Music camp helps Lummi youth sing their thoughts

Kira Cox, The Bellingham Herald
1/7/11

LUMMI INDIAN RESERVATION, Wash. (AP) – When Jonah Ballew first attended the Music Mentor Academy camp this year as part of summer school, he discovered a new way to deal with his feelings and frustrations about aspects of life on the reservation.

The 12-year-old’s first song, “Native Pride,” called for the end of drug use on the reservation, with lyrics including “This is my house, you better get out. ... why you here anyway, you don’t belong here drug man.”

“I want to try to perform a lot and get the message out that it’s not good, drugs and alcohol,” Ballew said. “It needs to stop to make the community better.”

That’s why when he heard the Olympia-based organization was doing another camp during winter break, he signed up and immediately started writing more songs to inspire other tribal youth.

Ballew was one of about 40 Lummi and Nooksack tribe kids and teens who spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day at Lummi Youth Academy, a residential support center for tribal students, writing and recording songs about their lives and their tribes.

“Music is such a powerful part of all youth,” said Todd Denny, founder and director of the organization. “And within tribes, it’s a huge part of their culture. ... It’s just bringing a contemporary wrinkle to the traditional ways and traditional culture.”

Denny started the music academies about 10 years ago, using music written and recorded by tribal youth to help empower and educate other youth in the hope that preventable drug and health problems that tend to plague Native communities may end.

“It feels much more powerful coming from kids rather than adults,” Denny said. “We know youth inspire youth.”

Denny first brought the program to the area over the summer and was thrilled with the level of interest and engagement students had. He received a grant from the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board to bring the program back this winter and reach even more students, this time emphasizing suicide prevention and healthy lifestyles.

At the camp, students were encouraged to write about whatever they were feeling, and then they had a chance to record their songs in makeshift recording studios. The songs will be compiled into a CD for distribution around the community.

“Music is a great, non-threatening way for youth to express themselves,” Denny said.

Nine-year-old Sadie Olsen, who was attending the camp for the second time, echoed Denny’s belief.

“It’s actually really fun because you can really, like, express yourself,” the third-grader said. “All the things you have inside you, you can show through your music.”

Sunny Lopez-George had never written a song before the camp. The 14-year-old, who lives at Lummi Youth Academy, has been struggling with the death of her best friend, Nathan, about five months ago. When she was encouraged to join the camp, he was the first topic she considered writing about.

“I miss him, so I thought I’d write something about him,” the Vista Middle School eighth-grader said. “I was kind of crying when I wrote it. ... but it’s helping.”

Jonah Gaona has been rapping for years, coming up with lyrics off the top of his head while walking home, but the 16-year-old never wrote them down to share with anyone. After attending the music camp over the summer, he started carrying around a notebook, writing personal stories into hip-hop and rap songs so they can serve as inspiration to other teens.

During the summer he wrote and recorded “Coming Off Tha Streetz,” in which he rapped about his disappointment in his parents’ issues with alcohol, drugs and violence, and how he turned to drugs and alcohol at an early age.

“Just bad things have been going through my whole life,” he said. “When I rap, it’s like getting everything off my mind, everything around me doesn’t matter.”

For the winter camp, he led a collaborative project with some of the other students and adult mentors, singing and rapping about moving forward from bad choices and how important it is for Native youth to take pride in their lives.

“This is who I am; Lummi is going to be here and be me even if I’m not here,” he said. “No one can take that from me.”

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