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Wind River Youth Summit aims to empower and connect

The Wind River Youth Summit will take place from July 19-20th at the Fort Washakie High School. The event's theme is "From roots to resilience: empowering ourselves and our communities for a better future."
Wind River Youth Summit
The Wind River Youth Summit will take place from July 19-20th at the Fort Washakie High School. The event's theme is "From roots to resilience: empowering ourselves and our communities for a better future."

It’s not an easy time to be a young person, but the upcoming Wind River Youth Summit is hoping to make the rollercoaster of growing up just a little bit easier.

The two-day summit is creating space for Indigenous youth ages 12-24 to come together to discuss issues facing their communities. The summit will take place from July 19-20th at the Fort Washakie High School.

The first Youth Summit took place in 2010 and ran for three summers, then tapered out. In 2020, there were attempts to restart the summit but they were halted by the pandemic. The event’s organizers hope this year’s summit can help revitalize the event as an annual gathering.

Northern Arapaho Two-Spirit summit organizer Layha Spoonhunter said they personally benefited from attending previous summits and wanted to help pass along the opportunity.

“Having participated in conferences like this and summits like this when I was younger, that's what really helped me to grow my leadership. And so that's our hope, to foster leadership for the next generation of youth on our reservation,” Spoonhunter said.

Cass Burson works as a prevention specialist for the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and got the ball rolling to help restart the event by reaching out to past organizers and community partners more than a year ago. She said the summit can proactively support healthy communities.

“Most of the [summit’s] topics are centered around Indigenous culture and lifeways and are preventative factors in that they create connectedness,” she said. “We want the summit to provide information that creates that connectedness to community and culture, so that all of our youth feel safe and supported and seen by their community.”

The event will cover topics including college advocacy, mental health, suicide prevention, safe driving, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples crisis, substance abuse care and prevention, sacred relationships to land, and LGBTQ+ support.

Northern Arapaho Two-Spirit summit organizer Big Wind Carpenter said the summit’s agenda was intentionally shaped by input from local youth.

“What was really important to us was ensuring that a lot of the topics that will be covered were coming from the young people here on the reservation, and so there was a forum put out asking young people from the schools on the reservation ‘What do you want to talk about?’” Carpenter said.

Some of the summit’s sessions will be led by young people, while others will be led by local and visiting experts, including Hidatsa motivational speaker Chance Rush and Blackfoot wellness advocate Theda New Breast.

Both Spoonhunter and Carpenter said they hope this year’s Youth Summit can help to re-establish the Wind River Youth Council, which has played a large part in past summits.

According to Carpenter, the Wind River Youth Council first formed in response to a series of suicides that took place in the 1980s. That council was the first United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY)-affiliated Youth Council in the country.

The adults who had started that original council as young people worked with the next generation to bring back the Youth Council in 2007. Spoonhunter said the Youth Council regularly organized and hosted New Year’s retreats, spring conferences, trainings, youth-run powwows, and visits to meet with legislators and the Wyoming governor. The Youth Council also collaborated with Indigenous youth in Montana for an annual Montana-Wyoming Youth Conference.

“A lot of focus at that time was on suicide prevention, so we would participate in mental health conferences and education conferences, just to be involved in the community,” Spoonhunter said.

When the Youth Council was active, monthly meetings would also take place at different schools, with representatives from disparate schools coming together and having the chance to learn from one another.

“There’s a lot of generated interest in having a Youth Council here again and having that opportunity to have youth network once again,” Spoonhunter said.

Carpenter said they want young people to leave the summit with tools to make change both personally and in their communities, and added that the revitalization of the Wind River Youth Council could play a big part in that process.

“Now we're adults and are trying to help pass this torch along to the youth and young people so that they can feel empowered to make these decisions for themselves, so that they can feel empowered to be a part of a solution-oriented process,” Carpenter said.

This year’s Wind River Youth Summit will also include two evening events that are open to all. The first night will be a jingle dress exhibition at the Wyoming Indian High School parking lot.

The exhibition is dedicated to Missing and Murdered Indigenous women, men, children and Two-spirit community members and their families. The dance will be followed by a screening of “Who She Is”. Afterwards there will be a panel discussion with the film’s co-directors Jordan Dresser and Sophie Barksdale, as well as Tiara Crawford, the granddaughter of one of the women brought to life in the film, Abigail Washakie-Moss.

The second evening event will take place at the Blue Sky Hall and is a talent show for artists of all types. There will also be local vendors and a job fair.

To learn more about the event, check out the Wind River Youth Summit’s Facebook page.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.

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