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Native Aspirations battles bullying, violence, suicide

SPOKANE, Wash. – “We designed a cultural approach to the prevention of violence, bullying and suicide,” Iris Pretty Paint said.

Pretty Paint is an enrolled Blackfeet member and descendent of the Crow Nation and serves as project director of Native Aspirations. The organization recently held a four day meeting in Spokane bringing together three representatives from each of 33 communities. One youngster attended from each of the communities along with two influential leaders or elders.

Participants came from five Alaska Native Corporations: Bering Straits, Doyon Ltd., Calista, NANA, and Sealaska. Others came from Arizona, Minnesota, North Dakota, New Mexico, Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Youngsters are important in the goals of Native Aspirations. “We use the tag line, ‘Our children are the songs of the future,’” Pretty Paint said. One panel featured youth from the four regions: Alaska, Plains, Woodlands and Southwest. The term “youth” in this context applies to young people from 16 – 24 years old.

Iris Pretty Paint, project director for Native Aspirations.

Courtney Baca, a Mescalero Apache, was one of those youths on the panel. “Sometimes our personal feelings stop us from offering help and hope but doing right means putting those feelings aside in order to make change that our community needs. Change sometimes means doing what is right and doing what isn’t popular.”

Jennifer Gauthier, Menominee, was another panelist. One of her community’s concerns deals with health. Menus have been changed in school to address that concern. Jennifer brought a laugh from the audience when she said, “The Menominee tribal high school has the healthiest menu in Wisconsin and that’s our little bragging rights.”

Chelsea Kasayolie from Akiachak Native Community in Alaska and Shawn Bighorn, Assiniboine from Montana, also spoke on the youth panel.

Michelle Carnes, project officer for the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, had two major announcements. First, there is a new administrator at SAMHSA who is impressed with the work of Native Aspirations. She said President Barack Obama is also aware of the project. That ties in with the second announcement that the 2011 budget, as it is written right now but awaiting congressional approval, has Native Aspirations getting double the funding for 2011.

“Wow! What nice news to wake up to,” Pretty Paint said. She went on to talk of how so often in this country, “We had to go against the current and we always felt as though we had to re-educate every new administration. Native Aspirations has single-handedly changed the way our government looks at us. To hear this news today is music to my ears. Today this is an opportunity for us to realize that we do make a difference.”

Native Aspirations began in 2005, and each year an additional eight communities are added. “We are currently working with 42 communities,” Pretty Paint said. “By the time we finish this contract we’ll be working with 65 communities. They go through a 10-step process of engagement designed so we’re able to assess the readiness of a tribe.

“The process involves empowering communities to develop a prevention plan along with doing a sustainability plan once they find out what works. They’re eligible all along the process. By the time they reach sustainability, we will have transferred $50,000 to each of them.

“It’s up to them to decide what they want to do for their youth. What is amazing about this process is it involves youth. It’s not the adults telling youth what they want them to do, it’s the youth participating and being able to help the communities plan what they need.”

The conference had a working agenda with groups meeting concurrently in different rooms. Sessions dealt with the stages of developing a plan from start to finish as communities are incorporated into the program and work their way through to sustainability. Other sessions dealt more particularly with suicide and bullying and violence prevention. Some of the youth created digital stories and later presented them to the entire group.

It was a working conference yet there was also time away from meeting rooms. A prayer walk was held early one morning along the Spokane River adjacent to the hotel. David Browneagle, from the Spokane Tribe, started with a prayer and then led the walk and told of the history of the site and the importance of the river to the Spokane Tribe. A powwow was held at nearby Eastern Washington University and one evening Native Aspirations participants were taken by bus to the site and recognized at the powwow.