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^pLAME DEER — Their jingle dresses chiming on every rhythmic step, sisters Kamrynn and Kiara Sooktis led the tribe in an important celebration.

Monday was the 20th anniversary of the Boys and Girls Club of Northern Cheyenne, a group dedicated to giving tribal children a strong sense of who they are.

Cars lined Cheyenne Avenue for blocks in the morning as a short, 10-vehicle parade rolled through town en route to the Boys and Girls Club building, where the community gathered for a celebratory lunch and cultural celebration.

Kamrynn, 9, and Kiara, 5, pulled out all the stops. Their dresses, adorned with hundreds of shiny chewing tobacco lids flattened and rolled into cones, chimed with the pounding beat of the drum circle.

This is why Boys and Girls Club of Northern Cheyenne works so well, said the girls’ mother, Jade Sooktis, whose four children are club members, just as she was growing up. The focus is on tribal culture.

“It taught me a lot about my Northern Cheyenne culture,” Sooktis said. “It taught me about where I came from, who I am.”

As she spoke, Sooktis fixed a bristled ceremonial headpiece to the crown of her youngest son, Dezmond.

The 3-year-old grass dancer tried hard to still himself as his mother tied the leather laces

to the headdress beneath his chin. His turn to perform was coming.

Boys and Girls Club of Northern Cheyenne teaches the children to dance, to improve their native tongue and to understand the sacred elements folded into the region’s landscape.

The lessons begin at age 5 and continue to 18. When the children reach adolescence, they attend club camping trips to sacred sites, the latest being Bear Butte, S.D.

Developing a solid connection to tribal culture has been a club priority since the Boys and Girls Club of Northern Cheyenne Nation was founded, said Geri Small, the club’s chief professional officer and a past tribal chairman.

Nationally, the club rededicated those efforts last year, setting new goals for strengthening the cultural identity of its children and promoting their growth and development.

“I think one of the things we provide is a safe place for kids to come,” Small said, “because this is the only thing we have for our youth.”

Once in the door, the children begin learning about what it means to be Northern Cheyenne.

The club lessons pull in the rest of the family, too. Sooktis said her children’s grandfather, Vernon Sooktis, made the ceremonial costumes in which the children danced.

Ideally it’s the older children who begin passing down cultural lessons to the younger club members, said Small, club director. Small’s assistant, Lane Spotted Elk, 24, was among the first generation of Northern Cheyenne to enroll in the club.

Along with the cultural lessons, the club for many children is a safe harbor, a place to get a meal in the summertime, a place to interact with a few more adults concerned about their well-

being.

“It takes five caring adults to help a child grow up. It helped me grow up,” Spotted Elk said. “It’s just a safe place to go.”

In the summertime, when school hot lunches aren’t available, Northern Cheyenne children can get two meals a day at the Boys and Girls Club and a sack meal to take home.

The last two weeks of the month, when food stamps at home have typically run out, the club offers evening meals to the children and their families.

The need for assistance

among club members is considerable.

Roughly 57 percent of members of the Boys and Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation live in single-parent homes.

The percentage of kids in federally subsidized housing is 84. Half of the children live in homes with 6 to 12 family members.

Boys and Girls Club participation has always been strong on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Small said.

Club enrollment has been 500 to 700 since the Northern Cheyenne branch started in 1992, which is the same year Boys and Girls Club launched its Native Lands initiative.

Boys and Girls Clubs on Native Lands serves 80,000 children in 24 states.

The nonprofit organization relies on public donations and also receives federal funds — more than $70 million — for American Indian chapters.

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Managing editor at The Billings Gazette.