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Azelya Yazzie, a member of the Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Leadership Summit class of 2016, was recently awarded a $1,000 Pollination Project grant to conduct educational outreach in Native American communities in her home region of Southern California.

Yazzie has been involved with numerous service and leadership efforts in the past year, and was an Earth Team volunteer for the Natural Resource Conservation Service. The grant is the most recent of Yazzie’s outreach efforts aimed at revitalizing traditional food-ways and improving the health of Native American communities.

She describes the grant award and her other service efforts as the result of the simple philosophy she’s adopted: the philosophy of “yes.”

“My best piece of advice to youth interested in pursuing their passions or growing as leaders is to just say ‘yes’,” Yazzie said. “You never know what one opportunity will lead to just because you weren’t afraid of taking the chance and you said ‘yes’. It’s amazing how many people you will meet that want to help you, by just taking the first step.”

Azelya Yazzie speaking at the 2016 National Resource Conservation and Development Councils Convention on Native youth in food and agriculture initiatives.

Yazzie learned the value of her philosophy first hand in December 2015 when she took her own first step by attending the Intertribal Agriculture Council’s Indian Agriculture Youth Alliance in Las Vegas. Yazzie said the meeting seemed like an excellent venue to learn about connections between two subjects she’d long been interested in: growing food and exploring her indigenous ancestry.

“It was the first agriculture opportunity I stumbled upon that was for Native Youth,” she said.

The IAC’s annual three-day meeting is designed to educate, empower and create connections among the ever-growing network of Native American farmers, ranchers and agriculturalists working throughout Indian Country.

Alliance youth participate in a modified version of the conference, providing multiple activities and opportunities for the younger members to network and learn from the organization’s more experienced professionals. One activity involved youth members receiving mentorship on how to fill out a Farm Service Agency Youth Loan application. It was during this activity that Yazzie would say “yes” once again, and meet her current mentor, IAC Technical Assistance Specialist Keir Johnson.

 

From left, Mark Van Horn, Director of UC Davis Student Farm, Tom Tomich, Director of UC Davis Agriculture Sustainability Institute, Azelya Yazzie and Keir Johnson-Reyes. Taken on a tour arranged for Yazzie of the UC Davis Ecological Garden.

 

A citizen of the Osage Nation, Johnson was hired by the IAC in June 2014 to provide technical assistance to farmers and ranchers in the IAC’s pacific region. Johnson said he was going around checking in on youth from his region in attendance, when by chance, he sat down to talk with Yazzie and her father.

“She was really interested in expanding her experience,” Johnson said. “She seemed very engaged with getting more involved in agriculture and her dad was completely on board, so we exchanged information and began reaching out every one or two weeks.”

Yazzie said Johnson has been the source of numerous opportunities that have come her way in the past year.

Soon after meeting, they formulated the idea for Yazzie to develop a project as an Earth Team volunteer for the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Yazzie said the experience has expanded her understanding of sustainability and helped her grow as a leader.

“Working with the NRCS helped me grow as a leader by allowing me to step out of my comfort zone and gain responsibility, by asking questions to farmers I’ve just met,” Yazzie said. “I would learn about fuel ladders, different bugs that are killing the trees, how to stop erosion … I would also get the opportunity to work with tribal liaisons to help the local tribes conserve their traditional plants used for ceremonies and tools.”

Azelya Yazzie and Keir Johnson on a tour of the UC Davis Baggins End Student Living Community.

When Yazzie graduated high school in May 2016, Johnson gave her a gift pouch of traditional seeds, including some with personal significance, Osage red corn, a variety of Osage corn with vibrant colored kernels of deep red and purple. The variety, once on the brink of extinction, has begun to make a comeback through the work of individual seed savers and concerted efforts by the Osage Nation.

Yazzie ­– now a student at San Diego Community College studying sustainable agriculture – said the seeds Johnson gave her will be used in her future project focused on helping Native American youth learn how to grow and cook their own traditional foods.

In addition to Yazzie’s collegiate studies, her work with NRCS, and her traditional food project, she will be traveling with Johnson and other IAC members to Hawaii in late March to do outreach education on native food systems and youth involvement at local schools, and give a presentation at the state’s FFA convention.

“She continues to push herself to get into new experiences, developing presentations and speaking before new people,” Johnson said. “I’m very impressed by her, because I see her putting herself into these new areas and new avenues, and she’s getting so much out of it.”

Invigorated by her whirlwind of service projects, Yazzie said she’s extremely excited for the opportunity to develop professionally, and gain more experience as a young leader in food and agriculture.

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