Youth Listening Session focuses on Flathead Reservation youth
By B.L. Azure
SKC Student Senate President Willy Bass talks about the value of education to him at the THHS Youth Listening Session. Stormy Perdash (left) says her cultural pursuits are very important for a positive outlook on life. (B.L. Azure photo)
PABLO — The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Youth Listening Session facilitated by Tribal Health and Human Services Department and organized by Pearl Yellowman Caye, THHS Youth Health and Wellness Program coordinator brought together young tribal adults and adolescents, and tribal leaders in a two-way dialogue on past, present and future issues that affect tribal people.
“This is very exciting to me to see young people stepping up and taking control of their futures,” Tribal Council Chairman Joe Durglo said in his welcoming address. “Individuals in the community often push issues forward. That’s what I see happening here today. Get engaged, ask questions; get informed. I hope this is the first of many gatherings like this.”
Emcee Chance Rush, a Hidatsa tribal member living in Oklahoma told the approximately 40 people of all ages gathered that the world’s young people in the 13 to 24 years old age group are presently the main influence on the planet. They are the future leaders and their influence will grow as they take the reins of power and make decisions that affect all. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to them and help them transit smoothly into leadership roles.
“Let’s not look down upon them,” Rush said of young people. “Let’s stand by them and look forward with them.”
In the opening address at the listening session THHS Director Kevin Howlett encouraged the young adults and adolescents to pursue post high school educational opportunities, to be astute and involved in the political world they live in and to use media to promote their views and accomplishments, and to connect with their fellow tribal people and the non-Indian populace.
Youth panel member Aspen Many Hides said positive role models have kept her on a track to a happy and fruitful life. (B.L. Azure photo)
“The future of Indian people depends upon young people’s ability to navigate the complex world we live in,” Howlett said. “Decisions being made today are a result of what happened twenty years ago. What you do now will affect the world twenty years from now.”
Indian people want the same things as most folks in the world, Howlett said.
“They want the economic security that comes with good jobs,” he said “They want freedom of speech, religious freedom, good schools, affordable housing and clean water — all common sense desires.”
Howlett urged the young people to be a part mapping their futures, and use the modern ever-changing media for educational and informational purposes. He cautioned against Indian and non-Indian people or groups who use the media with reckless regard for facts for political purposes.
“Today the political system is corrupted by money and news that is politically slanted,” he said. “There are those who don’t check the factual information. They listen to news outlets like Fox and run with that. Use the media for educational purposes and to engage your self in the national dialogue. If you don’t other people will and they will define your life for you. That’s a part of the reason there are so many Indians in prison. Others have defined them.”
Self-definition is why education is so important especially in Indian Country.
“Quality education should be a national and tribal priority,” Howlett said, adding that 50 percent of tribal members in Flathead Reservation public schools don’t graduate from high school. “We cannot define our future if fifty-percent of our tribal members don’t graduate from high school. And less than 50 percent of those who graduate go on to college. That’s not a good if we are to define our future.”
Howlett said THHS has many high paying medical profession employment opportunities but few are staffed by tribal members. Among the many well paying jobs at THHS there are 50 positions that pay $80,000 and more a year. However most of the positions are filled via contract with non-CSKT tribal people and non-Indians.
“I can’t hire people in those professional positions just because they are tribal members,” he said. “Would you want a person pull your teeth just because they have a pair of pliers?”
Anna Whiting Sorrel, director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, told folks at the THHS Youth Listening Session about the great strides Indian people in Montana have made since Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer took office eight years ago. She fears those types of gains will end with his administration. (B.L. Azure photo)
The outlook is just as stark in the Flathead Reservation public school systems. There are approximately 450 teaching positions in schools on the Flathead Reservation but there are only an estimated nine filled by tribal members.
“We just can’t sit back and complain about these situations,” Howlett said. “We need an organized effort to change them. Young people need to make personal education decisions early in their educational process, no later than middle school. And don’t take the easy route; if you do you’re pushing yourself away from opportunities available in the science, math and medical professions.”
Leslie Caye, Indian education specialist for Ronan School District 30, said there are approximately 2,125 enrolled Indians and descendents attending schools on the Flathead Reservation. There is another 200 or so in the Early Childhood Services centers. The lion’s share of the enrolled Indian and descendents attend public schools in Ronan and Polson, the rest are enrolled in Arlee, St. Ignatius, Dixon, Charlo, Two Eagle and Hot Springs.
“There isn’t another Indian reservation in Montana that has this many school choices,” Caye said. “There is a good educational infrastructure that provides us with good educational opportunities. There are positive outcomes with these opportunities but there are also negative outcomes.”
Caye said some of the negative outcomes — low high school graduation rates that lead to low college graduation rates — could be related to the lack of role models in the school systems because so few Indian educators work in the schools on the reservation. That has to change if Indian students are to better succeed.
Caye said that the public school superintendents have more influence on Indian children than their parents. That has to change and the way to do that is for parents to be very proactive in their children’s education.
Chance Rush emceed the THHS Youth Listening Session and implored the young folks there to live a positive lifestyle without drugs and alcohol. (B.L. Azure photo)
“We have to have more influence on our children,” Caye said. “Youth today have better freedoms to do things independently from their parents but they are still dependent on them for many things, foremost is financial support.”
A good family structure coupled with good role models are major parts of the foundation for children succeeding in their education endeavors. A lot of hard work remains for that to become common but parents and Indian educators should not shy from the commitment to resolve the situation.
Facing up to the alcohol and drug problems among Indian people is also a part of creating a positive family structure, Howlett said.
“If we don’t stand up and acknowledge that fact and try to seriously remedy that as a community, that signals an acceptance to our youth,” Howlett said.
“When you live a drug and alcohol free life you remember every moment of your life,” Yellowman Caye said. “It really does take the whole community to open up and look at the alcohol and drug problem.”
“We adults have to partner with our youth,” Rush said. “We can open doors for them but we must hold them accountable in a positive way.”
A youth panel, comprised of William “Willy” Bass, SKC Student Senate president, Stormie Perdash, Ronan High School junior, Aspen Many Hides, Polson High School senior, and JJ Tanner, RHS graduate and Haskell Indian College student, were asked how they used their talents to make themselves better including a drug and alcohol free lifestyle.
Tanner, who played basketball for the RHS Chiefs, said it was the round ball that made him a “Doer.”
Pearl Yellowman Caye facilitated the recent THHS Listening Session that exposed Flathead Reservation youth to role models that heard the young adults concerns. (B.L. Azure photo)
“Basketball allowed me to travel and meet people from throughout America and overseas,” Tanner said. “It prodded me to want more of myself, to be a better student. You have to keep up your grades if you want to play ball.”
“I want to be happy in life. How do I achieve that? I go to school. I have good role models. They make me push myself, to set goals,” said Aspen Many Hides. “Every person in the world is born with greatness. Greatness is not just for the elite people. Every person on this reservation can achieve greatness.”
Stormy Perdash said it was her cultural pursuits including jingle dress dancing that keeps her grounded. “I am a powwow addict. I meet so many good people on the Powwow Road. Every powwow is a new story that I learn from,” she said. “I learn from my culture and I have to know the past for me to go forward. I want to go away and get a good education then come back to the reservation.”
Willie Bass said he wants to be involved with young people, to mentor them once he graduates from college because they are the future of Indian people.
My aunts and uncles told me that we are the future,” Bass said. “That’s why it’s important for us to get an education that we can use to help our future generations achieve. They need support; they need to know that someone has their backs. For educational success students need positive role models.”
Flathead Nation Tribal Council Chairman Joe Durglo gave the welcoming address at the THHS Youth Listening Session. He hopes this is the first of many. (B.L. Azure photo)
All four acknowledged that they are role models for the young people in their families and want to ensure they will remain so by living a drug and alcohol free lifestyle.
“All of us have responsibilities beyond our own homes,” Rush said. “You have that whether you like it or not.”
Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, said she entered a world — working for the Gov. Brian Schweitzer administration — eight years ago that an Indian woman had never been before. She gave up a well paying position with the CSKT to take that leap of faith to take the state position and do the job well.
“I wanted to do something different in 2004,” she said, adding that her move was spurred by the tragedy of the alcohol related deaths of two young Indian boys from Ronan. “We as Indian people need to do something different so 11-year-old Indian boys won’t die of alcohol poisoning.”
A way to do that is to be involved in the health and education of Indian youth and their families. Young people looking for role models have to look no further than Whiting Sorrell and Denise Juneau, superintendent of the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
Whiting Sorrell said those opportunities at the state level were never there prior to the Schweitzer administration. The Democratic governor has appointed more Montana Indians to positions within his administration and on state boards than all the previous state government administrations combined. Montana had five Indian people in positions within state government by 2005. There were none in the remaining 49 states.
She also pointed to the success of Juneau who was elected to the office by Indian and non-Indian state voters, the first person of Indian descent to ever be elected to a statewide office.
THHS Director Kevin Howlett told the young adults at the Youth Listening Session to get an education and map out their own and their tribes’ destinies. If they don’t non-Indians will. (B.L. Azure photo)
“There are two Indian women in positions that oversee 70 percent of the state employees,” Whiting Sorrell said of the heretofore, inconceivable accomplishment. “There is nothing in my past that says I should be here. You can do this. The first thing you have to do is just show up then figure out what your passion is. Work hard when you do show up because nothing is owed you. Work hard every day and good things will come to your world.”
Yellowman Caye said the listening session exceeded her expectations both in numbers of people in attendance and the substance of what was presented and shared.