It has been a few weeks since Steve Laravie Jr. started his role as executive director at Lincoln's Indian Center.
At the facility Monday morning, he steps aside from a group of people helping to move heaping bags of garbage from one dumpster to the next.
"I'd shake your hand," he says. "But mine smell like garbage."
They're cleaning up from the most recent powwow event held at the Indian Center, located at 1100 Military Rd. Laravie said he hopes to see more events such as this in the future, especially to encourage young indigenous and Native people in Nebraska to embrace their identities.
He introduces himself in the language of his ancestors, thoughtfully pausing before translating his words to English. Born and raised in Lincoln, Laravie, 26, is an Isanti Dakota and Ponca man — a descendant of Chief Standing Bear.
"What I've said in this introduction is that my grandmothers and grandfathers, they learned how to live life by living with creation," Laravie said. "And this is what it means to be who I am and who I come from."
Identity was the focus of his first few days as executive director. He participated in the Gathering of Native Americans, a conference of community members to discuss the goals and vision for the Indian Center, learning what programs he should be building at the center to encourage young people to embrace both traditional and contemporary ways of living and helping them become self-sustaining individuals.
"Oftentimes in the city, we could go right down to the store," Laravie said. "With the center, we want to focus on the practices of self sufficiency and equipping our young people with that."
Blending the old with the new and giving as much as one takes are also practices Laravie wants to enact. Throughout the Gathering of Native Americans, he heard from young members of different tribes that they were interested in learning how to skin a deer and sew their own cultural clothing, as well as learn more about computer programming and entrepreneurship.
"One of the things that I know a lot of people struggle with is 'How can we be American Indian tribal people and live in the city?'" Laravie said. "But I'm a prime example, you can do both. You can practice your culture and still do things in the city."
The center is researching grants and finding donors to fund programs that Laravie is hoping to implement, such as language classes, dances and celebrations, or simply providing resources to help visitors find a sense of community. After struggling to secure funding in recent years — the center started 2018 $140,000 in debt, lost a $70,000 grant and had to reduce staffing and hours the following year — Laravie wants to rebuild trust with the community.
"We are gratified to be on the right path with an engaged and supportive board, a group of incredible staff who are already bringing much needed programming back to the center," board chair Sloan Rupp said in a news release last month. "With Mr. Laravie's vision and leadership, we are moving to a bright future."
Laravie recognizes the issues that have plagued the center in the past, and as the youngest executive director in the center's history he feels a need to apologize to the donors and community members who had been let down.
"I've begun to reach out to individuals who were wanting to help us but because of misguided leadership, because of taking from people, taking from the community, backed out," Laravie said. "Those relationships have been disrespected."
To Laravie, this is not just a matter of earning back much-needed funding, but restoring trust with donors and members of the community. Pride, he said, is something that should not get in the way.
"Taking it upon myself, I want those individuals and organizations to be ensured that this is a new life," Laravie said. "It's really up to them if they want to work with us, but it's my duty and my responsibility to make that right."