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Mothers and daughters share and study together

BELLINGHAM, Wash. - Once it would have been unimaginable to need to schedule time for mothers and daughters to be together. But with today's rapid pace, sometimes healing and sharing - simple be together time - happens best away from home and the workplace.

The annual Northwest Indian College Native American Women and Girls Conference provides such a time and place for women of all ages to come together to share, laugh, heal and create lasting bonds of friendship. Mothers and daughters, granddaughters, nieces and aunties, women friends and associates, all the special relationships between women are celebrated and fostered at the annual retreat.

Started in 1994 by Susan Given-Seymour, associate dean of continuing education at Northwest Indian College, the conference is open to women and girls age 8 and older.

This year, the three-day conference at Camp Brotherhood in northern Skagit County drew 67 women, 51 girls and a score of presenters. Conference focus was on education on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and featured speakers such as Jocie DeVries, founder and executive director of the FAS Family Resources Institute and editor of "FAS Times."

The conference, rapidly gaining in popularity among Northwest tribes, started by chance when a representative from the Department of Labor women's bureau came to Given-Seymour and asked if she had $5,000 dollars, could she "do something on leadership for Native American women and girls?"

"Of course I said 'Yes,' and pulled together a committee from the community," Given-Seymour says.

The first conference was only one day but sparked such interest among women of the Lummi Reservation and other north Puget Sound tribes, Given-Seymour determined to make it an annual event.

Now participants choose from a variety of workshops over several days. Some are serious, such as "Helping Women with FAS/E Have Healthy Babies" and "Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Prevention at its Earliest." Many are more light-hearted in their educational approach.

"Making Tantrums Useful" assisted parents to understand their children's frustration and coached young people on how to release intense emotion into constructive channels. "Releasing Creative Energy" gave participants the opportunity to foster creative and artistic gifts through song, music, acting and poetry through a "stream of consciousness" technique.

Hazel James-Tohe , Din? and Hopi field coordinator for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA-JPL), made a presentation on the Medicine Wheel and shared the NASA program, "From the Sun to the Star Nation." A community outreach initiative, the program assists Native youth and elders to preserve their cultural stories and their star-knowledge stories, while bringing them up to speed on the latest space exploration programs.

"We have this (star) knowledge, why is it that we can't really teach it for our own kids?" James-Tohe asks. "Communicating how it used to be and how Native people used to utilize science in their everyday lives is not really surfacing as much as it used to.

"A lot of the science connected to the stories, to the songs, to the prayers and then adhering to that (knowledge) through daily offerings - that piece is missing. A lot of young people aren't doing that anymore."

James-Tohe's Medicine Wheel and Star Knowledge talk helped young and old alike reconnect with their stories and make sense of them in the context of the "modern" world.

There were also "just girls" practical workshops, like "What my Grandma Cecelia Taught Me About My Body" and just-summer-fun workshops on weaving, swimming, soccer and even "How to Shoot Pool."

Most workshops and activities showcased facilitators from local tribal communities around Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula.

"We try to get presenters that are people you are likely to know and can reach later," Given-Seymour says. "To get a person nobody knows from the outside, sometimes that's fine. But it's also good to know that you can call that person who inspired you later."

Making connections and building rapport are just as important, even more important than the workshops themselves.

Janice Benson, financial aid specialist at Northwest Indian College and a full-time student, was so jazzed about last year's conference she encouraged the rest of her family to come. To her utter delight, this year she was accompanied by her four daughters and granddaughter.

"It was just amazing being away from all of the hustle and bustle of TVs, radios and friends," Benson says. "We just were able to really bond."

She says that sleeping and eating together, out in nature, and attending workshops together helped change the way they relate to one another out in the "real world."

"Taking the time out of my busy schedule ... to do this with them, it means a lot to them," Benson says. "We can talk about almost anything. (We're) getting away from being a mom and daughters and being friends."

Even though this year's conference finished just three weeks ago, Given-Seymore says she is already fielding a familiar question heard as she travels through reservations around Puget Sound year-round. "When's the next conference going to be, Susan?"