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Never To Late
April 8 2014

Student Senate president circled-back for education
BISMARCK (UTN) – Gene Ramon Declay is president of the United Tribes Student Senate and a leader with experience.

            He is White Mountain Apache/Akimel O’Odham (Pima) from the White Mountain Apache Reservation in East Central, AZ.

            Being that he is a college student now, education is his top priority. He’s studying Media Arts in UTTC’s Art/Art Marketing program.

As a veteran, Gene Declay carried the Staff in the UTTC Color Guard. He likes the way veterans are supported here but says more could always be done.

           At age 43, his presence runs counter to the trend of a declining average age in tribal college students. Nevertheless, his abundance of life experience makes him the kind of person who relates across the spectrum of those attending tribal college.

           Declay would be the first to tell you that he has overcome many hardships and obstacles in life to be in this position today. He’s a veteran, having spent two years in the light infantry of the U.S. Army.

Marian and Gene Declay

           He’s a family man who loves his family very much. His wife of 10 years, Marian, is a student in UTTC’s Bachelors Degree program in Small Business Management. Both speak fluent Apache and are teaching their children. He believes language preservation is so important that he’s working on a digital teaching application to help preserve the Apache language.

           He has the outlook of an activist who tries to help Native People in whatever way he can.

           And then there’s this: Gene Declay’s life is filled with music. He’s known in music circles as “GENO,” a musician, lyricist, performer and producer of hip-hop music and music videos.

           He says the name GENO is an acronym for Get Every Native Organized. And God Empowers and Never Oppresses.

           With hardly any education or background, he and his wife created their own independent record label: Native Organizations Entertainment. From humble beginnings, he says, “it was just persistence and learning as we go.”

           Before arriving at UTTC in 2012, they had produced and collaborated on over a dozen albums, attracting a small following of fans. His fourth solo rap/hip-hop album, “Unda Dogg Unda Godd,” was released in December. A music video of the title received the “Best Sound Editing” award in last year’s AIHEC competition and was shown at the 2013 Dakota Digital Film Festival.

           With faith in the Creator and 12 years of sobriety behind him, he’s a man for all seasons – a person with ideas and something to say.

           If there was anything missing, it was schooling. He had the experience in life and business but was short on formal education.

            “When people find out I’m from Arizona they want to know how we ended up in North Dakota,” he said.

           He told the story at a UTTC scholarship event last year.

            “Being I’m from Arizona, I’m usually darker than this,” he apologized with a comedic pause and a grin to the chuckling audience. “Two winters here and this is the lightest I’ve ever been.”

           He and his wife began talking about expanding their music business four years ago. Both had good jobs with a large company in Phoenix when their weekend music business began producing more income than both made during the week.

            They thought about California and New York.

           “Honestly, North Dakota never crossed my mind. I apologize for saying that but I didn’t think I would ever move here,” he said, adding that we don’t always know what the Creator has in store for us.

            It took a nudge from Marian to give him faith they would do well on their own.

            “I really love my wife, she’s my best friend, always encouraging me,” he said. “And she said, ‘if I resign right now, would you?’ I said ‘sure.’ And so she did, she resigned.”

           Declay says time soon proved it was the right decision. It felt good to be a Native American man with his own small business. “It felt good to get that respect from people throughout Indian Country.”

            What started as a weekend trip to sell at the Gallup Ceremonials in 2011, ended up becoming a year-long, life-changing experience. The couple, along with their two-year-old son, ended up at Crow Fair in Montana, thinking they would soon return to Arizona.

           “The people we met started pulling us toward our destiny,” he says describing the journey.

           From Crow they went to Rosebud for the annual fair and powwow. Then the trail led to Cheyenne River, where “the Lakota’s showed us genuine love and respect that we really liked.”

           “And people started talking about the United Tribes Powwow. And my wife said ‘if we get to United Tribes, I think I’m just going to enroll.’”

           At UTTC the unexpected happened. The powwow was great and it occurred that their booth was right in front of the admissions building. It was the last day to register for classes so they signed up. “We really felt like we wanted to be part of this,” he said.

            Another new friend, from the UTTC staff, guided them through housing and financial aid. Scholarships paid for Gene’s first semester, so there was no financial aid from the government or a tribe and no student loan.

            “Scholarships really do help people,” he says.

            To come all the way from Arizona was a huge step.

           “But we didn’t do it by ourselves. There were a lot of prayers. A lot of people prayed for us. And the Creator brought people into our lives to guide us here.”

            He and his family love North Dakota. He says the country is beautiful. As an avid outdoorsman, he enjoys fishing on the Missouri River. They’ve made lots of good relationships and friendships.

            “I got a little North Dakota accent now,” he said pronouncing it ‘Nord-Dakota,’ and getting a round of laughter from the audience. “When I call my friends in Arizona I say ‘It’s me, Geno.’ And they say ‘who?!’ They don’t recognize me.”

            He says it feels like family here. He’s thankful for all who befriended them along the way.

           Along with his educational program Declay believes that his service in the student senate is gaining him new organizational and leaderships skills. He believes in open meetings, community involvement and activism.

           He hadn’t expected student senate would take up so much time, particularly since the end of fall semester when the panel lost three of its members.
“That’s the difficult part,” he says. “We’ve all put-in extra hours. It’s been tough at times. But we’ve managed and stayed committed to our weekly meetings, our events and activities.”

           “The main challenge is communication,” he says. “It’s always getting the word out there, letting people know of events well ahead of time.”

           Another challenge is getting people involved.

           “Student Involvement isn't always as great as we’d like. But we’re working hard to change that.”

Waylon Black Crow and Gene Declay in Washington, DC with U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp.

            Declay and fellow student senate member Waylon Black Crow (Oglala) accompanied UTTC leaders in February to the 2014 AIHEC Annual Winter Meeting and Capitol Hill Days in Washington, DC. They joined 75 other students from tribal colleges and universities in preparing for and making Capitol Hill office visits, promoting tribal colleges to Congressmen and Senators and their staff members.

            It was a challenging learning experience filled with lots of information and ideas that he believes will be useful in the future.

           “I’m willing to learn as much as I can,” he says. “And I hope that we can accomplish more together. My leadership abilities are evolving, and I know there‘s much more to learn.”

           Declay is glad to have circled-back and made it into school.

           “I’m proof that it’s never to late to get an education,” he says. “All we need is to take that first step. If I can do it, anybody can do it.”

           Gene Declay will graduate with an Associate Degree during UTTC’s 2014 Commencement Ceremony in May. Marian Declay will become a Bachelor’s Degree graduate in December.

GENO’s music work is available online and on iTunes.

Gene Declay was named UTTC’s 2014 AIHEC Student of the Year

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