'I got myself back': Minnesota reservation’s project strengthens individuals to build community

The program is adapted from the National Parent Leadership Institute. A Bemidji State University professor worked with tribal elders to add Indigenous language, cultural components.

A new initiative is teaching residents on the White Earth Reservation to be change-makers in their community. Facilitator Kris Manning and participant Mykee Brown share a laugh during a class on Dec. 28 at the Circle of Life Academy.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

WHITE EARTH, Minn. -- Marlena Hanson had been sober for about two years when she signed up for the first Indigenous Parent Leadership Initiative class.

"I didn't have any confidence as a parent, but taking this class gave me my complete confidence back and who I was before I used, I got myself back," she said.

The 21-week journey of self-discovery wasn’t easy.

"This class had me crying, I don't know how many times. So many different times," she recalls.

The first 10 weeks of the class are about parent leadership and self-perception. Participants are challenged to be vulnerable in front of others as a way of understanding who they are.


"Even though we have messed up in our lives, or we've done things we didn't see as right, we are here to fix ourselves,” Hanson said. “And when we're fixing ourselves, we can definitely have a voice for our kids out in the community to help better their lives."

Culture is key

Hanson is now training to facilitate these classes. She recently requested and received an Indian name, an event she said is part of reconnecting with who she is meant to be.

Culture is a key component of this curriculum.

Justin Brown listens during a class on Dec. 28 at the Circle of Life Academy; it's a first-of-its-kind program for Minnesota hoping to help people heal from trauma and empower them to help others.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

The program is adapted from the National Parent Leadership Institute. Bemidji State University Professor Anton Treuer worked with tribal elders to add Indigenous language and cultural components throughout the program.

“Cultural practices that are part of this curriculum are ones that provide a pathway for people to reconnect to one another and to community, and that strengthens and buoys them,” said Treuer.

Culture is both protective and healing, said Treuer, providing a sense of identity and foundation.

The first class graduated 11 people in September. The second class recently started with 13 parents.

This project is run by White Earth based Indigenous Visioning and funded by a three year grant from the Minnesota Department of Health, with additional funding from White Earth Project Launch and The Northwest Minnesota Foundation.


Indigenous Visioning CEO Barb Fabre estimates the cost of the program at about $150,000 a year. The cost can vary depending on the number of students. Students receive a transportation stipend and child care for each week’s class.

She hopes to get funding to keep the program going indefinitely and expand to other Minnesota reservations.

“Imagine the people that are coming out of this,” Fabre said. “They’re learning so much and they’re not sitting back anymore. I’m really excited to see where this is going.”

“This curriculum is designed to take that parent, help them empower that voice. It's already there,” said program coordinator Beth Ann Dodds.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

The second half of the 21-week program focuses on showing people the process for creating change, from learning public speaking to understanding how the wheels of government turn.

“This curriculum is designed to take that parent, help them empower that voice. It's already there,” said project coordinator Beth Ann Dodds. “The voice is there, they've already got that drive. Now we're going to help them fine tune how to do that.”

Community change project

During the course, students decide on a community change project. When they graduate, they get a $500 grant to help start that project.

Leanne Auginaush said she would often get angry while trying to advocate for change. The class taught her to communicate with intellect rather than emotion.

"You can still feel my emotions in what I speak about, but I don't let my emotions override what I'm trying to say," she said.


Auginaush is using that new found confidence to work on a challenging community project.

"My focus is on child sexual abuse in the family, because it happens a lot more than people are willing to talk about. I myself am a survivor," she said. “I suffered a lifetime of trauma because of what was bestowed upon me.”

Auginaush turned to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain of her abuse, but she now understands the generational trauma that created a cycle of abuse in her family.

"That was taught in the boarding schools, you know they came home from the boarding schools and did what they were taught,” she said. “And it's just been a cycle ever since then. It needs to stop.”

Her vision is a project called No More Being Silent. She intends to be a voice for children afraid to confront abusers, and find a way to provide them support and justice.

"It's a touchy subject, nobody wants to ruffle any feathers,” she said. “Well, I'm here to ruffle all those feathers. I will be that voice for them kids."

Generational trauma from boarding schools and other government programs designed to break down tribal communities and families is identified by many participants as being at the heart of their struggles.

But Treuer thinks the passion for change expressed by these community members is evidence their history represents more than trauma.


“I think something that sometimes gets lost in our conversations about historical trauma and loss is that it's not just the bad stuff that gets passed forward,” he said. “The good stuff gets passed forward too. We are not just the inheritors of historical trauma, we are also the inheritors of historical resiliency.”

The first graduates of the program are working on a wide range of projects.

Karen Jones wants to create a healing home in her community of Pine Point for young adults who are from broken homes or who are aging out of the foster care system. Too often, she’s seen young adults fall victim to drug abuse and violence.

Ryan Frye is one of about a dozen parents in the class, which recently met on Dec. 28.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

“A lot of our kids that are in foster care have a high chance of becoming incarcerated or using substances, and I want to help break that cycle,” she said.

Jones acknowledges that she’s struggling to achieve her goal, but her classmates are a support network, always there with encouragement or ideas to help.

Marlena Hanson is using her project grant to take a training course called Warrior Down. She wants to start a support program for fathers who are recovering from addiction or who have been incarcerated.

“It's relapse prevention. There's not really any support in our communities for those people,” she said. “And I think it could really help the family aspect working with specifically those people to get back in their kids’ lives.”

Like many of these projects, Hanson’s is powered by personal experience. The father of her children is currently in prison.



Susie Ballot is building a list of pipe carriers at White Earth, people who can give Indian names to those seeking to connect with their identity and culture, or teach ceremonies and provide spiritual guidance.

She's already seen some children get names.

Program graduate Susie Ballot, pictured during class, is building a list of pipe carriers at White Earth, people who can give Indian names to those seeking to connect with their identity and culture, or teach ceremonies and provide spiritual guidance.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

"Seeing those kids stand a little taller makes me happy,” she said. “Because, you know, that's what I want. The end goal is for them to not feel like [they are] walking through life not knowing who they are, and not understanding their purpose."

Ballot calls the Indigenous Parenting Leadership Initiative class life-changing.

"When I went through the whole class, I'm like, ‘Wow, this is amazing’,” she said. “Everything we learned from the beginning to where we're working on our projects now, I'm like, ‘Oh, my God, this is perfect.’"

Ballot's enthusiasm for the program won over her partner David Hanks and her son, both now enrolled in the current class.

Hanks said it didn’t take much convincing. He saw the opportunity to do something positive.

While he’s just starting the class, his ultimate goal is a project to reconnect youth and elders on the reservation.


“A plain old sitdown at the table visit, you know, what happened to that?” said Hanks. It doesn’t happen when everybody's on their phone. Everybody's on their computer or their game, and they're not really connecting anymore.”

"You hear their passion, you listen to their stories, you can't help but be excited," said Kris Manning, a trained facilitator who helps guide students through the process of understanding and awareness.

Project coordinator Beth Ann Dodds listens as program graduate Karen Jones speaks during one of the program's classes on Dec. 28: "I want to help break that cycle" of abuse and violence, she said.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News

Manning sees the strength of the program in empowering individuals to build community.

"They are the ones that are going to make the changes in the communities because they see what is needed in the community."


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