For over 20 years, Mitch Walking Elk led Change Inc.’s Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society. Now, after Mitch’s retirement this past June, the Society has been taken over by Nina Berglund (she/her/they/them). The mentoring program teaches American Indian youth cultural skills and knowledge through an intensive apprenticeship to deliver a definite and positive impact. Participants further develop their cultural identity and strengths to overcome barriers related to systemic racism and intergenerational poverty.
With funding provided through a grant from the Saint Paul Children’s Collaborative (SPCC), Change Inc.’s Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society provides access to traditional elders and healing instructors for American Indian Youth, ages 10-18, and their parents or families.
The core goal of Change Inc.’s Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society is to harness the inherent power of cultural identity to help empower and stabilize American Indian families who face barriers related to historical trauma, systemic racism, and poverty resulting from hundreds of years of oppression, abuse, and forced relocation.
Mitch Walking Elk is an enrolled member of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma and also part Hopi. He provided one-to-one weekly mentoring for participants and weekly two-hour group meetings for cultural instruction. Participants also assisted Walking Elk in officiating ceremonies such as pipe, sweat lodge, Sun Dance, healing/doctoring, naming, fasting (vision quest), Midewin and seasonal ceremonies, as well as learning to make drums, moccasins, shakers and prepare meat and berries for ceremonial use.
But now, there is a new lead mentor for the Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society. Nina Berglund, 23, is Northern Cheyenne and Oglala Lakota. They grew up in St. Paul and now live in South Minneapolis. As a Community Cultural Specialist with Change Inc., she not only works in schools with students, but is the new leader for the Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society.
How they came to be in this position is a unique story. Nina started out as a participant of the program led by Mitch Walking Elk. The mentoring group used to be focused on young Native American males. However, Nina tagged along with her younger brother to the group one day and never looked back. Program leader at the time, Walking Elk, made the decision to open the group to all Native American youth and young adults, which, in turn, brought about a great deal of family involvement.
More and more family members of the participants began attending the group which is important because ceremony is so interconnected within the family. To live your life in a ceremonial way included involving your family members and those that you live with. According to the National Library of Medicine’s Native Voices Exhibition, “Ceremony is an essential part of traditional Native healing. Because physical and spiritual health are intimately connected, body and spirit must heal together. Traditional healing ceremonies promote wellness by reflecting Native conceptions of Spirit, Creator, and the Universe. They can include prayer, chants, drumming, songs, stories, and the use of a variety of sacred objects.”
As a mentee in Walking Elk’s group, Nina was able to experience a multitude of opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise been a part of. Mitch took the mentoring group to many different ceremonies, elder music gatherings, and even took them on the Longest Walk 5 in 2016, which is run by the American Indian Movement (the first Longest Walk took place in 1978). Nina said “I know personally it helped create connections in the community because thanks to attending those ceremonies and being a part of them, I've grown an entire family of people who go to ceremony, and who I consider my family.”
Another source of enlightenment came from being a mentee in Change Inc.’s Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society, and that was learning about the Doctrine of Discovery and the papal bulls. Walking Elk first showed the Doctrine of Discovery video to the group about 5 years ago. According to The Upstander Project, “The Doctrine of Discovery established a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians. The papal bulls were decrees that began in the 1100s, which included sanctions, enforcements, authorizations, expulsions, admonishments, excommunications, denunciations, and expressions of territorial sovereignty for Christian monarchs supported by the Catholic Church.”
After watching the film, the group of young mentees were rightfully upset and concerned. This led to Mitch proposing the idea of taking action. And so, in 2018, they fundraised and made enough money to travel to and meet with Vatican officials. As Nina shares, “We took the initiative, we did it, we fundraised, we went out there, met with community members and ultimately were in communication with the Vatican. And it was all due to the group.”
This started a whirlwind of movement, not only in the youth that traveled to the Vatican, but in the community. The movement was centered on the atrocities of the Catholic Church, and people like Christopher Columbus. Nina says that the activism component of the mentoring program was hugely influential to her, stating “The activism piece of the mentoring program, I think, is what Mitch really put into it. We can live our life in a ceremonial way, but understanding that our existence is a form of activism and by us as young people standing up and walking the way of our traditional ways, it actually benefits us so much more. And with this activism piece, we did all of it in ceremony and we made sure to do everything very intentionally by asking permission and following our customs.” They now view themself as a climate activist and Native Rights activist and say they are “fighting for the future generations on behalf of land, water, and our nations.”
A few years went by and just last year Mitch invited Nina and her brother down to Mexico to take part in a ceremony. While they were there, Mitch posed the question to Nina of what she would think about taking over for him as the leader of the Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society when he retired. Nina said “At that time I didn't really think too much of it. I was 22 years old and at first, I said, ‘yeah, sure, that sounds cool,’ not understanding at that moment what would come with it.” Mitch brought it up to them again a few months later, and Nina started truly considering the opportunity.
Mitch very much encouraged Nina and told her she was the best fit for this role, being a mentee in the program herself. They began to think of how they could step into the position and mold the program into what they saw as being successful. She said she wanted to do it in a way that she could do the things she wished she had saw growing up, while still building upon all that Mitch had poured into this program over the years.
Soon after, Nina accepted a full-time position with Change Inc. as a Community Cultural Specialist and as the new leader of the Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society. Walking Elk officially retired in July of this year, moving back to Oklahoma where he is originally from.
Nina says their intention of taking this position is to offer opportunities to the young people who often get overlooked. She says, “At the Youth shelter I previously worked at, seeing the kids there who are in such need of some type of culture, or of some type of language, some type of sense of identity —these kids have fallen into the cracks of the system. And personally, in experiencing that, in making relation and making connection with those kids, it makes me realize that as I'm getting older, it's my responsibility to be that person that those young people can look up to.”
Having their spiritual mentor, Walking Elk, tell them he believed in them made Nina emotional. She says she has also received good reassurance from her supervisor, Rich Garland, which has given her confidence as she finds her way in this new chapter in her life. In reference to Rich Garland’s reassurance they said, “I feel like that was just a continuation of Mitch’s words and Mitch’s impact on me. Sitting back and thinking, although I am a young person, and just last year I was just like a mentee in the program, to now this year being the organizer of the program— it is overwhelming, but it means so much to me and I know it means a lot to the community.”
One other aspect they feel is extremely important as they take over the group, is the identity of “two-spirit” youth. As Nina explained, two-spirit refers to a person who identifies as having both a masculine and feminine spirit, and ultimately are a part of the LGBTQ community. Nina themself identifies as Panromantic Demisexual two-spirit.
When forming their role with Change Inc., Nina discussed that the youth they had great interest in working with were LGBTQ youth and Trans Native youth. She says access to Ceremony for queer youth is really hard “because of peoples’ internalized homophobia, because of colonization, and because of boarding schools.” So, one of her main goals is to shine a light on these youth who need support because if that's a child's identity and that's how they choose to identify, then they should have access to these resources whether they identify as that or not.
As the year is ending, Nina’s focus is on getting the programming she took over from Mitch up and running again with grant funding from the SPCC. She hopes to host a fall feast for program members and families in the upcoming weeks as well to reunite the community. While they more than appreciate all the work Walking Elk has put into the Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society and who it has made them, they are also excited to put their own spin on the group and shape it into something even bigger for the Native American community members it will continue to serve.