Life on a reservation can tend toward a pattern of wounds difficult to mend by young natives.
15-year-olds Kianna Finley and Gabby Houle live on the Flathead reservation. They say at times they are surrounded by a discouraging way of living - one of substance abuse and loss.
"It is really hard to avoid… I have first hand knowledge of suicide. I lost my brother and my biological dad to suicide. And I just have a lot of alcohol and drug abuse throughout my family," says Kianna Finley.
"Same here," adds Gabby Houle. "I lost my brother-in-law and my cousins and like some other family due to that. And I lost my brother due to alcohol. And some of my family still do drugs. And it's kind of hard to see them when they do that."
On July 9 the two girls joined over a thousand other Native American youth at the White House to talk about what it means to be young and native and some of the struggles they face. The gathering is part of what the Obama administration calls "Generation Indigenous", a multi-pronged effort by the Obama Administration to support tribal sovereignty and nation building.
Houle and Finley’s goals start with education.
"Yeah, graduating high school is like one of my biggest goals," Finley says. "I have four older siblings and if I graduate I’ll be the first to graduate high school.
"You mean when you graduate," Houle interjects.
"When I graduate I’ll be the first to graduate high school," Finley proclaims.
When not if. That’s how Finley and Houle want to start change in their community - by breaking away from a trend set by their peers.
In order to get to the White House gathering, Finley and Houle had to complete the Generation Indigenous Challenge. They had do some good in their community and write about their experiences.
Finley brought in a guest speaker to an Indian education youth group.
Houle worked with 5-8 year olds, reminding them to stay physically active even when they get busy with school and life.
When they got to the capitol, the girls learned that some of their experiences on the Flathead reservation are not unique.
"The main one was drugs and alcohol throughout reservations," says Finely. "And my group we talked about like, our justice system, and how it’s not good. And how drugs and alcohol are so common it’s kinda just like shrugged off the shoulders here on reservations.
Cates-Carney: Shrugged off the shoulder by the people and the justice system?
"Yes. It’s just so common."
"Nobody cares," adds Houle.
"Yeah, it seems like they don’t really care for it," Finley says.
The Gen-I Challenge was launched last December on the heels of President Obama and The First Lady visiting a reservation in North Dakota
The President’s budget for 2016 proposes an 8-percent increase across a wide range of federal programs that serve tribes.
This includes $53 million for community projects through the Department of Education to improve college and career-readiness of native youth.
According to the White House, native youth have the lowest high school graduation rate of students across all schools.
The $50 million will fund youth-focused behavioral, mental health and substance abuse services.
To Finley and Houle’s disappointment the President did not come to the Tribal Youth Gathering, but First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at the event about her experience visiting the North Dakota reservation.
"And they just talked about how they were heartbroken when they went to reservations just seeing how the natives lived there. Um, how the youth was, and how much suicides went on. And she basically told us that we wouldn’t be left in the dark again and that we are going to be helped."
Cates-Carney: And do you believe that?
"Um…its kind of hard to believe because I guess a lot of people want to make changes for the reservations but it's not really being seen," says Finley.
"They are too scared to do anything," Houle says.
"I want to believe it, but at the same time you have to be realistic I guess," Finley concludes.
When Houle says she thinks people might be too scared to help, she means that people don’t want to make an already bad situation worse.
Both girls say their families were very supportive in their trip to DC. They helped with fundraising and Finley’s grandmother made the trip with them.
Some of girls’ classmates and friends were less supportive – telling them their trip wasn’t that cool and not that big a deal.
But Finley and Houle learned a lot and want to convince others to go with them again next year.
Long term, both Finley and Houle want to go to college. Finley to study nursing and Houle thinks about teaching or maybe being a forensic anthropologist like she sees on CSI.
Generation Indigenous focuses on removing the barriers that stand between Native youth and success. It’s a lofty goal, especially when the population of Native American people in the United States is so young.
According to the White House, nearly half of Native American people are under the age of 24.