Underscore News/Report for America

Nearly six decades ago, Billy Mills achieved his dream, becoming the only American to win an Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 meter race. In April, the Oglala Lakota citizen passed the baton to 10 Indigenous youth – the latest of 80 he’s given funding and mentorship through his Dreamstarter Academy.

Mills’ foundation, Running Strong for American Indian Youth, launched the Dreamstarter Academy Grant program in 2015 with a mission to help young Indigenous people achieve their dreams and give back to their communities. Each year, Running Strong awards Dreamstarter grants to 10 Native youth and the nonprofit organization of their choice, to bring to life a dream they have for their community. The program also pairs awardees with a mentor.

In total, Running Strong has awarded over $1.5 million to 80 youth-led projects.

Over the next year, each awardee plans to complete a project focused on environmental justice. Project goals include opening community gardens, launching media trainings aimed at helping Indigenous youth tell their own stories and inventing and building a truly sustainable energy system.

“It's incredible to see so many youth coming together from all corners of the world, united under one passion – to improve and protect the environment,” said Sydney Mills Farhang, executive director of Running Strong and Mills’ granddaughter.

The 2023 Dreamstarters cohort is comprised of 10 Indigenous youth from 9 different Tribal Nations across the country. Their projects, all centered around environmental justice, include community gardens, media trainings, empowerment, documentary film, disaster relief and building a more sustainable energy system. Map Courtesy of Running Strong

Mills Farhang, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, says investing in the dreams of Indigenous youth creates a ripple effect that benefits everyone, especially when it comes to environmental justice.

“Indigenous people have the answers to a lot of the crises in the environment that have been caused by globalization and colonization,” Mills Farhang said. “I want to see people looking to our Dreamstarters, their elders and their communities to see how we solve these really big and bad things going on in the world. Native people know how to do it. We've been doing it.”

In April, nine of the 10 Indigenous youth leaders in this year’s Dreamstarter Academy traveled to Alexandria, Virginia. The five-day academy provides training and social opportunities designed to help awardees navigate their grant year.

Mills was there to honor and award $20,000 to each of them. Here’s a visual snapshot of that week, and the Dreamstarters who were there.

All photos by Jarrette Werk / Underscore News & Report for America.

Sheniah Reed, a citizen of the Oneida Nation, studies wildlife ecology and management at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. Her dream is to use Indigenous knowledge to restore the natural elements of life. She plans to do this by creating the Native Nations “Water Is Life” Conference, where Native youth will learn about environmental injustices, like poor water quality and food insecurity.

Noah Proctor, a citizen of the Piscataway Conoy Nation, studies criminal justice at Towson University. He grew up playing in his grandfather's tractor and tending to his family's garden. His dream is to address hunger and lack of access to healthy foods in his community. He wants to reconnect urban youth with traditional Piscataway foods and growing practices.

Loren Waters, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and Kiowa, is a filmmaker and storyteller from Norman, Oklahoma. Her dream is ᏗᏂᏠᎯ ᎤᏪᏯ (Meet Me At The Creek), a documentary film highlighting Cherokee elder Rebecca Jim’s fight to restore Tar Creek, one of the worst toxic waste areas in the country, where lead and zinc were mined and milled from about 1900 through the 1960's. Waters hopes her dream will inspire her community to fight for clean water rights, demand visibility, revitalize Native culture, and increase her people's agency in telling their own stories.

During the closing ceremony, Dreamstarters participated in a panel discussion to share about their individual projects. L to R: Anpa'o Locke (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Village of Tazlina), Sara Powell (Navajo Nation), Corice Lieb (Omaha Tribe), Tillie Stewart (Apsáalooke [Crow] Nation) and Noah Proctor (Piscataway Conoy Tribe).

Sara Powell, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is a 16-year-old high school junior who grew up playing in and tending to her family's garden. Her dream is to build the “Three Sisters Garden,” which she hopes will provide urban Native youth with the same experiences she had growing up. She hopes that strengthening food sovereignty will improve overall health in her community, provide food security and reconnect Native youth with their culture and the land.

Cruz Tecumseh Collin, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, is a 19-year-old scientist finishing out his senior year in France. His dream is to combine his traditional Lakota knowledge with western science to build a more sustainable and cost-effective solar panel system.

On the first day of Dreamstarter Academy, individual dreamstarters and their mentors participated in a night tour of the National Mall in Washington D.C.

Anpa’o Locke, is a Húŋkpapȟa Lakota, Ahtna Dené and Black filmmaker and writer. She witnessed national media stifle voices of water protectors from her home community in Standing Rock, South Dakota during the Dakota Access Pipeline (NoDAPL) movement, as well as the lack of Afro-Indigenous representation in the media. To address this, Locke's dream is to train Native youth to use storytelling and media as a form of “artivism” to amplify Indigenous climate justice movements.

McKalee Steen, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, is a third year Ph.D. candidate studying environmental sciences, policies and management at UC Berkley. Steen dreams of launching a group at the University of California, Berkeley where Indigenous youth share perspectives and take action on the Land Back movement. The group will emphasize reestablishing Indigenous sovereignty on unceded traditional lands, including political and economic control.

Corice Ishsta-cka Lieb, a citizen of the Omaha Nation, is studying emergency and tribal management with a minor in drones at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. He is also a Marine Corps veteran. Lieb's dream is to strengthen tribal sovereignty through supporting tribal emergency management systems to use drone technology for disaster relief.

Tillie Stewart, citizen of the Apsáalooke Nation in Montana, studies microbiology and environmental health at Montana State University. Stewart's dream is the Biawaatchaache (Good Woman) Collective, which aims to elevate the voices of young Apsáalooke (Crow) women through traditional knowledge and connection to land. Stewart hopes the collective will strengthen her tribe's participation in environmental justice work.

Each year, during the closing of Dreamstarter Academy, Dreamstarters participate in a blanket ceremony where they are honored and wrapped in the limited edition Billy Mills Pendleton blanket.

In addition to the $20,000 grant, Running Strong gave Dreamstarters a camera and gear to help document their project through the duration of the year.

Billy Mills has known Cruz Collin's family for generations. Mills described competing against Collin's great-grandfather, Joe American Horse, in college. The two Oglala Lakota runners dominated the track in the 1950's, until American Horse joined the Marines during his senior year at University of Nebraska. He then suffered an ankle injury while enlisted, which put a stop to his running days. Since stepping away from the track, American Horse has served as the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council chairman twice in the 1980s and twice as the vice chairman.

JoRee LaFrance, a citizen of the Apsáalooke Nation, is a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on surface water quality in the Little Bighorn River watershed in her home community, the Crow Reservation. LaFrance was selected as a 2016 Dreamstarter, and credits Running Strong for giving her the confidence to create change at home. She wanted to return that gift. This year, she is serving as a mentor to Tillie Stewart, Madisan Chavez and Michaiah Pease, through the Biawaatchaache (Good Woman) Collective.

Sydney Mills Farhang, executive director of Running Strong, welcomes Dreamstarters and mentors to the 8th Annual Dreamstarter Academy. Participants completed a five-day bootcamp to prepare them for their grant year.

Dreamstarters and their mentors pose with Billy Mills, Olympian and co-founder of Running Strong, after they were honored in a Running Strong blanket ceremony.

Lead photo: Dreamstarters pose for a group photo after they each had their individual photoshoot with their mentor and Billy Mills.

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Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....