Donor Impact Story

Photo by Chava Florendo

Fostering Belonging Native Youth Thrive at Konaway Nika Tillicum at SOU

Fostering Belonging: Native Youth Thrive at Konaway Nika Tillicum Camp at SOU

Konaway Nika Tillicum is an overnight academic camp for Native American students in grades 7 to 12 held on SOU’s campus each summer. Students from across the Northwest travel to engage in a range of lectures, cultural experiences, recreational activities, and classes with Indigenous leaders. For nearly 30 years, this unique program has been making a profound impact on the lives of young Native American students, providing them with academic support, cultural understanding, and a strong foundation to navigate the challenges of higher education. 

A Legacy of Success: Passing Down Knowledge 

Konaway’s impact is so deep-rooted that it spans generations. The program boasts second-generation students, where former participants now send their children to experience the transformative experience that Konaway offers. Further, many of the camp’s staff members were once students themselves, creating a cycle of knowledge and support that strengthens the program’s impact. 

This continuity has led to the development of a comprehensive toolbox of resources and experiences that Konaway draws from to empower its students. These resources are instrumental in preparing Native American youth for the rigors of higher education while remaining deeply connected to their cultural heritage. This includes course offerings from a variety of disciplines including the Fine Arts, Humanities, Math, and Science.  

Middle school aged child in river raft with yellow helmet.

Konaway camp students often have the opportunity to raft together, made possible by the OARS Foundation. Photo by Chava Florendo.

More Than a Culture Camp: An Academic Journey 

While Konaway may not be a traditional culture camp, its significance in bridging academics and culture is critical to its success. The program aims to help students not only understand their heritage but also incorporate it into their personal well-being. This cultural integration proves essential in empowering them to navigate the challenges they may face, not only in academia but also in life.  

Additionally, Konaway serves as a compass, guiding students on how to confront prejudice, misunderstandings, and challenges to their identity. Through a combination of mentorship, knowledge sharing, and skill-building, participants learn to become empowered as students, equipped with facts and understanding. These skills are crucial in helping them overcome obstacles in the academic world, fostering a sense of resilience and agency. 

Building a Diverse and Accessible Community 

One of the unique aspects of Konaway is its ability to draw students from across Indigenous communities, creating a vibrant and diverse learning environment. Students from Alaska to New Mexico converge at Konaway. This diversity allows for the exchange of ideas, perspectives, and experiences, enriching the overall learning experience. 

Further, Konaway’s commitment to accessibility also sets it apart. By eliminating financial barriers, the program ensures that every deserving student can participate. Through partnerships with external donors and grant funding, the program can offer culturally relevant experiences, such as crafting traditional moccasins or hand drums. This commitment to accessibility removes financial stress and allows students to focus on their personal growth and education. 

A Native youth breakdances on a stage with four students clapping behind him.

Konaway youth perform at OSF’s Green Show. Photo by Chava Florendo.

Says Director Brent Florendo, “Konaway offers a unique chance to establish a thriving Indigenous community, not only locally but also nationally. It empowers us to exemplify the core values of our diverse Indigenous backgrounds. Through youth programs, we assert our sovereignty and shape the academy based on our perspectives, distinct from conventional youth programs. Konaway’s 30-year tenure at SOU underscores its significance.” 

Instructor and organizer, Chava Florendo adds that, “We emphasize the importance of finding your community in college, and primarily, we encourage students to look at the Native Programs at SOU as an incredible hub for the Indigenous community. We tell students, ‘You can find your spot. You can find belonging.’” 

Two young students hold handmade drums and smile at the camera.

Students at Konaway have the opportunity to make handmade drums. Photo by Chava Florendo.

A Powerful Legacy: Empowering Indigenous Youth 

Konaway’s legacy is one of empowerment, resilience, and community building. The program not only prepares Native American youth for higher education but also equips them with the skills and confidence to navigate the world beyond the classroom. By blending academics with cultural understanding, Konaway provides a unique space where students can find their sense of belonging and embrace their identity. Konaway camp participants attend an Oregon Shakespeare Festival play as well as perform on stage, learn about local arts and culture, in addition to participate in outdoor recreation activities including traditional Native games.  

Even more, the program’s success lies not only in the knowledge imparted but also in the connections forged. Students leave Konaway with a network of peers, mentors, and allies that extends far beyond their time at the camp. This support system becomes a lifelong resource, reminding them that they are part of a broader community dedicated to their success. As graduates of the camp move on, their successes are celebrated as part of one community.  

A group of Native youth learn how to make clothing in a group setting.

A class demonstration at Konaway. Photo by Chava Florendo.

Support from Generous Donors 

External supporters of Konaway play a vital role allowing staff to provide optimal student accommodations and to develop extraordinary programming. Richard Johnson, a longtime supporter, was first called to give to Konaway when his rural Grants Pass neighbor, former Native American Studies faculty member, David West, informed him of the program. The two have a shared Native history—Johnson is part Shawnee and West is Pottawatomie, and according to Native history, the two tribes joined forces during the Revolutionary War. Based on this and their neighborly ties, Johnson developed a close relationship with West—and a sense of trust—which prompted his giving to Konaway.  

Johnson says, “Konaway resonates with my DNA. I was captured by the wholesomeness of the program, that it reaches out to our youth of Native blood—to give them the overall message and inspiration that you can do anything you set your mind to.” 

He says, “The purpose, in my way of thinking, is to encourage the child, to help them extend themselves beyond their culture, and to be able to rely on the good intentions of people that are there to help them. It’s a simple word: encouragement.”

Another longtime Konaway supporter, Grant Williams, says, “Inspired by the profound injustice that has unfolded over centuries, my passion for giving to Native youth stems from the belief that education is the bridge to both honor their heritage and shape a better future. Their wisdom and traditions are invaluable to us all, and I stand dedicated to nurturing a world where empathy and understanding thrive.”

Brent Florendo is committed to the program, and says, “Our youth embody our future, and providing a transformative environment, even if just for a week, ripples into families, communities, and Indigenous perspectives we fight to uphold. It’s about more than education; it’s about profound impact in Indian country.” 

A group of people in blue t-shirts stand in front of a tree mural.

Konaway camp participants. Photo by Chava Florendo.

Feeling inspired? Give here to support the academic journey of Indigenous youth.