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Native Youth Conference brings future leaders together

PABLO – High School students from Arlee, St. Ignatius, Pablo, Polson, Missoula, Hot Springs, Helena and Hardin converged at Salish Kootenai College for three days last week to develop leadership skills and talk about issues important to them to help foster change.

Laurencia Starblanket helped her peers from all over the state create nametags so they could get to know each other during the Native Youth Conference.

The event began earlier that morning as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council honored the Arlee Warrior basketball team for their leadership in the battle against suicide. The team made two videos earlier this year to share their message about suicide prevention. Their videos garnered more than a million views from people all over the country. The Warriors thanked the council and presented them with a painted basketball. 

Starblanket said the council talked to the students at the leadership conference about stepping up in life and being a good role model. “They told us that we are the future,” she said. As far as the future, Starblanket said she plans to be on the council one day.

She said the leadership groups from the different schools started organizing in May 2017 to get grant funding from many places including CSKT and activities together for the three-day event. Many of the activities were designed to bring the students together so they could feel comfortable talking about issues. 

The schools each took on different projects for the event. Arlee, Two Eagle and Mission worked together to host cultural activities like hide tanning, fire making, beading, sewing, and traditional cooking. Polson hosted a healthy relationships workshop. Arlee and Missoula organized traditional games. Two Eagle River held a basketball tournament. Hot Springs hosted a positive vibes activity. 

Between events, community leaders spoke to the students. Whisper Camel Means was the keynote speaker and Julie Cajune spoke about strength and resiliency.

Starblanket said the students had group discussions about healthy relationships, suicide prevention, avoiding drugs and alcohol, diabetes prevention, and other issues. 

“We talked about things that are important to us,” she said. “For me, suicide prevention is really important. We had over ten suicides last year in Arlee. As leaders, we talked about sharing the message that people are not alone.”

She said schools traditionally develop rivalries from competing in sports, but it’s time to take a new approach. “We need to come together to talk about these issues,” she said. 

Montana Senator Jon Tester sent a representative to the event along with a message that students can call or email if they want to discuss any issues. 

Don Wetzel, Jr. was at the event to represent the Montana Office of Public Instruction. He is the American Indian Youth Development Coordinator. 

“It’s amazing to see (the students) come together and talk about the issues they are dealing with,” he said. “This really shows their leadership skills as they run this event.” 

Wetzel talked about the trend of youth led events focused on making change. “Across the nation they are coming together and creating solutions. It’s powerful. And they are doing that here.” 

Travis Pierre, Jr., a high school student at Two Eagle River, said the workshop helped him see that leadership is also about sharing and talking about ideas to develop the future. “This is about respect and learning to be a leader in a way that works for you,” he said.

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