“We cry saltwater,” said Mark Ellis. “We sweat saltwater. We are ocean people.”

Ellis, the 6th generation on his family’s land in Hawaii, was explaining to other young indigenous leaders from Hawaii, Alaska and New Zealand the deep ties he feels to his homeland’s environment. The 16 program fellows were at the Stanford Woods Institute for the First Nations' Futures Institute, a two-week program that helped prepare them to tackle social, economic, environmental and cultural challenges in their communities.

Ellis described how his parents had never learned Hawaiian despite being raised by native Hawaiians who spoke the language fluently. “I’m here for my children and their children,” he said. “I’m here to make a difference.”

During the training, the fellows learned how to develop values-based leadership skills and solve resource management problems. Together, they attended and discussed various lectures and presentations on issues such as innovation, agricultural history, colonial impacts, strategic management and communications. They also had time for unique learning experiences ranging from a kayaking excursion to outdoor leadership training with horses.

The annual institute is part of the First Nations' Futures Program (FNFP), a one-year fellowship program co-directed by Stanford Woods Senior Fellow Peter Vitousek that is intended to develop well-balanced First Nations leaders.