By Jeanne Janson, NFU Journalism Intern

The last 400 years of Native American history is marred with stories of land being stolen, children being forced into boarding schools and a crusade for assimilation through the erasure of culture. One result of this traumatic history is an entrenched cycle of poverty that persists on many reservations to this day.

A member of the Lakota tribe in central South Dakota, fourth-generation rancher Kelsey Ducheneaux has experienced these challenges first-hand.

By some estimates, 90 percent of Lakota residents live below the federal poverty level, with significant social and health consequences. While the relationship of poverty with other factors is certainly complicated, there is strong link between income, health, and academic achievement. On average, low-income Americans tend to experience higher rates of heart disease and diabetes, have shorter life expectancies, and are less likely to graduate high school, which in turn is correlated with higher rates of substance abuse and incarceration.

Unfortunately, these trends can be observed in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike; Lakota Indians have the lowest life expectancy of any group in the U.S., a full 33 years shorter than the average American. The Lakota die from alcoholism at a rate 552 percent higher than other Americans and diabetes at a rate 800 percent higher. For Native youth ages 10 to 24, suicide is the second leading cause of death with the suicide rate being 2.5 times higher than the national average.

The statistics on education are just as alarming. On-time graduation rates for Native American students are lower than every other racial group in South Dakota at 54%, compared to the rate of 85% for students of all backgrounds. There are efforts to improve graduation rates, but state schools are just now beginning to consider how to teach Native American students in a way that recognizes the traumatic history and incorporates culturally relevant curricula, such as Lakota language classes.

But the news isn’t all bad; because the issues of education, poverty, and health are so intertwined, addressing just one of them can help improve the other two. From Kelsey’s perspective, offering exploratory learning opportunities to Native youth is the best place to start.

“What I’ve seen across the country is our learning styles of Indian Country are so hands on. When you think back to ehani, which means a long time ago, every fifteen-year-old was a PhD in something,” said Kelsey. “Either they knew everything about all the plants on the landscape or they knew how to hunt and break down an entire bison. There was so much that we gained and learned through our cultural upbringing in that exploratory education setting that it makes more sense for more of our engagement within the institutionalized education system to have more of that practice. It’s so much more culturally relevant and more effective.”

Kelsey has started building these kinds of opportunities on her family’s operation, DX Ranch. Growing up on this ranch, Kelsey rode on horseback before she could walk, learned that family gatherings are scheduled around calving season, and discovered that agriculture is more of a way of life than a career. Today, the ranch is home to DX Beef, a regenerative, direct-to-consumer beef operation, and Project H3LP, a non-profit centered around using horsemanship to teach life skills to youth. Through these platforms of land-based exploratory learning, Kelsey works to improve the health of the land and her community by educating Native American youth to be empowered stakeholders and stewards.

“I feel that there’s that power that exists within agriculture when youth get to experience those beautiful pieces of life,” said Kelsey. “There’s so much good that comes from being a part of the land and I think it’s really about finding ways to get youth back out there again so we can start making a transition away from all of the poverty that has been inflicted on our historically underserved communities.”

Rooted in Lakota tradition and principles, Project H3LP focuses on providing these exploratory learning opportunities by bringing local youth to the DX Ranch. Through thoughtful interactions with horses and other hands-on experiences, they teach life skills such as awareness, empathy and presentation. Kelsey strives to help students understand how they can contribute, support and enhance their own life and the lives of their community members. Ultimately her hope is to inspire them to become engaged and empowered stewards and stakeholders of the land.

“I’m really excited about what the landscape of Indian Country looks like five years from now,” said Kelsey. “I’m a hopeless optimist, but I’m not alarmed about what’s to come because I know about all the great youth that are engaged in their communities and are going to contribute to making sure the future is something to look forward to.”

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