Love Has No Color project brings change to Fort Peck
WOLF POINT, Mont. - ''Like the answer to a prayer'' is how Fort Peck Indian Tribe Health Program Specialist Kenny Smoker describes the Love Has No Color project.
How the project came to be on this Montana reservation of 11,000 members is a story in itself.
A few years ago, Smoker said, high school students studying substance abuse asked their peers why they did drugs. The answer: There's nothing else to do. When the same kids were asked what they would like to do, they said they wanted the town cleaned up, a movie theater, a skate park and less alcoholism in the community. The kids themselves went to work on the first request - the cleanup. And into town came Dr. Kevin Pallis and Dr. Ed Plentz, chiropractors with The New Renaissance, a Massachusetts-
''They saw the youth picking up the trash around the community, and they wanted to be part of the effort,'' Smoker said. In a week they came back with about 40 friends, and so began a project that has made a significant difference in thousands of lives and that has the promise of establishing a new paradigm for Anglo-Indian relationships.
Pallis said that he had been thinking about what people do around the world to help improve other peoples' lives, and that while international work was an honorable activity, it didn't really resonate with him at the time. ''I was wondering how I should contribute when I saw a bumper sticker with a profile of an Indian and the words 'We're still here.' Right then, I knew that The New Renaissance would do our work right here in this country.
''Love Has No Color is our world project,'' he said. ''It was created to bring awareness to the disturbing and appalling conditions on our reservations. It's not just the Fort Peck Indian Reservation that we're talking about. It's indigenous people around the world. They have been brutally murdered, raped and displaced from their homelands. They have been banished to desolate reservations to live out their lives in quiet exile. Their culture, their heritage and their legacy were systematically extinguished, all in the name of progress. This was a willful and malevolent genocide of America's first and Native peoples. This is the invisible prejudice that we want to bring awareness to.''
Although Pallis said ''our'' reservations in his statement, he is not himself indigenous. For him, the Indian reservations are an integral component of the fabric of American life and culture today.
''Our country was built on that foundation. We try to tell the rest of the world how to live, but then we have these reservations. Until we heal these deep scars, our country will have a difficult time telling the rest of the world how to act,'' Pallis said.
He said he believes in his deepest heart that these scars can and will be healed.
''We created this project to show the effects when people embrace their spirit and are elevated. We have to acknowledge the past and then acknowledge, recognize and embrace a vital part of our heritage back into mainstream culture,'' Pallis said.
Smoker described Pallis and Plentz as motivators and movers who bring such energy and good will to their work that people are naturally drawn to it. He recounted a parade that the community held to honor the 40-plus people who devoted themselves to beginning the second project - renovating the movie theater.
''They were in the parade and they gave out candy to the children and shook hands with people. You know, there is an alcoholism problem here, and there were some street people along the route. The doctors went over and shook their hands and gave them candy too,'' Smoker said.
The project finished its second ''boot camp'' June 3. So far they have been able to make significant progress on the renovation of the movie theater, where the first movie in 30 years was screened recently. Smoker said the theater will become a facility that can be used for plays, skits and lectures as well as movies. They still need funding for electricity and plumbing.
The skate park is going forward as well.
''We had some money from the housing authority to start, but it wasn't enough,'' Smoker said. ''One of the chiropractors donated $2,000 so we could buy the materials. Then we have an agreement with a union to train some of our people in finish cement work, so we won't have to pay for the labor.''
Pallis readily admitted that for him, this project is a lifelong commitment. It is also one that already he and The New Renaissance are seeing as something that will live well into the future.
The group has made it possible for one tribal member - Brandi Charrette - to study chiropractic medicine at the Life University in Marietta, Ga. She is currently finishing up her prerequisites and will begin her formal study with a full scholarship from the university's president. The New Renaissance pays for everything else, including an apartment that will allow her to bring her two children to live with her in Georgia while she studies.
When she completes her work, Charette will return to the reservation, where the project will build a clinic and community cultural center where she can practice.
But this project is not just about facilities. It's about health and how lives can be saved. It's about wellness. ''It's about basic human rights'' and making sure that the principles on which this country was founded include everyone, Pallis added.
And it's about relationships built with respect and joy. Pallis recounted how one little girl told him during the first boot camp, ''But you won't be back,'' having learned that people who want to help often do not have the stamina it takes to really do the job. ''You watch your calendar,'' Pallis told her. And back they came a year later, with even more enthusiasm, support and willingness to work as they brought the first time.
''It brings tears to your eyes to see such good-spirited people,'' Smoker said. ''They have brought hope to our children.''
To learn more about the Love Has No Color project, visit www.thenewren aissance.org/resources/love_has_no_color/index.php.