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Youth conference focuses on Native American teachers and student education and fitness

By Alyssa Nenemay

Trilanda NoRunner of the Blackfeet Nation is a certified kickboxing instructor at the YMCA who hosted a session on fun physical fitness. NoRunner worked to lose over 100 lbs. and wants to promote physical activity. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay) Trilanda NoRunner of the Blackfeet Nation is a certified kickboxing instructor at the YMCA who hosted a session on fun physical fitness. NoRunner worked to lose over 100 lbs. and wants to promote physical activity. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay)

MISSOULA — Over 160 American Indian high school and middle school students from across the state traveled to the University of Montana last week to attend the 11th Annual Indian Youth Conference. With session topics ranging from media to physical fitness, this year’s theme was “Graduation…It Matters.”

According to the “2012 Montana American Indian Student Achievement Data Report,” (MAISADR) although American Indian students make up 11.6 percent of Montana’s student population, they account for the highest high school drop out rate at 6.9 percent. American Indian dropout rates are higher on reservation than off and are twice the national average.

Title Seven Indian Education Specialist for Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) Kathy Sharbono co-founded the conference alongside MCPS Family Advocate Luana Kicking woman. Sharbono said the grave statistics on American Indian dropout rates were a factor in establishing the conference: “One of our goals for this conference is to expose the students to campus life to encourage an interest in higher education.”

Missoula middle school students Tonja Kicking Woman and Valerie Big Leggings were reluctant to leave the conference when it was time to go. “It was fun–I liked the (outdoor) games the best,” said Kicking Woman. “We both met new best friends today. Mine is from Ronan and hers is from Great Falls.” (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay) Missoula middle school students Tonja Kicking Woman and Valerie Big Leggings were reluctant to leave the conference when it was time to go. “It was fun–I liked the (outdoor) games the best,” said Kicking Woman. “We both met new best friends today. Mine is from Ronan and hers is from Great Falls.” (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay)

Cecile Crawford of the Blackfeet nation hosted a session at the conference to teach the students how to draw. Crawford is an artist and a 12-year (MCPS) education support professional for American Indian students. His duties include traveling to four high schools in Missoula offering support, mentoring, and encouraging tribal students to graduate.

“There should be brown faces in every school to help these students succeed–that’s what it’s really going to take; I’m just one,” said Crawford. “There are no Native American teachers in Missoula (high schools). If you look at the statistics, wherever there is a large Native American population, the graduation rate is down and that needs to change.”

Cecile Crawford of the Blackfeet nation hosted a session on drawing cartoons. Crawford is an artist and an education support professional for American Indian students in the Missoula County Public Schools. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay) Cecile Crawford of the Blackfeet nation hosted a session on drawing cartoons. Crawford is an artist and an education support professional for American Indian students in the Missoula County Public Schools. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay)

According to a 2010 dissertation by Cynthia Best O’Dell entitled: An investigation of the phenomenon of shortages of Indian teachers as described by tribal college leaders in teacher preparation, “In Montana’s 35 school districts on the seven Indian reservations, 62% of the children are Indian with only 3% of the certified educators being Indian.”

O’Dell’s dissertation concluded a direct connection between American Indian teachers and the success rates of American Indian students: “One logical factor that may increase the educational success of Indian students is to increase the number of Indian teachers (Reyhner & Eder, 2004). To fully address educational equity in the state of Montana, every attempt must be made to provide more Native American teachers for Montana youth, particularly Native American youth.”

Aside from education, the conference also addressed physical activity needs in tribal communities. Trilanda NoRunner of the Blackfeet nation hosted a session on fun physical fitness routines. NoRunner works at the Missoula Indian Center and is a certified kickboxing instructor at the YMCA in Missoula.

The 11th Annual Indian Youth conference featured five sessions and two keynote speakers for American Indian students throughout Montana. Co-founder and American Indian Education Specialist Kathy Sharbono said a goal of conference is to promote higher education. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay) The 11th Annual Indian Youth conference featured five sessions and two keynote speakers for American Indian students throughout Montana. Co-founder and American Indian Education Specialist Kathy Sharbono said a goal of conference is to promote higher education. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay)

Using intoxication goggles, jump ropes, and scooters, NoRunner and her partner Dustin Whitegrass gave the students a workout on the University oval. “Our goal was to promote physical activity to the students and make it fun, something they will want to keep doing. Maybe they will take what they learned and teach their brothers or sisters, or their classes,” she said.

NoRunner understands the challenges of starting a healthy lifestyle as the mother of two ventured into her dreams of Mixed Martial Arts fighting in 2005 weighing 275 lbs. To reach her goal, NoRunner began eating better foods and started taking a kick boxing class at the YMCA. Today she is down to 170 lbs. and is actively competing in marathons, basketball tournaments, and other local competitions.

“It was hard to lose the weight. Even now it’s hard when I smell McDonald’s or something like that. I take a break and go outside to get a wiff of fresh air and that stops my craving. I’m scared to gain the weight back so I always push myself to stay active,” said NoRunner.

Dustin Whitegrass is NoRunner’s partner and he helped put on their physical fitness session during the conference. NoRunner volunteers as a youth basketball and soccer coach at the YMCA. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay) Dustin Whitegrass is NoRunner’s partner and he helped put on their physical fitness session during the conference. NoRunner volunteers as a youth basketball and soccer coach at the YMCA. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay)

As an American Indian, NoRunner was not alone in her struggle for health. According to the Office of Minority Health, American Indians are 70 percent more likely to become obese than non-Hispanic white populations. Obesity in American Indian communities has been linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, breathing problems, and psychological disorders like depression.

From education to physical activity, much was covered during the 2013 American Indian Youth Conference. Sharbono reports that this year marked the highest participation the event has ever seen and notes that it was made possible through the effort of several organization including: the U of M Student Involvement Network, U of M Diversity Marketing and Recrutment offices, MCPS Indian Education Department, U of M SpectreUM, and the U of M Native American Studies Department.

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