Creating an Impact in the Future of Native American Youth

Sep 25, 2017 | Native Hope

One thing is for sure, Stephan Cheney, Lakota and member of the Kul Wicása Oyáte in South Dakota, shares his zest for life with just about everyone he meets. Currently, Stephan is living and working in Humboldt County, California. He is the Youth Services Director for the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria and recipient of the Running Strong Dreamstarter grant

The year 2014 was the 50th anniversary of Billy Mill’s Olympic victory in the men’s 10,000-meter run. Running Strong marked this milestone by developing the Dreamstarter Grant to award 10 Native American youth, ages 13-26, each with $10,000 for their dream. Over the five year period this will run, 50 young people will have been honored with this opportunity. Like Native Hope, Running Strong knows that the youth are key to making Indian country stronger.

An intergenerational approach

Creating lasting change for any organization, community, or society takes effort from all within the group. Stephan is using that approach with his Dreamstarter grant. Developing a mentorship that reaches across generations is his hope for the Ts’ Denoni Youth Mentor Program for the Bear River Band and area Native American youth

The mentor program pairs eight teenage youth (Ethan Martinez, Alisha Spot, Joejoe McGinnis, Jorge Johnson, Sepreana Riveria, Billy Robinson, Jr., Tessa Smith, and Orlando Cervantez) with eight adult mentors (John McGinnis, Celeste Ruiz, Trista Clark, Teresa McGinnis, Jessica Cantrell, Wendell Freeman, Delmer Kesiner, Edwin Smith, and Shaylynne Masten) from the Bear River Band. Each duo will be paired based on an interview process. After the pairings are made, each pair will be asked to meet once a week, with the adult mentor issuing a challenge for his mentee.  


To aid in the process of completing meaningful challenges, Stephan has secured eight iPad minis through the generosity of The Rancheria casino. These challenges might include anything from taking photos of things you love to making a video about changes you’d like to see made in the community. Not only will the images recorded serve to create a dialogue between mentor and mentee, but also they will provide excellent documentation for the program.

Above and beyond the weekly challenges, each pair will host at least one of the twelve group meetings to be held over the course of the grant year. These meetings will focus on job readiness as well as life and/or cultural skills. “This mentor program, through and through, is a learning experience for all involved. It is a safe environment for all to learn,” explains Stephan.


He goes on to say, “The adult mentor will be a positive and safe person the kids can look up to.” Likewise, Stephan knows the mentees will enrich the lives of the adult mentors. “Their curriculum is completely up to them! What we are doing is creating vulnerability and accountability—they will learn about themselves and about their culture.”

In turn, the mentees will become mentors to the children who attend the Bear River Band Youth Program. Mentees will tutor during the after school portion of the program and will serve as role models to the youth during field trips, camps, and other events over the course of the year.

Ultimately, Stephan would like to see the youth become mentees and the mentees become adult mentors—then the cycle impact to the program will have truly lasting effects. This is why the documentation made by the mentees is so vital! It will give qualitative evidence of the program’s effectiveness in years to come.  

The man behind the dreamstephan_headshot.jpg

“I am just a firefighter who took a leap of faith, and I intend to do everything I can for the next generation!” Stephan considerately shares. It’s not an original idea...the youth are the future—it is so easy to say, but if you are going to try to build a better future, you have to start with yourself and hold yourself accountable.”

Stephan stresses accountability. He holds himself highly accountable as he, like so many Native Americans, knows the struggle of finding his identity. He views that process as valuable for him but would like to make it more accessible to youth.

“They are our future, truly. My uncle once said, ‘We are the ancestors today.’ It’s realizing that...we [Native Americans] are still here because our ancestors were resilient, and we are only getting stronger,” Stephan stresses. He continues, “This little guy over here, his actions will affect the future, etc.…we are the ancestors!”


Like other members of the “Seventh Generation,” Stephan feels it is important that the youth know traditional values and beliefs and apply them to their contemporary lifestyle. If this can be done, then more and more young people will find their place in the world. Beyond that? Well, the world is theirs for the taking.  

What’s next?  

Stephan plans simply to be present—show up. He believes that through modeling consistency and compassion, big things will happen. There is already proof of his theory as Stephan has demonstrated through his actions as the Bear River Band youth coordinator.


Since November of 2016, Stephan has led the youth program in a multitude of activities from art workshops to canoeing; the youth have been busy. To learn more about the activities of the Bear River Band Youth Program, visit their Facebook page.  

With the help of the Bear River Band and other key community leaders, Stephan and his staff have created a meaningful program and a powerful sense of belonging. The program has flourished, and the youth are finding a valuable connection with their culture and ancestors.

The days ahead

As the Ts' Denoni Youth Mentor Program kicks off this fall, look for new leaders to emerge and a new narrative to form. Stephan knows that if these mentors and mentees work together, positive action will come as a result.

“The reason we are still here is because of our resilience. There are countless people out there trying to make their communities better—these are the people who are really making a difference: the teachers, the youth workers, the regular everyday people trying to make our communities a better place,” emphasizes Cheney.  


Over the years a narrative has been created, one that places the Native people in a helpless scenario. Stephan ascertains that a new narrative must begin. “We can help ourselves—by working on ourselves, we can make a difference in our communities.”

“This is not about me....If I am helping someone, it’s about them helping themselves. I let them [the youth] see what I am doing,” he thinks out loud. “It is simple: be yourself. Live in a respectful, good way...just be present in every way possible...just be there.”

stephan_mentors.jpg(Zech Gable, Peter Gensaw, Sammy Gensaw, Shaylynne Masten, Stephan Cheney, Jon Luke Gensaw)

With the support of the Running Strong Dreamstarter Grant, Stephan hopes to establish a program that will create a lasting impact on the lives of those involved and the community of the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria

Native Hope is proud to serve as a mentoring organization in this endeavor and will continue to share the impact that Stephan’s dream has on those he serves.  

Join us we strive to equip a generation of Native American youth to pursue a bright future and see their culture thrive.