On the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, in Box Elder, Montana, Stone Child College’s Positive Empowered Active Kids (PEAK) Project serves high school students from the Chippewa Cree Tribe. This Youth Empowerment Program (YEP) imparts a sense of cultural identity and takes preventative measures to address certain health risks that plague the Tribe, such as diabetes, underage alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking and drug abuse.
The Rocky Boy ’s indian Reserva tion in Hill County, Montana is home to the Chippewa Cree, a struggling American Indian Tribe fighting hard to stay afloat; 58 percent of its people live below the poverty level and more than 70 percent are unemployed. Worse yet, graduation rate among the Tribe’s high school students is a mere 59 percent compared to the state’s 94 percent. With high poverty levels and low education, tribe members trend toward unhealthy behaviors, particularly the Tribe’s youth: 55 percent of Chippewa Cree high school students smoked tobacco in the past 30 days, and 53 percent of the Tribe’s middle school students report their first alcohol drink before they reach age 13 (compared to only 28 percent for the rest of Montana). Four of five smoke marijuana, and twice as many students engage in physical altercations or are forced to have sex against their will when compared to state norms.
The starkness of such statistics bodes dark days for the future of the Tribe’s youth … dark days for the future of the Tribe itself. Thankfully, a growing beacon is shining through all this darkness, promising hope in the form of guidance. That light is the PEAK Project, and its success has proven to be transformational.
“For me,” says Chippewa Cree Tribe elder, Sam Bernon ‘Windy Boy’, “the success of this program has really been a community-wide transformational process. It’s created a cohesive community for the youth involved.”
Prior to the PEAK Program, the notion of such cohesiveness among Tribal youth was almost unthinkable. Recent history has seen Chippewa Cree families split into two clashing communities: those with children who attend the on-reservation Rocky Boy High School, and those with children enrolled in the off-reservation Box Elder High School. Animosity ran deep between them. “They were like clans,” says Mark, a 16-year-old junior at Rocky Boy and PEAK student. “There was a barrier between them. But the YEP has broken that barrier. We’re like one family now.” The program accepts an equal number of students from each school, encouraging Chippewa Cree youth to work together and interact in ways they typically wouldn’t.
“The kids in this program are closing the gap between the two communities in our Tribe,” says Delphine Sangrey, peak Project Coordinator at Stone Child College. “They’re coming together as one, as a Chippewa Cree.”
Not only will this newly formed cultural identity help these youth gain a sense of who they are as American Indians, it will help them maintain a sense of self-identity and self-worth when they leave the reservation and enter the outside world.
As with the youth, the PEAK Youth Empowerment Program is helping parents to become involved in ways they, too, otherwise would not. “The YEP has been a catalytic force here on the reservation,” says Sam ‘Windy Boy.’ “With the bonding that’s taking place among the schools and among these families, the family unit has become stronger.”
Closer peer groups and stronger family units lead to stronger overall support systems for the tribe’s youth, who are — thanks to the success of this program — steering clear of drug and alcohol abuse, a serious problem on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation overall.
“If we didn’t have the YEP,” says Elaine, whose 14-year-old son, Chayse, is enrolled in the program, “we’d be at greater risk of losing our kids to drugs, alcohol, and other negative behaviors. The YEP provides a positive place for our kids to learn how to be positive themselves, to grow in maturity, and to make something of their lives.”
“Above all, in terms of long-term effect, I see the impact it’s going to have to create a cohesive community. Because these YEP youth are our future leaders. What better investment could we make?”
– Sam Bernon ‘Windy Boy’, elder
Indeed, the Youth Empowerment Program altered the course of this community, but such widespread impact wouldn’t be possible without first proving transformational at home, with each individual enrolled in the program.
“Three years ago,” says Elaine, “Chayse was this quiet, soft-spoken kid. It was hard to get him involved in anything. But since he’s been in the YEP, he’s become a leader. He’s outspoken, he’s positive, he’s doing well in school. He knows that drugs and alcohol are bad for you. He’s just a better person.”
Generally speaking, all the youth enrolled in the Youth Empowerment Program have experienced this type of personal growth. Only one of the program’s 30 students reports smoking tobacco in the past 30 days, and there have been zero pregnancies among the program’s youth since it began. The juvenile arrest rate within the Tribe is more than 2.2 times the rate in the PEAK cohort.
So much success is plainly visible in the data, but data isn’t the only measure of success.
“How do you document a smile on a child’s face?” says Delphine. “How do you quantify self-confidence? How do you measure the depth of personal and Tribal identity?”
Perhaps the answer exists in the pride on Chayse’s mother’s face, as she reflects:
“In my heart, I’m truly proud of my son. He’s a young man now, and a lot of kids look up to him. Everything the YEP has offered him has been so positive. He’s taking all he’s learned and using it. The Youth Empowerment Program is working!”
But don’t take Mom’s word for it. Take her son’s. “The Youth Empowerment Program,” says Chayse, thinking about how far he’s come, “… it’s changed my life.”