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Red Lake kids form youth council to improve life on reservation

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A small group of kids on the Red Lake Indian Reservation have formed the Red Lake Nation Youth Council. Their goal is to take action to make a better life for the tribe's young people. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
Some of the Red Lake Indian Reservation's brightest young people are coming together to do what they can to tackle the tribe's problems.

Many people on the reservation say life is tough for kids. Poverty and unemployment are rampant. Drug and alcohol abuse is common, and the school's dropout rate is among the highest in the state.

Now, a group of kids has formed the Red Lake Nation Youth Council. Their goal is to make a better life for tribal youth.

Red Lake, Minn. — In a house outside the remote tribal village of Ponemah, two young men huddle around an Xbox playing a video game. Kirby Perkins, 16, and Jerrell Martin, 18, are typical teenagers. They're into sports, music and computers.

But Perkins and Martin are also worried about the future of their tribe. Martin says many kids are headed down the wrong path. He says the biggest problem is drugs and alcohol. "I just want to help kids succeed in life, other than following the wrong peers," said Martin. "Even just so they can get a good appearance on Indians, too. Everyone says Indians are drunks and bad people. But we can't blame them for saying that about us, because the kids are the ones doing it to themselves."

Martin just graduated from high school. But he didn't go to school in Red Lake. Instead, his family sent him to school in Kelliher, 20 miles off the reservation. Martin says that's because Red Lake schools have a bad reputation.

Perkins will be a senior this year at Red Lake High School. He says education at Red Lake is often chaotic -- he says kids misbehave with few consequences.

"Students, like, would swear and yell at their teachers because they can't go to a certain place," said Perkins. "All they do is just send them to detention, and they'll be back the next day pretty much doing the same thing."

Kirby Perkins and Jerrell Martin say they're tired of the turmoil. They decided to get involved in a fledgling organization called the Red Lake Nation Youth Council. The group's goal is to make life better for kids.

The Red Lake Nation Youth Council is a work in progress. The kids have barely settled on a name, and they're still working on bylaws and organizational structure. The group meets around a large wooden conference table at tribal headquarters, the same one used by tribal government leaders.

The council is the idea of Tribal Chairman Buck Jourdain. Planning began before the March 21 school shootings at Red Lake that left 10 people dead.

Tim Sumner, Jourdain's personal assistant, is also adviser to the youth council.

"We're trying to develop leaders, you know, upcoming leaders, whether it be in tribal government or anything that they do," Sumner said. "It's always good to prepare and teach yourself things for the life ahead of you."

Sumner, 20, is also from Ponemah. He says initially the idea was that the youth council would serve as advisers to tribal government. The group has since taken on a life of its own. Sumner says members are motivated to make real changes on the reservation.

"I think one of our main goals is just get out there and listen to them, see what they want, and what's helping them, and what we can do and what they can do to make things better for the youth on the Red Lake Reservation," Sumner said.

Kids join the youth council for a variety of reasons. Jim King, who will be a junior at Red Lake High School this fall, says one thing he'd like to see is for the youth council to bring in motivational speakers to talk with kids. He says many kids have no drive to succeed.

"I think that comes from the parents not having jobs and have no will to get up in the morning. So then their kids sleep right in with them. Then they wake up, get high with them, you know, then they're content with that," said King. "So I think if there are more jobs on the reservation, in the community, the parents would have more responsibility. Then it would trickle down to their kids."

Youth council member Tom Barrett agrees the economic situation at Red Lake is a big part of the problem.

"The employment rate is very high and that's where it starts," said Barrett. "That's where a person's personality in life starts, is at home. The probability is that if you didn't see your parents do anything or working, you know, it will make you think that you don't have to either."

Not every youth council member lives on the reservation. Debra Goodwin, 18, is a tribal member and lives in Bemidji. She just graduated from Bemidji High School.

But Goodwin says her heart has always been with her tribal community. She's the tribe's current Miss Red Lake Nation princess. Goodwin works as a certified nursing assistant at the elderly care facility in Red Lake.

Goodwin says she loves working with tribal elders, but she also cares for tribal youth. Goodwin says the March 21 school shootings broke her heart.

"It was just unbelievable," said Goodwin. "Words can't even say it, you know. My heart was just hurting because all these families had to deal with this. The thing that hurt me the most was that we did it to our own people, like Natives against Natives. This person did it to his own people."

Goodwin says it wasn't the shootings that motivated her to get involved in the youth council. She says the main problem at Red Lake is a breakdown in family structure. She says some parents need to do a better job with their kids.

"A lot of it has to do with them having kids at such young ages and not being ready to be parents themselves, so their kids end up failing," said Goodwin. "So, yeah, I believe that the parents did fail the kids. A lot of the parents don't ... care where they're going, they don't care what they're doing. So in a sense, when you don't have that, it's harder to succeed. It's harder to do good when you don't have those influences."

Goodwin credits Tribal Chairman Buck Jourdain with bringing a renewed focus on the well-being of kids. Jourdain is said to be the youngest chairman in the tribe's history. Goodwin says that helps him relate to the needs of young people.

"I strongly believe our former chairmen, they didn't give a sh** about our youth," she said. "They're like, 'Whatever, they're just disrespectful, blah, blah, blah, blah.' So that's why I'm so happy that he's our chairman."

Jourdain declined to be interviewed for this story. The chairman has been preoccupied with his own personal problems. His son Louis Jourdain, 17, is suspected of conspiracy in the high school shootings. The boy appeared before a federal judge in a closed hearing last week in St. Paul. Federal authorities have refused to talk about the case.

Goodwin has lots of ideas to help Red Lake kids. She'd like to see walking and biking trails along Red Lake, and maybe boat rentals. She'd like the youth council to set up and operate an ice cream shop to raise money. And since there are no band or choir programs at Red Lake High School, she'd like to find grant money to purchase musical instruments for kids.

Goodwin's mother, Sherry, works with Debra at the nursing home in Red Lake. Sherry Goodwin is excited about the youth council. She says there are plans to create a parents' advisory group to work with the kids.

Sherry Goodwin says she believes the youth council could potentially be much more effective at reaching out to kids than adults have been.

"I think just the peer pressure is there for them. I could go in there and say, 'Do this! Do that! And do this!' which they ain't going to listen to me," said Goodwin. "But when they get their own peers, their own age group, it's more apt to work for them. They can say, 'Hey, I know what it's like, I did it, I know it, but this is a better way and let's do it this way instead of that way.'"

Youth council members say the biggest challenge may be to get kids involved and engaged. The council is open to all youth on the reservation ages 15-24, but so far the meetings have attracted just a small core group. The kids plan to use flyers and the Internet to attract more members.

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