For Montana First Nation students who participated in a youth camp in the Rocky Mountains this summer, the experience brought reconnecting with nature, each other and hope for their futures full circle.
In July, the campers spent a few days in the Hummingbird area in the Bighorn Backcountry, unplugged from electronics and cellphones.
Fast forward and the inspiring sight of horse hooves falling gallantly through a rushing river, nearly in perfect time to traditional Indigenous drumming and swelling notes flows across a big screen as the scent of smudging and a strong sense of community fills the air.
Production company DarkSpark filmed the experience and the completed documentary was debuted at a ceremony and film release at Meskanahk Ka-Nipa-Wit School in Montana on Oct. 19.
The camp was part of the school’s Youth Education and Career Pathway (YECP) program, which strives to open up the possibilities of post secondary education to the students.
The release began with a grand entry of dancers to drumming. Speeches were then given by several community elders involved in the camp, Chief Leonard Standingontheroad and other band councillors, sponsors, a few youth participants, and the makers of the film.
Standingontheroad said it was a proud moment for the community and an opportunity to celebrate the youth.
“We have First Nation rights, and Treaty rights and now, with the youth, we have bragging rights,” he said to appreciative laughter.
Many of the speakers recognized Sandi Hiemer, the YECP coordinator responsible for organizing much of the event.
The program is now in its 12th year. The camp was sponsored in part by TC Energy as well as grant funding.
YECP exposes the students to a variety of career options. Participants also spend time on post secondary campuses, which can be an important step to making it feel like an attainable goal.
One parent explained that when she was young, they only had the opportunity to leave the reserve when it was a school or band-sponsored trip, so many youth never even saw high learning institutions.
The camp is a culmination of all the program strives to achieve.
During the camp, the youth learned how to make a sweat lodge, experienced the mountains, a pipe ceremony, slept in teepees and did a trail ride on horseback. Several participants also received their Cree name.
Many participants said they felt apprehensive about getting on a horse as it was either their first time, in the case of the youth, or it had been a really long time, in the case of the elders.
Even riding horses was part of reconnecting with their spiritual traditions, the film conveyed.
In the film, 14-year-old Brooke Rain said nature is like her best friend and that being with the horses reminded her of the strength she has within herself.
While doing land-based learning, the students also learned possible environmental careers, such as environmental engineering, monitoring and agronomy. They collected soil and water samples to be analyzed at a lab.
In her interview in the documentary, Elder Flora Northwest said students must learn to walk two paths: one with their language and identities, and the other into post secondary institutions while being proud of who they are.