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A padlock barred the seven Santee and Ponca students from entering the exhibit on Native people at the University of Nebraska State Museum.

So they sat on benches in the hallway Friday, listening to museum officials talk about what they can expect to see once "First Peoples of the Plains" opens Sept. 30.

"We want to talk about what are contemporary first peoples doing now in the Great Plains," said Alan Osborn, curator of anthropology at the museum.

On Friday, it was pretty clear what the seven students were doing. They were learning to be Native leaders and professionals in the 21st century.

As part of the 2011 Native Sovereignty Youth Project, they listened to Native leaders such as Jai Steadman, an assistant coach for an NBA D-League team in Texas, and Georgiana Lee, assistant director of Native American Public Telecommunications in Lincoln.

The youth project opened Friday as the first of nearly a dozen students arrived in Lincoln. The students represent the four tribes of Nebraska: Omaha, Ponca, Santee and Winnebago.

The weekend kickoff is the first part of a nearly yearlong leadership project being organized by the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, with financial support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and local donors. Steadman, a Ponca tribal member, also helped organize and host the youth project.

The project is expected to introduce the students to Native and non-Native professionals and leaders, including University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors, local attorneys, state senators and football coaches.

"This is a way of equipping that next generation of leaders-to-be," said Scott Shafer of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs.

The students planned to attend the Nebraska-Chattanooga football game Saturday, using donated tickets.

"I'm really interested in getting involved and being a leader," said Shanna Wolff, a 16-year-old Ponca who attends Lincoln Northeast High School.

She said she wants to become an attorney, focusing on tribal law.

"I want to give back."

Dakota Denney, a 17-year-old senior from Santee, said he hoped to learn leadership skills he can take back to a community youth council in which he participates.

"We get together and we plan on making our community better," he said of the council.

"I'm looking to actually be more of a leader when I go back to Santee. I'll have more knowledge so I'll be able to help out more."

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or


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