BIG CYPRESS — The idea of farming fish in cattle ponds was a winner for Makayla Torres in the Intertribal Agricultural Council’s youth essay contest.
She celebrated the win at the IAC annual conference Dec. 9 to 12 in Las Vegas.
The theme of the student essay contest was “Agriculture: Investing in Sovereignty” and the bar for the essays was set high.
Students had to answer the question of how to invest $100,000 to improve the community’s food and agriculture systems.
“I thought fish farming was an interesting topic,” said Torres, 16, a 10th- grader at the Ahfachkee School. “We don’t have much agriculture here other than cattle. I heard there was a cattle pond near Billie Swamp Safari and thought why not give it a dual purpose and use it for farming fish?”
It was that outside of the box thinking that put her essay in the winner’s circle with two others at the IAC conference.
For her efforts, Torres won a full travel scholarship to attend the conference, an iPad, $1,000 and she was presented with a traditional Native American blanket.
About 250 students from around Indian Country entered the competition and the top 90 were also honored, including Ahfachkee senior Leilani Gopher, whose essay outlined creating a community garden on the site of Big Cypress’s old bingo hall.
“It’s a big piece of land and hasn’t been used in so long,” said Gopher, 18. “It would help students get community service, a job, exercise and give them something to do to take their minds off of doing bad things. And it would help the community come together.”
High school English teacher Dr. Rona Olukolu helped the students choose their topics, craft their essays, guided them through research and edited their final drafts.
All of her students created essays for the contest.
Rules for the contest were very specific: essays had to be at least three pages long and double spaced using 12 point Arial font with one inch margins. They were judged on the organization of information, spelling and punctuation.
The top three were keynote speakers at the conference.
The IAC annual conference focuses on Native agriculture production, sustainability and conservation.
It is the largest gathering of Native American agriculture producers, Tribal natural resource professionals and USDA service providers. A trade show highlighted Native agriculture businesses and enterprises.
Each day of the conference Torres and Gopher attended classes and seminars featuring Native American speakers.
The sessions lasted from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Torres said it was a long time to sit still and listen.
But about 1,000 people sat and listened at the keynote session, at which Torres read her essay.
“At first I was nervous,” she said. “Then I just started reading and it got easier. Everyone applauded. It made me feel good about my essay and I knew my work paid off.”
At the trade show, the girls tasted beef jerky, bison and chocolate covered pecans. But perhaps the highlight was meeting students from other tribes.
“It felt great to be around all Native People,” Gopher said. “It felt normal, like at Tribal Fair or someplace where I’m not the only one.”
“We learned what other people eat and how they make their fry bread,” added Torres.
There were other diversions in Las Vegas, such as shopping, a zip line and seeing the strip. Both girls had a great time exploring the new environment.