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Group celebrates social justice work

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St. IGNATIUS – The human rights work of Martin Luther King, Jr. began more than 50 years ago.

“We are still fighting for social justice,” said speaker Dustin Monroe, CEO and Founder of Native Generational Change. “We are not as far as we think we are.”

Monroe gave a speech during the Flathead Reservation Human Rights Coalition’s MLK celebration at the Mission Valley United Methodist Church at the top of Post Creek Hill on Saturday. He spoke after the Crown of the Continent Choir sang songs about social justice issues.

His speech was about equality for everyone, but he focused on Native American issues. He said growing up as a Native American he often saw a correlation between his struggles and that of black Americans. He started his nonprofit human rights group two and a half years ago and he travels around the western states working for social justice issues.

“We might not have riots in Montana, but we are awakening,” he said of the need for change surrounding many human rights issues with a focus on getting a larger Native American voice in government.

Cathy Billie helped start the Flathead Reservation Human Rights Coalition in 1989. She said the coalition isn’t affiliated with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, but they do support the tribe’s sovereignty as a legal right. Her goal for the coalition was to be proactive and support human rights to end racism, violence and discrimination in any form.

She said she thought people were moving closer to equality until recently with race issues concerning the Water Compact, but she hopes that will change.

“We just keep moving forward,” she said, adding that the group often hosts a meal with educational speakers so people can sit and talk about the issues.

FRHRC President Tammy Miller said the group continues to work on many issues from advocating for health care as a universal right to the anti-Indian sentiment.

“We are a multi-issue group,” she said. “We want to help people realize that there are many ways that we are different and alike and we are not going to change each other, but we can focus on the ways we are alike, so we don’t have to hate people.”

The FRHRC announced the winners of the event’s essay contest. Winners included Kenton Sisler, 14, of Polson; Kylee Wells, 15, of St. Ignatius; and Sophia Sisler, 16, also of Polson. Each winner was given $50.

“I think spreading ideas about any social justice topic is important,” Kenton said. 

Sophia enjoys writing in any form. She said she wrote about the human condition. “People have the ability to change,” she said adding that she supports change towards equality.

Kylee said the essay contest prompt was a quote taken from MLK: “the silence of your friends will be remembered after the words of your enemies.” She applied those words to an issue that concerns many school-aged people.

“I chose to write about bullying,” she said. “I don’t see too much bullying in my school, but I thought this was something kids could relate to.” 

In her essay, she explained that students can stand up for social justice rights by being supportive of each other concerning issues around bullying or anything else.

“When someone is being bullied, you can be there for them,” she said. “Stand beside them and let them know you care.”

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