BLACK HILLS, S.D. - Gerard Baker jokes that he wanted to become the superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Park because he "wanted to be in charge of four White guys."
Baker was named to that job and now serves as the highest-ranking Native American in the park service. He was also one of the key speakers at the 10th annual Native American Journalism Career Conference April 14-16 at the Crazy Horse Memorial.
Four Hopi High radio students attended the event including Melsena Harris, Geraldine Numkena, Latoya Rucker and Darian Poleyestewa.
Baker, who previously served as superintendent of Lewis and Clark National Park and Little Big Horn National Park, did not grow up wealthy.
"We grew up in a lock house with no electricity. We weren't poor, but we had no money," he said.
Baker said his family considered themselves rich because they had culture as they listened to stories about clans and societies. During the winter, they could tell stories.
"We had the freedom to tell stories and never let them die," he said.
Baker remembers a time when children would be disciplined by their mother's brothers and people would help others if they fell down.
"We can't resurrect our societies, but we can put them in contemporary thought," he said.
Baker also told the audience they need to stop playing the blame game. He said that doesn't mean they forget about the boarding schools and how they were forced to not practice their religion.
But he warned the people not to turn to drugs and alcohol.
"Those on alcohol and drugs are false warriors. That is not our way," he said. "We need to be warriors again."
Baker said the new warriors are those who bare their spirit to the creator and then think of the future with their children and grandchildren in mind. He said today's warriors need to be at every major university.
"We all have opportunity. We are intelligent and brilliant," he said.
Baker recounted how he came from an era where teachers told the students that they would never amount to anything.
"But we still have the opportunity to be those warriors. We need to take that opportunity or we will lose," he said.
Baker recounted how he started in the park service by cleaning toilets. He had a supervisor who criticized him and told him the proper way to clean toilets. At that time, Baker promised himself that he would become the supervisor. He realized he had to prove himself so he went to college as he earned degrees in criminology and sociology.
Baker's parents passed on, but he said they continue to teach him. He said in the academic world Native Americans need to know twice as much as others in order to excel.
Baker has spent 32 years in the park service including chasing buffalo and watching out for bears after the Alaska oil spill. As a firearms instructor, Baker was sent to Alaska to protect the biologists who were investigating and trying to clean up the mess.
"Like Custer, I said 'What am I doing here?' he said.
One time he didn't make enough noise and a kodiak bear came too close to him. After that he was singing and yelling so the bears would hear him and stay away.
When Baker took the job at Little Big Horn, he thought his fellow tribal members would call him an apple or traitor.
"But I didn't hear that. The elders said take that job because it's a place to heal and bring everybody together," he said.
Baker said the four presidents on Mount Rushmore represent freedoms that Native Americans continue to have today.
Baker urged the aspiring young journalists to know the "power of the word" in order to tell stories in the correct way.
"Keep motivating yourselves and talking among yourselves. Only you can do that," he told the youth. "The battlefield today is called school and living. Be traditional in the contemporary world. Stick together. Take care of the elders and the ones who are coming up, then you will be that warrior."
The intensive journalism camp gave students a chance to learn about print journalism and mass media.
About 115 students attended the conference. They were broken into groups of four and worked with journalism mentors as they went out and worked on stories by interviewing other students.
All four Hopi High radio students liked the conference and felt inspired to learn more about journalism.
Geraldine Numkena, a sophomore at Hopi High, said the best part of the conference was making new friends and gaining memories from the conference. She was glad that she learned about the communities that the different students were from.
"I think Gerard Baker was the best speaker there. He had a lot of positive things to say and showed a lot of wisdom to all of us," she said. "I will always remember his words of wisdom."
Latoya Rucker, a junior at Hopi High, said her group members were nice and helpful when they were putting their group article together.
Melsena Harris, a junior at Hopi High, said her mentor Benny Polacca was a great influence because he explained how to interview and how to brainstorm before writing She said one of the girls in her group, Lisa Crow Dog, was "really into the project" while one of the other girls was extremely shy.
Darian "Barbarian" Poleyestewa, a junior at Hopi High, said the students from the other schools were too quiet.
Jeff Palmer, executive director of the education division of Native American Journalists Association, emphasized that writing filters into all areas of journalism whether it's broadcast or the Internet.
Ray Chavez, journalism professor at Oklahoma University, said the students were doing serious work but having fun in the process. He said journalism is important to Native Americans because it's a form of storytelling.
Chavez rhetorically asked the group what was the strongest animal in the world. His grandmother told him it was the monarch butterfly because it flew from Canada to Mexico in all kinds of weather.
"Grandma was our TV. We referred to her as our first journalism teacher," he recalled.
Chavez said she would make them summarize stories with the five W's.
John Bodette, executive editor of the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota, told the Native American youth they are needed in the newsroom.
"Newspapers aren't going anywhere. You know why? Because if we don't do it then who will?" he asked.
Another speaker who drew the attention of the crowd was Willow Pingree who played a drum song at the Crazy Horse Memorial and later played an encouragement drum song.
Pingree said he thanks all his ancestors and all the schools that teach Native American studies.
"I'm pleased to shake hands in a good way with a good heart," he said.
Pingree, who refers to himself as a full-blooded mixed native, said education is the way to become a warrior.
"We need to show the U.S. government that we can do this," he said.
Pingree said tribal people must unite by picking up pencils and books.
"We are the new warrior society," he said.
The Hopi High radio students thank the funders for the trip, which included Hopi High School, Native American Journalists Association, Navajo Nation Speaker Lawrence Morgan and June Fox. Funding for this trip and the visit to the National Federation of Community Broadcasters Conference was also funded by Apollo College, former Hopi Vice Chairman Todd Honyaoma Sr., Cynthia Yurth, Tom and Jane Scholes, Greg and Sandy Schnirring and the Navajo Hopi Observer.