By Tim Eberly
Years ago, Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation held its first Gathering of Native Americans spiritual conference at Montana State University-Northern.
In the ensuing years, though, the Chippewa Cree Coalition Committee moved the spiritual event to the reservation.
For the first GONA, "we were thinking it was closer to the hotels," said one of GONA's coordinators, Elinor Nault-Wright, who this year is expecting representatives from Native American tribes in Wyoming, Washington, Oregon and South Dakota. "But we wanted it more in our community. We wanted it here. People don't mind driving 30 miles (to Rocky Boy) for that."
GONA is a nationwide tool for Native American reservations dealing with a variety of communitywide problems ranging from substance abuse to family issues. A GONA conference normally lasts four days, but since many teachers at Rocky Boy schools have to attend a conference in Great Falls on Friday, it will be streamlined to three.
Free of charge, the workshop begins with registration at 8 a.m. Wednesday at Rocky Boy High School, and runs until early Friday afternoon. All cultures are welcome to attend the activities, which will cost a host of sponsors approximately $20,000.
Nault-Wright and her fellow event coordinators, a GONA team of 35 community members formed by the Chippewa Cree Coalition Committee, are expecting about 150 people to attend.
The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Substance Abuse and Prevention, Nault-Wright said, has stamped GONA as "one of the most promising approach programs in the country. They've proven it helps in communities."
Each day is devoted to a different step on the road to self-empowerment and living a healthy lifestyle. The first day focuses on becoming comfortable with all the participants. On the second day, members are encouraged to "identify their issues," Nault-Wright said.
The final chapter centers on brainstorming for solutions, and of course, providing support.
School buses will pick up interested high school students, who are in the midst of a week-long Spring break, on their regular routes. For attending, students can earn up to five homework passes.
Stone Child College students, meanwhile, can collect up to two college credits if they participate.
Rocky Boy hasn't forgotten its teachers either. By participating, instructors can fulfill Native American Studies credits, which are required for teaching.
During the event, a free baby-sitting service will be offered by the Rocky Boy Schools Parents Committee at Rocky Boy Elementary School.
Highlights of the gathering include "team building" activities at 10:15 a.m. Wednesday, designed for loosening the atmosphere. "They're so fun," Nault-Wright said. "We get in different groups. We spend most of the day laughing."
An emotional, open-mike session follows a Mexican food lunch on Thursday at noon.
"It opens the door for other people to feel comfortable talking about their issues," Nault-Wright said. "That's probably the most powerful part."
Capping the event, each participant makes a present, and all the gifts are pooled together for the "full group give-away" shortly before the closing ceremonies.
Because of financial constraints, Rocky Boy has not made GONA an annual event. Until a month ago, when Nault-Wright was attending a wellness conference in Reno, Nev., the reservation had not intended to hold the event this year. She observed a small GONA workshop there, which "sparked an interest," prompting her to help organize the event in less than a month.