When Beth Lone Eagle moved to Bridger in 2006, one of her goals was to “be a good relative.” That meant taking care of people in her community, shoveling snow for elders, giving people a ride when they needed it, and helping in whatever way she could.
In the first years, she spent a lot of time visiting and listening to her in-laws and relatives in order to learn the history of her new community.
“One of the people who taught me a lot was my mother-in-law. She was one of those women who just knew things. She knew what I was going to need to know in order to survive here,” said Lone Eagle.
By mid-2019, she had a good understanding of her community, its struggles and its potential. When she was asked to serve as a Community Advocate for the Bridger/Takini area, it was an extension of work she was already doing.
Tribal Ventures Director Karen Ducheneaux found this to be true for most of the new Community Advocates. When the program began, she purposefully hired people from within the communities to be served.
“The majority of them [advocates] have been doing advocacy on some informal level for most of their lives. Everyone we ended up hiring has a lot of advocacy experience,” said Ducheneaux.
The Reservation Community Advocacy Project started in 2019 with funding through Tribal Ventures from TECA. The mission of the program is to bring services to the most remote communities on the reservation.
The program grew out of years of frustration of hearing people talk about the need for expanded services.
“Thus far no one has been able to get any resources out to the districts. Tribal Ventures is a tribal project — the only program with that designation — so we are given a lot of latitude to try different things,” said Ducheneaux.
The program director and her team did an assessment of every community more than 20 miles from Eagle Butte.
“On other reservations, towns have more infrastructure. The only two towns here that have anything are traditionally white towns. Few communities have a post office, grocery store or gas station,” said Ducheneaux.
The result is an advocacy program that helps people in a very direct way.
There are five focal areas for the program: Promise/Blackfoot, Iron Lightning, Swift Bird/Marksville, Red Scaffold, and Bridger/Takini. The areas average over 75 miles from Eagle Butte and include the most remote parts of the reservation. The Bridger/Takini area, for example, encompasses 50 to 60 families and is 82 miles from Eagle Butte.
The program provides each office with all the basics: phone, laptop, copier/scanner/fax, filing cabinet, office supplies, etc. Two of the five offices are in Housing Authority spaces. The office in Blackfoot is in Ascension Church. Due to the housing shortage on the reservation, the other two sites are still seeking office space, so Lone Eagle and Lyndsey Collins, the advocate for Red Scaffold, work from home.
The main function of the role is to facilitate communication between tribal members and agencies which provide services within the reservation boundaries, including CRST Support Services, Four Bands Community Fund and Governor’s House, among others.
“My job is to have copies of all those forms. People can call me and I can help them get that paper-work done,” said Lone Eagle.
The advocate program makes it so clients need to go to Eagle Butte less frequently.
“We do subsistence living here because it’s so remote. It’s hard to go up to Eagle Butte, fill out paperwork, go home, wait, and then go back and pick it up. A lot of people don’t have access to get a food voucher because everything for Support Services is in Eagle Butte,” said Lone Eagle
For Promise/Blackfoot advocate Annie Walker, part of the joy of the job is connecting with people in her area.
“I like this job and everybody knows who I am. We’re trying to get it out that it’s a free service. Come and use it! If they need help they can come to the office in the Guild Hall in Blackfoot and we can fax it all in. People can’t afford to be running back and forth. Even if we have the money, the roads are horrible,” said Walker.
Walker and the other advocates want to gather information on the families in their area.
“I have Promise and Blackfoot, but I need a better accounting of how many people are in the community. I want to know how many adults and kids are in those households. What kind of heating do you have? Do you own a car? Do you work? Where? We have 10-12 people who drive all the way to McLaughlin for work. I want to know basic information on how they are doing,” she said.
As an advocate, Lone Eagle measures success in two ways — by the number of families in her area who she connects with in the course of a month, and by how well she builds relationships.
“I think it’s been successful. In the first month alone, I had contact with 70% of the households and the numbers were higher in December,” she said.
Each Advocate keeps a log of the households they touch each month and the services they refer to.
Lone Eagle imagines a future when the program expands to include access to more services. She would love to see drivers for people who don’t have a car so that they can be taken to pick up vouchers, checks or paperwork in Eagle Butte.
Ducheneaux agrees, “My dream is to continue the program beyond this year and expand into other communities, even the ones within 20 miles of Eagle Butte,” she said.
Lone Eagle summed up the program, “It’s all about having access to resources. If we can get people access to resources individually, it will uplift enough to make us successful to do other things. If people don’t have to worry — If I pay for propane, how can I feed my kids? — what could they be doing instead?”