Jefferson Greene is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and in the nicest possible way he's become an activist on the reservation. A rebel, even.
Mention that and he smiles. His eyes light up.
Greene, 28, is one of the few tribal members with a college degree, a bachelor's in business and marketing from Portland State University. When he returned to the reservation in 2008, he became active in tribal affairs and vowed to do something about the defeatist attitude he saw in the youth.
"I see so many youths fall victim to oppression," he said. "They're told by their parents and grandparents, 'You're not going to be anybody.' It's sad."
So he set about breaking the cycle, using his education, background and connections to the community outside the reservation.
His story is one of a balancing act, between young and old, tradition and modern ways, the world outside and the insular one inside. His efforts haven't made everyone on the reservation happy—his work has clashed with some of the more traditional ways of bringing up young people. But it brings to light the obstacles the tribes face in becoming more educated, and what some Central Oregonian Native Americans are doing to overcome that.
It's an uphill battle. Warm Springs is one of the most poverty-stricken geographical areas in the state. About 4,000 people live on the 43-square-mile reservation situated in the mountains between Jefferson and Wasco counties. According to every measure, alcohol, drug and sex abuse rates are high. Nearly half the population lives below the poverty level and a quarter of the adult population never finished high school, according to census data. One local expert estimates that just one percent of the youths from this area will go to college.
It is to this backdrop that Greene himself grew up. Even with its faults, Warm Springs has produced a number of highly motivated and inspiring young people, including Greene. Now he's using his experience to encourage other youth to succeed.
On his Facebook page, Greene describes himself:
"I'm a visionary, I love to work, I love to be inspired, and I must always be excited about what I'm doing. I sit and talk with elders to delve into the depth of spirituality and I network for the sake of learning and building personal humble character, nothing monetary."
And his favorite quote: "Negativity was introduced to Indigenous people in the 1400's by Europeans."
When he returned from college, Greene looked around the reservation and saw kids anxious to grow, and possibly even pursue college themselves, but with no guidance or encouragement. Greene has worked a number of jobs on the reservation including as the director of marketing at the Warm Springs Museum, as a member of the board of directors of Warm Springs Composite Products, and as a leader with the Central Oregon 10-year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness and Poverty.
But the starting point in Greene's career with youth on the reservation began in 2010, when tribal officials asked Greene to oversee a new program, the N'Chi Wanapum Canoe Family for tribal youth.
Each summer, the group paddles down the Columbia River and through Puget Sound. The young people meet other tribes and perform tribal songs and dances. They build their own canoes.
Greene sees it as a chance to educate the youths about the tradition of the canoe, but more than that he's using this club as a model project for how to motivate teens on the reservation.
The Warm Springs paddlers saw how involved youths from other tribes were at a camp and became enthused. Greene found they had a hunger for tradition and culture that their families were not always passing down.
Though Greene's day job now is teaching fine arts on a contract basis in schools along the Columbia River Gorge, he has built the Canoe Family into a year-round activity that involves music, culture and empowerment.
"It turned out to be a great thing for youth because they never knew songs of culture and heritage," said Foster Kalama, a tribal member and counselor at Madras High School who works with Native American youth and who encouraged Greene to start the club. "Canoe Family opened their minds and hearts to a whole completely different thing. Jefferson has that knowledge because of his upbringing."
The Canoe Family is just one of the ways Greene has found to draw out the young people and give them a sense of accomplishment.
He is also involved in a program that teaches youth traditional flute music and, in an indication of his ultimate goal, he works closely with STRIVE. That's short for Summer Training to Revive Indigenous Vision and Empowerment. It's a weeklong program at Central Oregon Community College that introduces high school students to college life and reduces the culture shock of going to college that so many Native American youth experience.
"I think he's done a lot of great things," said Kalama. "He's met challenges, the challenges that come with kids and parents. He didn't give up. What's right is right, even when everyone's against you."
To get a sense of what makes Greene tick, you'd have to look at his parents, who both went to college—a rarity on the reservation—and the woman who played a big role in raising him, his grandmother Verbena Greene. Everyone knew her as Grandma Beans. And yes, she was an activist in her own way.
Grandma Beans, who died in 2000, would take Greene to the traditional tribal worship service each Sunday. Then she would take him to Catholic and protestant services at reservation churches. It was an ecumenical upbringing.
"My grandmother helped out everywhere," Greene said. "She was an educator, but I just knew her as a grandmother."
Grandma Beans instilled a can-do attitude in Greene, which was a bit bold in the tribal cultures.
"You never heard her say we can't, or we shouldn't," Greene said. "I'm following in her footsteps."
Kalama says the Greene family all stressed activism, culture and education.
"They teach their kids very well," he said. "Jefferson is sort of like a root from his family tree. They are all-around people. They do things the traditional way."
Kalama couldn't be happier to see Greene follow in his footsteps helping youths.
"Wow, we got a young man with a lot of energy who wants to do these things for youths," Kalama said. "I used to be like that when I first started working with youths, putting on all these projects. He's always on the move with all that energy."
Kalama said Greene frequently would call him for advice when he returned from college. Now, Kalama says, Greene doesn't need to call as often.
"He's a great listener, a great student. He learns real quick," said Kalama.
The part of Native American culture Greene would like to change is that everything—teaching and decisions—come down from the elders. And, yes, some of the elders have been irritated by the way Greene gets things done.
"I've been approached on this," Greene said. "The elders say, 'You guys need to slow down.' It's because it was culturally inappropriate. It's a bold move to empower young people."
What Greene is doing is creating an environment where everyone is equal—youths and elders—but without compromising traditional values. It's a blend of the new and old.
Take, for instance, the way he runs the Canoe Family meetings.
The meetings consist of discussion in which everyone is free to voice their opinion, but there are strict ground rules: no interrupting and lots of consensus and collaboration. Among the topics are fundraising and grant writing. They work on budgets and set yearly goals.
"No meeting is ever a debate," Greene said.
To an outsider, that might seem to be a reasonable approach. But on the reservation, it meets with resistance from the elders.
"Expressing opinions is not at all how we're raised," said Gina Ricketts, the COCC Native American Program coordinator and a member of the Hoopa Tribe.
Ricketts said this is one of the cultural nuances that make tribal students feel out of place in college. But teaching youth to express themselves is just one of the ways that Greene is helping to pave the way for a better higher education experience for the youth he works with.
"He's had to deal with disagreements about the way he runs things," said Kalama. "But (the elders) aren't there to see how great a job he's doing."
Valerie Switzler, the tribes' cultural and heritage director and acting general manager for education, is aware of resistance from the elders and says she tries to greet Greene with a smile and encouragement. If he helps just one youth and gets a positive result, "that means life is good," Switzler wrote in an email.
"Things are changed for that one person," said Switzler. "I think that young men are really needed as role models to the younger generation. There are several things that he does that helps build a foundation for young people. He tries to lead by example, especially what he's doing with that canoe club."
Even if the youths he works with don't go to college, Greene at least hopes they gain confidence to make things happen. He said the Canoe Family nurtures the mentality that you can do anything.
"He's done an awesome job working with youth, getting them involved," Kalama said. "Several kids are changing because they joined in the canoe project. That's Jefferson. He gives gifts. He works hard. He's admired. I'm grateful."EXTRA HOMEWORK Native American students face cultural barriers in college others don't
Gina Ricketts likes to tell her students they're no longer warriors on horses with bows and arrows. "We're warriors with briefcases."
In short, tribal members must be businessmen, environmentalists, specialists in government affairs, tourism, forestry, fishing, minerals and health.
"We don't have a choice," said Ricketts, the Central Oregon Community College Native American Program coordinator. "We have to be educated. We have to be lawyers and teachers."
But Native American students face daunting obstacles when they go to college. It's a different culture. They feel out of place. They look different. They have a different worldview. They must overcome strong family ties. The pressure is great to quit.
"They ask, 'What am I doing here,'" Ricketts said. "It's much easier to go home than to stay."
Valerie Switzler, Warm Springs cultural and heritage director and acting general manager for education said most youth lack the support system of those families who have attended college. Suggestions as simple as 'you can find help with writing, math or other classes through library centers' can be daunting.
Ricketts points to nuances in cultural differences that make tribal members feel awkward and uncomfortable. In meetings and classes, they are reluctant to voice opinions. When they walk up to a group of non-tribal members, they feel invisible. On the reservation, it's customary to acknowledge someone who joins a group.
There is also a clash between the spiritual and the material. Students who grew up in a spiritual world suddenly find themselves among people who put a priority on the material.
Ricketts points out that in mainstream society it's not unusual to ask someone what they do for a living. A person's status is then determined by their occupation. Native Americans don't.
"It's not what do you do, but who are you? Who is your tribe, who is your family," said Ricketts.
Those who do succeed often return to the reservation. Ricketts said they are not seeking a college degree to build a career. The goal of many is to make the reservation a better place.
"It's important to return to where we are from to make it better. Career is not for me. It's for the community," said Ricketts.
The difference in worldview became clearly apparent when I asked Ricketts what tribal members do when they drop out and return to the reservation.
"What do they do? They just do. They come home."
It was a question based on a materialistic worldview I didn't realize I had.
Only two of 90 members of Ricketts' family—members of the Hoopa tribe—have gone to college.
So, her task as head of education on the reservation is a daunting one.
"It's hard to keep students from going home," she said.
But she sees inroads, small as they may be. In the 2011-2012 school year, 23 out of 61 students enrolled in college received degrees. That's more than double the number from 2008, Ricketts said.
She can't point to a specific reason for that growth, but thinks the visibility of COCC's programs has made a difference.
There are a total of 147 Native Americans at COCC who come from all over. A particularly active student group for Native American students means a built-in support network once students do attend COCC. One student from New Mexico is returning to begin an online site to market his tribe's crafts and jewelry.
And another big change is in the works for the youth of Warm Springs.
Earlier this year, Warm Springs voters approved a bond issue to build a new K-12 school that will replace the aging elementary school and save middle schoolers a 20-mile bus trip each way to Madras.
The school is expected to be complete by August 2014. Ricketts thinks it will make a big difference in test scores and graduation rates.
"Kids who go to reservation schools are more successful," she said.
And that means many more youth may soon be following in Jefferson Greene's footsteps.