good for their mental, spiritual and physical health," White Plume said. "We hope to expand this program, so all the kids on the reservation have access to it. I think that would make a big difference in the community."

Scared at first

So far, about two dozen boys and girls have been court-ordered into the program after a variety of missteps brought them into the tribe's juvenile justice system, Thiele said. Each six-week quarter, four or five teens spend two nights a week with area ranchers who volunteered their land, experience and horses.

"Most of these kids have never been within a city block of a horse," said Whitmer, a tall, broad-shouldered rancher who looks as though he still, at 52, could wrestle bulls.

"You talk to people my age on the reservation, and they all knew horses," he said. "Sadly, this has been lost in the last generation or two. So, we teach 'em from the ground up, from the anatomy of a horse to handling a saddle and bridle. By the fifth week, we want them on the horse's back, riding.

"A lot of them are scared at first, but it's a good step to helping them overcome other problems."

Some teens "clearly are here only because they have to be," he said. But others "want to pursue working with horses when they're done with us. It's a soothing, calming effect the kids are getting."

Parents, teachers and others in the community "have told us they see changes" in the kids' attitudes and behavior, Thiele said. "They're a little more respectful, maybe not quite so impulsive. They're more likely to think things through a bit."


The tribal council "has helped us in every way," White Plume said, and elders say they want the program expanded. Horse management could be a path to economic development for the tribe, but at-risk youth remain the primary concern.

"We want these young people to be healthy and fit in every way, and to look forward to things -- to have a purpose in life," she said.

Other tribes have turned to similar activities -- teaching Native languages, cultivating medicinal herbs, working with animals -- both to provide young people with alternatives to drugs, alcohol and gang life, and to preserve tribal cultures. On the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, Indian students are joining after-school programs to work on traditional crafts, music and language. At Red Lake, tribal Chairman Floyd Jourdain Jr. uses long-distance running -- another Indian tradition -- to help young people onto a better path.

"All the ways these activities were helpful to the people before can be helpful again," White Plume said. "We're part of a big movement here."

A tradition fades

Last week, Thumb and three other Spirit Lake boys came to Ed Solwey's place near St. Michael to work with the horses. Dunn, 60, and Whitmer, whose ranch is about 30 miles to the south near Sheyenne, N.D., came along to help.

"When I was young and growing up around here, horses were all we had," Dunn said. "And time. We had a lot of time to ride."

Changes in family structure, chronic economic problems and waning traditions all played roles in diminishing the presence of horses, he said.


Solwey, who with his drooping mustache and quietly self-assured manner could double for actor Wilford Brimley, watched as Mitchell Buckles, 16, Jerrit Desjarlais, 17, and Johnny Leftbear, 15, took their turns grooming the horses with curry combs.

"They're over-fed and under-used, like me," Solwey said of the horses. "But they sense what you're feeling inside, even if you don't. That's why it can be so therapeutic, working with them."

Later, Mitchell took a turn in the riding ring with Cole, a big Belgian-quarter horse cross.

"He's real gentle," Solwey said, watching. "But he's seeing so many inexperienced riders lately that he's getting confused about what he's supposed to do. Then, he gets bossy."

As Solwey spoke, Cole refused a turn. Mitchell was losing control. "Don't twitch the reins around your fingers like that," Solwey warned. "And when you pull on one side, you have to push ahead with the other or you pull the bit into both sides of his mouth, and he doesn't know what to do."

Mitchell adjusted.

"OK, you're the boss now," the rancher said, as horse and rider trotted off. "You're driving this horse. That's it."

Ready to ride


Thumb had some riding experience. "I grew up with my grandfather, and he had horses," he said.

But as his grandfather grew older, the horses had to be stabled elsewhere, so Thumb hadn't done any riding for years.

Whitmer helped him slip a bridle onto the big bay, gentling the horse as it resisted the bit, then nodding with approval as Thumb threw a long leg over the horse's back and settled into the saddle.

They circled the ring together, then switched directions and made another prancing circle.

"Hey, Kenny," Thumb shouted to the bay's owner, watching from his hay bale. "I'm going to ride this guy home, OK? I'll give you the keys to my pickup."

The horse snorted and danced, as if ready to go.

"I like this lifestyle," Thumb said softly, caressing the bay. "I wouldn't mind working with horses the rest of my life."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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