ROLLINS — On the shores of Flathead Lake, 11 teenage Indigenous women sensed a call from their ancestors to reach out for healing of their broken and pained hearts.
The campfire spot where the young women spent much of their four days was the home of a bald eagle couple that showed no reserve to shake a few feathers above them and drop a blessing down while stories were shared. Rustic old cabins encircled by an ambiance of calmness and joy was the picture-perfect setting for mind, body and spirit care.
With the love of “aunties”, a “grandma,” and an Indigenous music video production team, the nearly dozen young ladies aged 11 to 17 found their voice and confidence to soar above the suffering they come to battle in their young lives.
The kindled love, lifetime relationships and healing happened at the four-day weekend LIFE Spa held at the United Methodist campgrounds in Rollins on June 13 – 16.
“As Native people we’re all processing historical trauma to some extent and every small effort can make a difference in promoting healing and community well-being,” said Indigenous Vision founder and executive director Souta Calling Last (Blackfeet/Blood).
Living Indigenous Fostering Empowerment (LIFE) Spa, a youth empowerment program, works to invigorate Indigenous communities through the concept of land, people, and culture, through educational cultural resources and unique programs to promote well being. It is sponsored by Indigenous Vision, an Indigenous women-led non-profit organization based in Arizona.
Calling Last is keenly aware of the truth that Indigenous women experience the highest ratios of violence and other disparities like substance abuse, lateral violence and suicide compared to any other women in North America.
“We require a break from that momentarily to focus on healing and relaxation,” she said.
The LIFE Spa camp started in 2017 and the first camp was held in Arizona where Calling Last and her husband, Tyler Walls, Indigenous Vision project director, lives and runs the non-profit organization. This year she wanted to bring it up north near her homeland where she said there is healing in “our own back yard.”
Souta said as a young girl growing up in Heart Butte on the Blackfeet Reservation she was fortunate to have Native women role models especially Betty Cooper (Blackfeet), 81, who has been named Montana’s Mother of The Year 2019, help her in her upbringing.
“There are amazing people who have invested time and care in me that have helped with the resiliency, and strength I have. I’ve benefited so much from others playing similar roles in my life,” said Calling Last. She added she feels the need to “pay it forward” and do something for others. “I like to think that all the investment that I’ve put into myself and what others have invested in me shouldn’t be kept to myself.”
Cooper who held the title “grandma” to all girls and “aunties” whether blood or not was appreciated by all. One grown woman said it felt good to say “Grandma Betty” since losing her grandmother several years ago. Others agreed it filled their hearts as well to be able to call Cooper grandma.
“Betty was very influential in my young life, and it was such an honor to witness her share her wisdom and fun loving nature with a new generation,” said Calling Last.
“Healthy individual growth requires community support so that naturally took the form of creating an opportunity for something like an extended family to come together, something like a women’s empowerment and support group with life experiences and age reflection spanning from age 11 to 100,” said Calling Last.
Inspiration for healing
“I’ve always been very concerned about the level of violence and impacts on the land and people in our community. I also feel I personally escaped a lot of it because of my participation and access to cultural activities and concepts while growing up,” said Calling Last.
Calling Last said her inspiration comes from the historical stories of all indigenous people. “The ways we lived in the past are called innovative groundbreaking and sustainable now. I’m really proud of that, and I think working with youth in celebrating who we are and what an amazing history and culture we come from will overall help prevent disease caused from stress and increase the overall length and quality of life for us as native people,” she said.
Calling Last said while doing this kind of work it simultaneously destroys the primitive savage stereotype Native people was labeled with.
The Healing Tools
Calling Last said she wanted to share great stress relieving and healing tools in hope for a more well adjusted and healthier future native people. “Also to prevent internalized trauma and stress and do my part in creating the community I would like to be a part of,” she said.
The setting of the four days on the edge of Flathead Lake the LIFE Spa workshops were designed for the participants to reconnect with the water and the land, “It’s a big part of healing we need to do as Native people,” said Souta.
“When we experience its (water) ability to relieve stress, take pain, and provide a sense of peace there’s really no other place I can see it happening. I hope that Indigenous Vision can hold one in all regions of the country for different tribes.”
The LIFE Spa Participants
Henry RedCloud’s Lightningcloud video production was invited back for the second year to help produce a music video of the girls by the girls. RedCloud held a lyrics writing workshop the first and second day and then recorded and edited the video with his three man team: Jeremy Echols, audio engineer; and Omar Ornelas, visual and editing.
RedCloud said the idea behind the music videos originated from little-known tribal stories that said women were also warriors of tribes. “I like to watch from a distance (the young women) come into their warrior (through song),” said RedCloud.
RedCloud’s lyric workshop guided the women to document what they feel inside, and then give them the boost of confidence to record and speak in front of people and incorporate their words into a rap music video.
“The first step is to be able to build leaders and put them into leadership roles,” RedCloud said. This is what the music video production does for the participants. “It’s also part of team building” he added. He said he believes it’s a tool to combat the suicide epidemic, domestic violence, and drug and alcohol addiction. “It builds a shield against it. The young ladies bring their song with them as reminder and strength.”
With all the combination of awareness of the water, the missing and murdered indigenous sisters (and self-defense), indigenous foods, and bringing it all back to their communities, “It’s like a big circle,” said RedCloud.
Self-Defense and Missing and Murdered Indigenous People epidemic
Kylie Hunts-In-Winter, (Dakota), 16, started martial arts at the age of 3, and started self-defense classes at age 12. She said her dad wanted her to be able to defend herself.
Kylie met Souta six months ago and since has been offering her services to camps and presentations for Indigenous Vision. The first was a small high school group in Arizona and then at parks and even a bookstore.
“A huge part of independence, self-confidence and self-love is knowing you can take care of protecting yourself,” said Souta.
Calling Last said the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women conversation can naturally trigger old trauma and even create trauma. “Nobody does well under stress and trauma so I wanted our organization to focus on the MMIW epidemic, but also what we can personally do about it,” she said.
Souta said if at least one girl draws enough interest to pursue multiple self-defense classes she can safeguard her chances of going missing. “She can also ensure that historical trauma stops with her. Wishing and praying the violence will stop is a good start, but self-defense provides the actual tools that can possibly de-escalate any violence she may encounter.”
Calling Last said her brief self-defense training in college gave her the ability to “flatline” lateral violence she experienced as well.
While teaching each day at the LIFE Spa Hunts-In-Winter said the girls seemed “Super into it.” For the most part it was a fun activity, but some seemed reluctant. “Some were scared, but I did notice a difference from the beginning to the end. They opened up.” The self-defense moves are less violent, but yet effective said Hunts-In-Winter.
Indigenous Foods Home-Ec
Decolonize Turtle Island, a food sovereignty organization developed by husband wife team Patrick Yawakie Peltier and Regina Mad Plume, offered cooking food workshop. The team educated the girls on health and wellness and Indigenous foods geared to bringing a cultural identity to them and teach how tribes had a connection to their food.
“The food was sacred and respected in every process from the hunt to the harvest to meal prep,” Yawakie explained.
“The diseases we face such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other serious illnesses are because of the historical timeline of the United States government killing off bison, forcing us on reservations and food rations, to commodities and fry bread, to supermarkets and fast food,” he explained to the girls.
Yawakie said it’s important to bring traditional foods back to the kitchens of Native people. “Cutting meat is a good way to become connected with our foods by having the physical connection during the preparation shows us where our food came from and that our efforts helped in the process of the meal.”
Nearly every girl took turns at cutting the meat, even one who cringed at touching the raw flesh. But all took in nutrition and joy of the cooked steaks, wild rice, carrots, and berry sauce.
The Indigenous LIFE Spa women
For the young women at the camp, the freedom to be amongst friends, empathetic adults, and nature left an impression, one that they feel may have changed their lives and their outlook on the future.
Aalaylah “Tom” Quequesah Mathias said she can walk away after the four-days and say, “I am loved.” She said every girl at the camp is like a sister to her. Everything in her world seems to be a bit more stronger now. “Everyone is beautiful in their own way,” said Tom.
A print out photo of the group by the lake was gifted to the girls by one of the aunties at the last campfire evening reflection. Cheyanna Quequesah said she is going to hang on to the picture and bring it to everyone and say, “These are my friends.” She appreciated how everyone was so welcoming to her. “It takes my breath away,” she said.
Donnfhlaidh Smith, 17, told the girls not to forget about self-care. “I was so excited to come to (LIFE Spa) after just graduating,” she said. “It was relaxing and calm and it let me think. I was not on my phone a lot. I was excited about the beautiful spot and the nature. It was adventurous, educating and empowering.”
Joanne Smith, eighth grader, said she loved how the girls made compliments to one another. Smith took a good chunk of time at one of the fireside camp chats to speak to the girls about being who they are and to be proud no matter what others think or say about them. Many of the girls said they were stirred by her pre-TED talk and Smith gained a good applause that night.
Lulani Miller, a teenager into sports, said she didn’t know what to expect coming to the LIFE Spa, but right away she found the experience of the lake calming and a good place to learn new life things and meet new people.
Miller said did learn to open up while at the camp. “I shouldn’t keep everything to myself,” she said. Miller said she tends to keep emotions bottled up. “I’m tired of being an angry person.” The love of the people at the camp enhanced her faith in others. “I always felt I couldn’t trust anyone. It’s been a good thing (camp) for the better,” she said.
Thirteen-year-old Karma Lozeau said she thought it was going to be boring, however it didn’t take long for her to realize it was pretty fun meeting other friends. “It’s been fun, the people are nice; I learned some good stuff, and met some good aunties and grandmas,” said Lozeau. She said she is going to use the self-defense training and take her new friendships into her future. She said she will cherish the memories around the campfires and love as a family she felt. She added she even liked the “meditations” and of course the hours of free-time swimming each day.
Skla Scabby Robe said making new friends, laughing, and talking about what people have done in their lives was “Pretty good.” She added she especially enjoyed seeing the mountains, the lake, the eagles, and hearing Grandma Betty’s stories.”
Rylah Samuels said all the aunties and their “speeches” spoke directly to her. “I took it all in to heal and grow. I love how this place was put together. Good job Souta.”
Mya Cross Guns said being with so many girls was not a problem like many would think. She said she seen so many, including herself, open up. “Everyone was so supportive and full of love.” After hearing stories from the aunties and grandma Betty, Mya said it started making her rethink about some friendships that might not be so good for her. “I need to figure out what’s best for me and not go back to that,” she said. “This camp has really helped me heal and begin the process,” Mya added.
Amber Fisher, one of the camp aunties said it was not only a chance to be there for others but it was a doing something she never done before: being relaxed at a camp and having fun. Fisher said it was rewarding to witness how the group of young women who seemed to be cautious and scared open up and “come out of their shells.”
Moving on and moving forward
Calling Last said the youngest this year shared some amazing reflections on contemporary situations created from historical trauma and solutions on how to heal and move on.
“It was so amazing to watch the girls go from fear and shyness to getting silly with each other and giggling. I hope they’re inspired to keep being the amazing young women they are and carry the experiences and laughter as a healing tool that they can reflect on and draw strength from when times get tough,” said Calling Last. “To me, they embody the strength in our community and the impressive drive to improve conditions from one generation to the next.”
“The grandmothers and aunties, myself included, had a safe place to reflect on our life experiences and shared what would have benefited us if only we had known, or tried sooner. I feel everyone had a little fun and learned some valuable from each other,” Calling Last said after reflecting from the camp.
“I loved all the amazing people that were involved,” said Souta.
For more information about Indigenous Vision and to view the LIFE Spa 2019 music video visit the Indigenous Vision website at https://www.indigenousvision.org.