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Tribal members nationwide gather to share, learn and share again

Summer Conference04HOLLYWOOD — Georgette Palmer Smith, executive director of the Seminole Tribe’s Native Learning Center (NLC), said the department’s educational sixth annual Summer Conference could only be successful if attendees soaked up information then took the knowledge home.

“It makes our hearts feel good to bring you so much about so many topics, but we can teach all day long and it still comes down to what you take back to your communities,” Smith said to nearly 150 participants from 75 Tribes. “For the sake of our youth who will someday lead the way, it’s time to get your learn on.”

So began the NLC event subtitled Promoting Strong and Safe Tribal Communities held June 3-5 at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood.

Thirty sessions provided facts and practical know-how on five topics:  financial wellness, Tribal government, grant education, housing strategies and celebrating culture and language. Individual classes ran the gamut from “Strength in Numbers: Using Data to Elevate Program Management” to “So Why Don’t We Make Frybread?”

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” said Mike Andrews, a director of operations for the Office of Native American Programs (ONAP) at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Andrews referred to the many ways ONAP distributes funding for housing on reservations and communities throughout Indian Country, but the same answer could apply to any Tribal issue nationwide.

Because no Tribe operates exactly alike – each has different economic engines, sovereign government structures and unique relationships with neighboring governments – the best managers in the five categories were invited to share methods that help their Tribe succeed.

“We’ve worked hard during past years and now have a following of instructors and a database of subject experts from housing to culture and language,” said Marie Dufour, NLC’s technical and training program director.

The most popular sessions poured over grant application, grant management, brand marketing, business building and financial skills for individuals and families. Cultural classes included reviving ancient Native games, using Native rituals for healing, and promoting health and culture in the workplace.

The free conference was funded by HUD.

Dufour said similar professional development conferences typically cost attendees about $500 each. Participants ranged from newly hired staff members to long-time department directors.

Erich Bourgault, CEO of Anishinaabeg of Naongashiing First Nation in Ontario, Canada, said he attended three consecutive NLC conferences. The first person he shares information with when he returns home is the Tribe’s Chief Patricia Big George, his wife.

“I’ve pooled a lot of phenomenal information that helps me do business throughout Indian Country in the U.S. and Canada. The networking is also phenomenal,” Bourgault said.

Especially helpful for him this year was learning how to use USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grants to enhance economic development in his Tribal community. The class was led by Wanda Jean Lord, a Cherokee-Choctaw.

Bourgault also enjoyed “Walking the Four Directions,” taught by Alan Rabideau, of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa in Michigan. Rabideau’s daylong session bolstered minding the medicine wheel to strengthen selves and families.

Bourgault, who owns green energy companies, recently partnered with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to institute Native American healing elements, including a sweat lodge, in a substance abuse facility in Palm Bay, Fla.

For Dufour, gleaning and sharing knowledge make the annual conferences great.

“We bring together a group of people who want to ensure a better future,” she said. “They take every nugget they learn back to their communities to build better leaders.”