Tribal Youth Program National Conference: Building Bridges Back to Cultural Communities

By Nora Nunn

Traveling from as far north as St. Barrow, Alaska (Native Village of Barrow) and as far east as Presque Isle, Maine (Aroostook Band of Micmacs), 137 people representing 64 different Tribal Youth Program grantees gathered together for three days on the West Coast in Palm Springs, California. From December 9 to 11, 2014, the grantees, who were hosted by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, shared with and learned from one another in the common spirit of bettering the lives of Native American youth. Held in conjunction with the Office for the Victims of Crime (OVC) Indians Nations Conference, the event provided an opportunity for EDC staff, OJJDP Program Managers, and grantees to connect not over the phone or via email, but in person—a rare and valued occasion. TYP Technical Assistance Specialist Ben Spooner, who is based in Waltham, Massachusetts, reflected on the value of face-to-face interactions. After months of virtual communication, he was finally able to meet Sarah Demit, the TYP coordinator for the Mentasta Traditional Council in Alaska: “It was so nice to put a face to a name and voice I had been conversing with via email and phone over the past year, and get to connect in person,” said Mr. Spooner.

From the very beginning, the expressed needs of Tribal communities shaped the thematic content of conference agenda. In order to best address the challenges and emphasize the strengths of the grantees, TYP staff sent out a survey last June to learn what information would be most helpful in terms of serving Native American youth. “We attempted to take their guidance and focus on the four areas that were represented in their responses,” said Stanley Holder, Director of the Tribal Youth Program. The four areas—or “tracks”—were: (1) mental health and trauma-informed programming, (2) youth development/youth leadership, (3) substance misuse prevention/treatment, and (4) program management. Days 1 and 2 of the conference began with a traditional opening from Jeri Brunoe, founder of Brunoe Training and Consulting, followed by OJJDP opening remarks and keynote presentations. Next, grantees had the opportunity to attend a series of concurrent sessions corresponding to the four content areas. Finally, each of the first two days of the conference closed with peer talking circles, which offered grantees a chance to directly learn from one another. “These sessions gave me such a feeling of connectedness to my fellow grantees and my work,” said TYP grantee Kim Lambert, Truancy Prevention Coordinator for the Boys & Girls Club of Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Session topics ranged from “Breaking the Cycle of Intergenerational Substance Misuse,” led by Marcus Red Thunder of the Native Wellness Institute, to “Breathing New Life into your TYP Program,” led by Matt Simpson of Prairie Band of Potawatomi, Jolene Vigil Pueblo of Pojoaque, and Zack James of Chilkoot – all current and former TYP grantees. On Day 3, grantees attended the OVC Indian Nations Conference held in conjunction with the Tribal Law and Policy Institute.         

Conference presenters came from a variety of professional backgrounds and specializations. On Day 1, keynote speaker LoVina Louie of the Benewah Medical and Coeur d’Alene Tribal Wellness Center discussed “We Shall Remain,” a music video created to address the effects of historical trauma in Tribal communities. On Day 2, Bonnie Duran, Director of the Center for Indigenous Health Research and the Indigenous Wellness Research, University of Washington, gave the keynote address entitled, “Resiliency and Strength Based Approaches in Indian Country: Community-based Participatory Research (CBPR) as a Process for Promoting the Wisdom of Tradition.” EDC’s partnering organization, United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), gave the Youth Plenary session on the Today’s Native Leaders Initiative and shared a video recently made by the youth. Nataanii Hatathlie, Former Executive Committee UNITY Co-President; Maria Bartlett, Youth Leader, Today’s Native Leaders (TNL); and Wendy Weston, Project Manager, TNL, were the staff who represented UNITY. Other presenters at the conference included OJJDP staff James Antal, Kara McDonagh, Patrick Dunckhorst, and Stephanie Rapp; EDC Technical Assistance Specialists (TASs) and staff; and TYP grantees such as Tony Cervantes. Mr. Cervantes, the Tribal Services Coordinator for the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, offered a session on community-wide wellness programs that emphasized a holistic approach. “For too many years I have seen programs ignore this issue, in all areas of wellness, to the detriment of our progress in de-colonizing ourselves. We need to look at all of the flora and fauna and minerals we used and have available to us today before we go to process artificially created substances and activities,” said Mr. Cervantes. All of the presentations and materials are archived and can be accessed at our Tribal Youth Program Training and Technical Assistance Center Website.

Grantee Kim Lambert, who, like Mr. Cervantes, is also a returning or “veteran” grantee, felt that the conference offered a restorative space for reflection on the common goal of improving the lives of Tribal youth. “At the end of each day at the national conference, I found myself reminded from the sharing of others that even though we may not see direct results each and every day, we are making tremendous contributions and effecting change in our communities that we cannot put a price tag on or apply to a certain statistic,” she said. Mr. Cervantes also expressed appreciation for the chance to connect with other grantees around the topic of wellness: “I gained a sense of peace and comfort knowing that people are striving to de-colonize their wellness. I will share the importance of us discussing transparently all issues we face and looking at them from a medicine circle perspective so that we can solve the health issues we face, including food, medicine and physical movement,” he said.

As Program Director, Stanley Holder especially valued how the conference provided a culturally sensitive and responsive space to share best practices. “I believe the conference was a success in attempting to bring balance to the presentation of effective strategies while at the same time creating a bridge back to the culture of the communities that the grantees live and work in,” he said. Ms. Lambert echoed Mr. Holder in emphasizing the importance of forging connections. “Everyone attending demonstrates a willingness to share experiences with honesty, compassion, and even frustration sometimes, and this is what builds relationships and connections. It is evident that the structure of the conference is built around this premise and our participants wholeheartedly jump in and engage because of it,” she said. The New Year provides an excellent opportunity for grantees to continue to build these bridges between their own communities and Indian Country at large and, ultimately, to better the lives of Tribal youth.