Founding mothers of ITCN Head Start program honored at Reno summit |

Founding mothers of ITCN Head Start program honored at Reno summit

By Cassandra Walker
From left, Eloise James, Eleanore Smokey, Shelia Katenay, Velma Melendez and Lana Hicks were among a group of founding mothers of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada’s Head Start program. They were honored at a ceremony during the 11th Annual American Indian/Alaska Native Education Summit on March 23.
Photo: Cassandra Walker
Learn More The Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada (ITCN) consists of an executive board composed of tribal chairmen from each of the 27 tribes living in Nevada and the Great Basin Region. The council was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1966 and serves the Native American community concerning health, education, social, economic and job opportunity programs. Visit for more information.

RENO, Nev. — For many, preschool and early childhood development isn’t something questioned for even a moment; many fortunate parents know exactly where to go for resources to help advance their children’s learning and social development, early-on.

For one group of strong American Indian mothers, however, no such childcare existed for their growing babies just over 50 years ago in Nevada.

There was no platform catering specifically to Native childhood development with an emphasis on both cultural tradition and standard growth benchmarks.

So, those mothers created their own program.

On March 23, during the 11th Annual American Indian/Alaska Native Education Summit held at the University of Nevada, Reno, the women who facilitated the now-thriving Head Start program through the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada (ITCN) were recognized for their progressive action, which has made a lasting effect on the lives and success of the region’s Native children.

“I just think it’s admirable for young women, young mothers, to see the needs of all Native children, and taking the responsibility to start the federal program here in Nevada…” said Sherry Rupert, executive director of the State of Nevada Indian Commission.

Rupert presented each of the women with a plaque during the awards ceremony and showcased a slideshow of images from over 50 years of service creating an educational foundation for Native children.

Over the decades, children of the program have grown up to become great leaders, with several now working as doctors, nurses and educators.

Rupert added that one of the main priorities of ITCN’s Head Start program is to teach children through stories, keeping tradition alive and passing storytelling practices onto the next generations.

The mission of the American Indian/Alaska Native Education Summit is, “building an equitable and sustainable education system for native students,” and over the course of two days (March 22-23), students attended workshops and seminars at UNR that were designed to teach them about the resources available to them and help prepare them for college.

“This is our 11th year and the theme is building an equitable and sustainable education system which is really the goal,” said Alex Coronel, a management analyst with the Nevada Department of Education who helped facilitate the summit. “This is the second year for the youth summit and youth summit attendance has free attendance to make things even more accessible.

“We are offering professional development for anyone who wants it.”

The two-day summit included adult sessions on how to find balance between work, education and personal life, as well as talks on how to find and win scholarships, best practices for educating American Indian students, and much more.

Sessions geared toward youth attendees included empowering youth through language and song, college knowledge sessions, and a college fair with representative booths set up to answer questions and help discussing applying for financial aid.

Visit to learn more about the summit.

Cassandra Walker is a special assignments reporter for the Sierra Nevada Media Group who writes regularly for First Nation’s Focus. She can be reached at