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Indigenous Peoples Exchange - 2007 (November)


Strengthening Ties Among Indigenous Program Leaders


After 7 years, Sacred Earth Network, has two champions of its Indigenous Peoples Exchange, Benjamin Jojola and Beverly Billie, both from the Pueblos of New Mexico. Below, Benjamin reports on a recent planning trip that they both initiated to the Siberian “hub” for these kind of activities: the Altai Mountains of Siberia. After his report are a few powerful impressions  from Beverly The long term plan is to make this a completely “Native owned” project.                   


Winter Snow in the Altai

by Benjamin Jojola


My journey from the Pacific Northwest of North America to the Altai Mountains villages of south central Siberia was a whirlwind of plane rides, van shuttles, meetings and translators. The purpose of this trip-- the fruition of months of planning--was to meet with the Altai people to discuss future possibilities for the next stage of the Indigenous People Exchange (IPE). This next stage would bring together youth, administrators and traditional elders from around the globe to share and learn from one another in our common struggles and shared vision


                 Benjamin Jojola and Beverly Billie meeting with Native Siberians

                 in the Altai Mountains.

I traveled with Beverly Billie, my partner in coordinating the IPE, who is an experiential educator from Taos and Acoma Pueblos. Our time in Altai was focused and fast-paced. In the capitol city Gorno-Altaisk, we met Danil Mamyev, the director of the Uch-Enmek Nature Park, our main contact and coordinator of the “Ongudai Planning Meeting 2007.” After checking in with Natalia Tokova, program director for the Foundation for a Sustainable Altai, we were off like a herd of turtles through the winter landscapes to the center of the Altai Republic, the mystical Karakol Valley.

We acclimated to our new environment in a comfortable little hotel in the village of Ongudai, where we met with Erjen Khamaganova, a Buryat Mongol and Russian-English interpreter for Sacred Earth Network’s IPE for the past seven years. Erjen has been involved with this project since its inception and has been a key advisor during all phases. It is through Erjen that our words make sense to our host Danil and the delegation of Altai professionals that are inquisitive about our visit to their homeland. 

The first day in the Karakol Valley we met with Altai school officials at various sites along with elementary and high school students, educators, community members and elders. Discussions focused on socio-political issues during our round table with the adults on topics such as: Native reservation status, the number of reservations in America, government census procedures, and the pros and cons of using natural resources as a source of income for tribal members.

The vibration softened when we met with the youth in a small classroom. Beverly utilized her background in experiential learning to engage the youth in large group activities that brought out the wide smiles of the young people. It was at the second school that a youth joined in the cultural discussion.


       Beverly Billie(wearing white sweater) and SEN Siberian partner and

       Buryat translator, Erjen Khamaganova(in green) with Altai students.

 “What are your goals coming here?” asked a future leader.  I explained, “We come to ask you and your community leaders how we can assist you in program development and planning to bring the youth, administrative leaders and elders together to create an effective Indigenous People Exchange between Native Americans and Indigenous Siberians. We can learn through our similarities, also, we can learn from our differences.”


                 Benjamin Jojola, co-leader of SEN's Indigenous Peoples Exchange,

                 visiting a class of Native Siberian youth in the Altai.

The second day was another full session meeting with department heads of education, nature preserve parks, as well as musicians, activists, community members and elders. At this table there was more of the same dialogue about reservation status, population of the Native Americans, land rights on reservations, legal protection of sacred sites and enforcement of these laws. I commented, “ that this is one of the reasons we are inviting the political leaders and the traditional elders to come together and discuss these types of concerns at length.”

Beverly again introduced experiential learning through a hand gesture “paradigm shift” to show how some time things change right in front of our eyes and go unnoticed until it may be too late to provide a solution. Beverly had the group raise their right hand and point their index finger straight in the air and move in a clockwise circle, keeping their elbow in a set position as they lowered their hand. Beverly asked the group, “ now, which way is your finger turning?” the people where amazed with smiles and said “our fingers are now turning in a counter clock wise circle.” Beverly ends the exercise by saying “things do not always seem as they appear in the beginning and the end.” 

This was an “ah-ha moment” and provided some needed clarity to the group and led to the introduction of proposed experiential education curriculum and planning of two summer camps. The first Indigenous Peoples Exchange of Native American youth, tribal leaders and elders is planned for July 2008. The second Indigenous Peoples Exchange would consist of indigenous youth, administrators and traditionalists of the Altai region in October 2008.

One key question that was raised included: where do we go from here?   The curriculum for the year 2014 is the time the Altai region will make needed changes to the school curriculum including how the program is financed. I provide this comment “We will plan this together and we will find the answers together.”

The evening was spent visiting Arzhan Kezerekov, a kaichi- a traditional throat singer and storyteller. He is considered to be the successor of the legendary and recently deceased kaichi, Aleksel Kalkin. We were treated to food and drink by the family and introduced to his baby daughter who was born during Arzhan’s visit to the southwestern pueblos of New Mexico with Sacred Earth Network’s IPE in October 2006.

On day three Arzhan Kezerekov, Boris Kindikov, a former teacher of Arzhen, and Vitaliy Kerteshev, an authority on petroglyphs in the Altai region, took us to a mountain pass where we tied prayer cloths at a sacred shrine to ask permission to enter into the next valley and have safe travels. The view from the mountain top revealed the full greatness of the Karakol Valley. That afternoon Arzhan and hosts led us to sacred sites along the Kutan River and pointed out the remains of the ancient trade route, the Silk Road.

We visited beautiful stone engravings and made more offerings of prayers cloths at a sacred shrine near the joining of the Chuya and Katun Rivers, a powerful place full of legend. The men made us a traditional meal over an open fire.  I shared with the group my feeling that this is food for the soul.

We savored every bite. Boris said: “We do not eat all the food.  The spirits are hungry and thirsty as well, so we leave plenty.  In return the spirits provide for the people.”

Later we arrived at Chui-Oozy Nature Park, a small, protected area. Ruslana Toptigina is the co-director of the park and one of the many guides. Ruslana’s ancestors have been living in the area for thousands of years. What makes this place unique is the huge petroglyph area, Kalbak-tash. Unfortunately the stone writings are located near the main road so vandalism is a threat.

After our visit from the petroglyph park we were treated to a tasty dinner and had another discussion about protecting sacred sites, cultural preservation, cultural competency and the potential of future experiential learning programs through Indigenous Peoples Exchange projects.

The fourth day we backtracked and headed toward Ongudai where we passed the village and waved good-bye to her like an old friend. In the Karakol Valley we met Olga Erekhonova, a middle-aged traditional woman, whom like a surprising number of medicine people from her generation, have heard the call of her ancestors to take a key role in the revitalization of her peoples’ rich traditions. Olga is an English teacher at the local school and has a deep interest in Native American history  which she shares with the schoolchildren.

She welcomed us into her house for a traditional meal; it is here we exchanged gifts. I presented her with traditional gifts from my home, Isleta Pueblo, Olga told us that she had “seen” (predicted) Beverly and I returning to the Altai during my first trip there in June 2006. Olga has been assisting her fellow medicine people of the Altai, who have experienced a decline in

numbers in recent years. She also said she is ready to travel in order to seek out help for her people. Then she presented me with a book of poems, songs and prayers of the Altai people.


                      Beverly, shaman Olga Erekhonova, and Benjamin(L to R).

I was deeply touched by Olga’s gift and her good intention for us and our trip (now I just need to get the book translated!).  Then it was time to leave and start the long drive back to Gorno-Altaisk. On the way we stopped at a mountain shrine and thanked the holy ones for this whole experience, next we stopped at a sacred springs and once again thanked the elements earth, fire, air and water- -our Creator.

On day five, in Gorno-Altaisk, we participated in the last discussion panel of the Planning Meeting 2007. We met in the main hall of an enormous library with more administrators, educators, artists, activists, community members and youth.  We shared our background and the purpose of the Indigenous Peoples Exchange. In return we learned that the people of the Altai Republic want this project to be a reality for the youth in hopes that the future leaders will stand up to government pressures and protect sacred sites while having a clear understanding of what it will take to be a sovereign nation of self-determining people. I believe this can be accomplished through further discussion and dialogue with people of progressive and traditional beliefs on both continents.

Overall, there was much sharing between Beverly, myself, and the Indigenous Siberians on environmental, cultural, spiritual, archeological, historical and experiential education issues. All the participants came away enriched and eager for more. Beverly and I left the Altai with the sense that anything is possible, that we have allies with a shared vision, and that these programs will benefit the indigenous people of Altai and North America.

Time seemed to stand still in the wonderful snow capped mountains of the Altai region.  I am sure that I am not the only person to reflect on the similarities between my culture and that of the Altai people.  In some ways when I am there it feels like I have traveled back to a time when the traditions are less fragmented, the community more connected, the language still vital and the beliefs held strong.  It is easy to forget that it is 2007 and not 1907 or even earlier.  And so this causes me to consider how much of my own culture has been preserved and what has been lost.  It is this that fuels my desire to build connection with the Siberian people.


North American Natives can help indigenous people of Siberia by sharing our experiences - the struggles and the triumphs. In turn, we can continue to be inspired by their courageous lives. Together, we move forward, fueled by our common life sustaining values. Much love, honor and respect to the elders that teach the young ones their traditional languages, so that their culture will stay strong and alive for future generations.


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