For students who grow up on Indian reservations, going from high school to college isn’t always a priority.
Or academics might not be their focus, says Don Wetzel Jr., student, families and communities coordinator for the Schools of Promise program.
“It’s difficult for those kids to perceive the education side,” said Wetzel, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe who works for the state Office of Public Instruction. “But it’s very realistic to perceive success on the basketball court because they’ve had aunts and uncles play in the state championship.”
This week, 31 student council members from the three low-performing schools that are part of Schools of Promise are in Billings for a four-day conference on the kinds of success that can come with education.
“We’re trying to give them a taste of careers, both tribal and world careers, hopefully to spark something in them,” Wetzel said.
The students came from Frazer School, on the Fort Peck Reservation, and from Lame Deer and Plenty Coups high schools on the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations.
They met with tribal leaders and business leaders to learn about success on and off the reservation.
They met Thursday with business people who are part of this year’s Leadership Montana class. On Thursday night, the students were to dine with Gov. Steve Bullock and Superintendent of Schools Denise Juneau.
Thursday morning, the students and business leaders from around the state sat together at the downtown Depot.
Calvin Russette, student body president at Lame Deer High, asked what was probably on the minds of most of the students.
“I don’t really know a lot about business — there’s not a lot of businesses on the reservation,” he said. “So I want to learn as much as I can today.”
The students heard specifics on how those in business got their starts and what routes they took to succeed. Education and hard work came up often, as did discovery and pursuit of a passion.
Tom Cunningham suggested that students think about the kinds of services they would like to see made available where they live. With education and a lot of hard work, he said, they can succeed.
“You are the core that can make everything happen in your life,” he said. “You can accomplish anything you put your mind to.”
Stacy Klippenstein, vice chancellor of student affairs at Montana State University Billings, told the students that they have excellent colleges as starting points on their reservations, as well as other schools in the state.
"I know in talking to tribal leaders that you have lawyers, engineers and others who go to college and come back to give back," he said. "They want you, as youth, to be able to graduate from high school and college, and learn something you can bring back to the community."
Barbara Braided Hair, branch manager of First Interstate Bank in Lame Deer, grew up in the tiny town of Birney. When she was 8, she started peddling popcorn door to door in the town that didn’t have a store.
As she got older, opportunities came up and she grabbed them. She went to school at Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, took available summer jobs and later worked for the tribe. Eventually she was offered the job of bank manager.
“It is harder for you to prove yourself if you don’t have a degree,” she told the students.
Braided Hair said she was proud of the students for wanting to make their communities a better place. She suggested that one of them might some day take her place at the bank.
“So dream big, work really hard and you can achieve that,” she said.
Domineque Montclair, a sophomore from Wolf Point who goes to Frazer, asked about starting a biodiesel business on her reservation. With so many trucks coming through, it would be a good business for the tribe, she said, and it would provide cheaper fuel for local drivers.
Asked afterward what she had learned, Montclair didn’t hesitate.
“I am learning that to work hard and put all your time and effort into it,” she said.
Montclair also planned to find someone at the conference who could help her find the resources to write a business proposal to submit to the tribal chairman.
Russette said he would like to open a truck stop in Lame Deer, which is intersected by Highway 212, bringing many big rigs through town. The conference, he said, is giving him ideas and resources he can turn to for more information.
“On our reservation, there’s not a lot of business people,” he said. “These people are successful.”
Russette wants to help his people. Getting the tools he needs to go into business is the start of that, he said.
“You can grow a business and grow it so far that you can start doing charities,” he said. “Plus, when you’re a businessman, you can talk to other businessmen about investing on the reservation.”