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4-H Returns to New Mexico Pueblos

SANTA FE - Paul Abeyta, a 17-year-old from San Juan Pueblo, had never heard of 4-H until February, when he participated in trust- and team-building games in his morning agriculture and ecology class at Santa Fe Indian School.

Students from an agriculture and ecology class at Santa Fe Indian School participate in a 4-H trust- and team-building activity where students stand on one side of a rope and help each other jump to the other side. (03/26/2003) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Kevin Robinson-Avila)

He and his classmates taped sheets of paper to the backs of fellow students with lists of things they like about each other. They played games like catching other students as they fell backwards off desktops.

"I don't know what 4-H is all about yet, but this stuff helps us learn to work together and get to know each other better," Abeyta said.

Classmate Raymond Romero agreed. "It encourages tolerance," said Romero, an 18-year-old Navajo from Espaņola. "In the real world you'll work with people you don't like, maybe even people you hate like your boss, but you have to learn to get along, do your job and work together. These games help you learn to do that."

Like Romero and Abeyta, dozens of Native American children and teens are participating in 4-H activities for the first time on many of New Mexico's southern and northern pueblos as part of a New Mexico State University effort to reintroduce the program. By reviving 4-H, NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service (CES) hopes to help young people grow into productive citizens and reinforce ties to Native American agriculture.

"Indian culture, customs and traditions are deeply rooted in agriculture, but agricultural activity has declined a lot on the pueblos in the last couple of generations," said Edmund Gomez, executive director of NMSU's Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project, based in Alcalde. "To strengthen Native American agriculture, we need to get youth interested in it, and 4-H is a good way to do that."

Extension programs like 4-H fell dormant on the pueblos in the early 1980s after Bureau of Indian Affairs contracts with the CES expired.

"It's been about two decades since we've worked on the pueblos," said Christina Turner, Extension 4-H and agricultural agent who began working with the 10 southern pueblos last year. "A whole generation has passed. There's a lot of young parents who don't even know what 4-H is, much less their kids."

4-H, the world's largest youth program with more than 6 million members, provides fun, educational activities that help youth 5 to 19 years old develop life skills and build an appreciation of agriculture and natural resources through hands-on activities, such as gardening and raising livestock. About 50,000 young people currently participate in 4-H in New Mexico.

The agriculture class at Santa Fe Indian School, which includes 13 students from several pueblos, was a natural fit. The class began in 2000 and offers natural science, agricultural ecology and Native American agricultural history, with field trips and projects. 4-H activities build on the coursework, Turner said.

"We're focusing on career development and awareness," said Turner. "We're planning a tour of NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics so they can view research firsthand and talk to professors about agricultural careers. A lot of these kids don't envision going to college, so we want to show them that there are many opportunities out there."

The 4-H games help build skills the students can use, whether they pursue agricultural careers or not, said Tomas Enos, program coordinator at Santa Fe Indian School.

"A big part of what students learn is how to feel secure with themselves and in a group, and that emotional growth is a critical part of their ability to learn," Enos said. "4-H teaches teamwork and self-esteem, and that's essential."

Turner and Hayley Encinias, another Extension 4-H and agricultural agent working with the eight northern pueblos, have begun 4-H clubs and activities at 6 pueblos so far: Cochiti, Isleta, Picuris, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso and Taos.

Encinias formed a traditional 4-H club at Pojoaque to raise and show livestock. She coordinates after-school clubs at San Ildefonso, Picuris and Taos where students play games that teach about agriculture. Taos students will also visit a farm and fish hatchery.

In October, Encinias helped youngsters organize a first-ever pueblo youth summit that included about 200 teenagers from all the northern pueblos.

"They invited speakers to talk about the importance of finishing school, going to college and avoiding drugs and other risky behavior," Encinias said. "They also formed youth councils for each pueblo to increase activities for youth and give them a voice in the pueblo council of governors."

Wherever possible, Turner and Encinias organize 4-H activities that reinforce pueblo programs, such as a 4-H health and nutrition class for children at Cochiti to strengthen the pueblo's diabetes education program.

However, unlike traditional 4-H clubs, where Extension agents rely on community volunteers such as teachers and parents to organize and maintain activities, Turner and Encinias have taken a hands-on approach, directly organizing and supervising programs to rebuild 4-H on the pueblos.

"After so long without 4-H, people are not familiar with the program and it takes time to build up trust and get the community involved," Turner said. "It's still a new concept for young parents and children, but we're confident 4-H will get re-established."

For more information about 4-H on the pueblos, call Turner at (505) 346-2443 or Encinias at (505) 929-4371.