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young altai leaders visit native american communities
Library of Congress Open World delegation: Valentina Shalamaeva, host Jonathan Hook, Mikhail Abakaev, Irina Etenova, Carol Hiltner from Altai Mir University, Zhanna An, facilitator Tamara Troyakova

Four young Native Altai leaders visited Indian Nations in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico during October as part of the Library of Congress Open World program. The purpose was to develop relationships between American and Russian Native cultures so they can build on their similarities, and many such relationships began during the ten-day tour.

The delegation was hosted in Indian Country by Dr. Jonathan Hook, a Cherokee Nation citizen. This is the first Open World group that was specifically chosen from Native peoples in Russia to meet with Native Americans.

The delegation was collaboratively organized on the Russian side by two American nongovernmental organizations, National Peace Foundation and Altai Mir University. Altai Mir University will continue to work specifically with this delegation to further their international leadership opportunities.

Altai is a Russian autonomous republic in southern central Siberia, and is the ancestral home of more than ten clans of Altai Native people. It is a mountainous region of particular beauty, power, and environmental cleanliness, which has recently become a destination for literally millions of Russian and international tourists.

The Altai people are actively seeking ways to positively accommodate this influx while continuing to honor their traditional ways. They learned best practices developed by Native American peoples in such arenas as land use, indigenous health issues, and education, while sharing Altai’s approaches with their hosts. The group experienced an extremely warm and open welcome, and everyone noticed the remarkable similarities in both culture and social issues.

The Delegates
All four delegates work with young people to re-establish the Native Altai languages and traditional cultural practices, which were suppressed by the Soviet government, but are once again permitted.

Valentina Shalamayeva develops ethno-cultural curricula for 45 high schools. She commented, “I’m surprised by all the similarities between Siberian and American Native cultures.”

Irina Yetenova teaches choreography and ethnic dance and is chair of the Union of Young Teachers. She added, “Before I left home, my mother cleansed me with cedar smoke, using feathers just like those with which we were cleansed here before one of the ceremonies.”

Mikhail Abakayev teaches mathematics and physics and was previously chair of the Union of Young Teachers. He concurred, and continued: “In Altai and with Native Americans, Nature is the Supreme Being; elders are especially respected; and I see that fire is sacred in both.”

Zhanna An creates youth projects for ethno-cultural development, to support physical and spiritual well being. Zhanna observes, “One big difference between Native peoples and others is that others use the land for living, while Native peoples experience themselves as part of the land.”

Open World facilitator Dr. Tamara Troyakova, a political scientist from Vladivostok, joined Carol Hiltner of Altai Mir University and Cherokee host Jonathan Hook as the support team.

The Trip
After orientation sessions in Moscow and at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the delegates flew to Tulsa on Saturday, October 20th, where they were welcomed by Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith, with whom they discussed cultural challenges common to both Altai Republic and the Cherokee Nation. Chief Smith proposed future collaboration. Then the group was hosted for dinner at the Sallisaw Casino in Tahlequah. In the evening, they were guests at Redbird Smith Ceremonial Ground, where they were welcomed by Charles Locust, Second Chief of the United Keetoowah Band and danced with the Native Americans.

Most of the trip in Indian Country was in a big white van, in which the group has been able to travel together comfortably, and to strategize on ways to make best use of the new connections between American and Siberian Native peoples.

On Sunday, they toured a fire station and had a pontoon-boat ride on Tenkiller Lake. They ate lunch at the home of Jokay Dowell, a reporter for the Cherokee Phoenix, and her interview quickly became a deep discussion of their common culture and challenges as minority peoples. The group toured a 17th century Cherokee village at the Cherokee Heritage Center. In the evening, they visited the home a tribal elder, and participated in a Ponco-Otoe ceremony hosted by Dwight Howe, director of the Ponca Tribal Youth Center.

On Monday, they were warmly welcomed with a luncheon at the Oklahoma City University Law School Native program as guests of Dr. C. Blue Clark. Other guests included an Oklahoma State Supreme Court Judge. In the afternoon, the group met with the staff of the Oklahoma University Native Studies program as guests of Dr. Joe Watkins. They were given an overview of Indian history.

Tuesday morning’s agenda was to tour the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic, where they watched a PowerPoint presentation on Indian elders. Then they visited the Anadarko Indian Schools program with Program Director David Sullivan. After a lunch of traditional Indian foods, a mini-pow-wow was held, in which about thirty dancers performed in full traditional regalia, accompanied by a drum circle. The delegation joined in the circle dances.

After a tour of the Anadarko high school including science and art classes, the group was interviewed by Brian Daffron of Indian Country Today. The interview was attended by several community elders, and turned into a fascinating in-depth discussion of similarities between the Native American and Altai cultures. They sang for Kiowa elders, and the Kiowa elders sang for them.

At the student center, the group was reunited with the Native American delegation to the 2007 International Youth Leadership Camp in Altai (also sponsored by Altai Mir University), which consisted of Kiowa students Erin Beaver and Kandess Gonzales, with chaperones Dorla Tartsah of the Kiowa tribe and Jonathan Hook. Finally, the group toured the National Indian Hall of Fame.

On Wednesday, they stopped in at a ranch-and-farm supply store to try on cowboy hats, and then visited the Heard Natural Science Museum to see exhibits of live snakes and animated dinosaurs.

Subsistence hunting is still a way of life for some citizens in both Altai Republic and the Indian Nations, so the delegation was very interested to visit Jonathan Hook’s Texas home and see his collection of Indian artifacts.

In the late afternoon, the group toured the offices of the Environmental Protection Agency, located in a great glass-faced building—the tallest building in Dallas—and visited a cinema multiplex. Seeing the Dallas skyline was a thrill for the delegates, who had not traveled out of Siberia before. Dinner and a reception at Jonathan Hook’s home in McKinney were followed by an intimate evening around the fireplace, drumming, telling stories, and singing with several local Russians. Delegates phoned home to connect with their families on the other side of the planet.

Each day unfolded with ever more interesting meetings. Thursday, the group flew to Albuquerque, where they were hosted for a private lunch and lively conversation at the Pueblo Cultural Center with Joe Garcia, Chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council.

After lunch, the delegation was invited by Mr. Garcia to a meeting of the Pueblo Council at which presidential candidate Bill Richardson (governor of New Mexico and a great supporter of Native Americans) was officially endorsed by the Pueblo Nations. This was followed by a visit with staffer Sarah Cobb at Congressman Udall’s office, and a dinner excursion to the top of Sandia Peak on the world’s longest aerial tramway, where nighttime views of Albuquerque were spread out below.

On Friday morning, they visited Acoma Pueblo for a private meeting with Stanley Paytiamo—Acoma environmental Director and former four-time Governor of the Pueblo. Mr. Paytiamo accompanied them on a tour of Sky City, which is situated on the top of a mesa and is the longest continually inhabited community in North America. The group hiked down the trail on the side of the mesa, which was originally the only access to the community. Then they shopped at an open air market for turquoise jewelry made by the Santo Domingo Pueblos.

On Saturday, October 27th, the delegation was hosted for the entire day at the home of Tesuque Pueblo by Tribal Council Member Louis Hena and his family. Mr. Hena’s PowerPoint presentation of his work on permaculture—a way of living on the land so that everything flourishes—struck a chord with the Altai delegation, and discussions were initiated regarding a continuing relationship and participation in Mr. Hena’s comprehensive permaculture seminars. The delegation lunched at the Tesuque Casino, profits from which pay for the re-acquisition of ancient lands as well as full scholarships for tribal youths.

After lunch, Mr. Hena took the group on a long walking tour of communal fields and orchards where the permaculture is being practiced. Dinner at Mr. Hena’s home was venison stew and elk ribs, seasoned with wild herbs, traditional squash and corn with jalapeno peppers, and honey and raspberry preserves—all home-produced.

On Saturday night, the group’s last night together, delegates brainstormed long into the night to create the structure for a grant proposal to sponsor an instructional tour by Mr. Hena in Altai.

On Sunday, steeped in their new friendships with their American relations, the Altai delegation flew home to Siberia, inspired to share what they learned with their local communities, as well as to continue building the pan-global relationships begun during their visit.

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