SONS of Mvskoke Model Stability & Presence

The tenets of physical wellness, Native American culture and spirituality come together as SONS participants build a sweat lodge.

The tenets of physical wellness, Native American culture and spirituality come together as SONS participants build a sweat lodge.

For men representing the values of respect and responsibility in rural Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the secret to success often comes down to just being there. It means coming together in support – and not in competition – as a steady, stable mentor and friend to the area’s young men and boys. Today, with support from First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), the SONS of Mvskoke are consistently present, as role models and facilitators, committed to serving the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Here to Give Back

The SONS of Mvskoke began when several of its members first worked with the Muscogee Tribe in a family violence prevention initiative called Warriors Honor Women. Their focus was on involving men in solutions to protecting families. While that program eventually ran its course, questions remained about the causes of domestic violence.

Executive Director Monte Randall says SONS serves to give back to the Muscogee Tribe. Here, a SONS volunteer reads to students at Glenpool Elementary School.

Executive Director Monte Randall says SONS serves to give back to the Muscogee Tribe. Here, a SONS volunteer reads to students at Glenpool Elementary School.

“We continued to see a need to get men together to talk about what we all face,” said SONS of Mvskoke Chief Executive Officer Monte Randall.

Indeed, there were few channels in Okmulgee for men to collaborate and support each other in ways that were non-competitive and not blame-based. The SONS decided to continue meeting and to formalize their own structure to support men and give back to the tribe. Their focus would be mentoring and community-based programs and events that bring men together in ways that show responsibility and respect.

A Four-Tenet Focus

As a newly formed 501(c)(3) organization, the SONS began hosting monthly events and activities open to the community based on the SONS’ four tenets: spiritual, physical wellness, Native American culture, and leadership. These events and activities are designed to encompass at least one of those tenets. For example, fishing trips or sporting events incorporate physical wellness, whereas planting an elders’ garden, bow shooting, language lessons and sweat lodges involve several of the tenets.

Funding from First Nations and RISE will help SONS continue many programs, including the elders’ garden.

Funding from First Nations and RISE will help SONS continue many programs, including the elders’ garden.

Through all the activities, Randall said, men are called on in an environment of respect and responsibility. “By leading these activities, we participate, we show up. We convey that this is what men do, and this is what is important to who we are as a people.”

Randall underscored the importance of this male presence not just in Okmulgee but throughout the country. There are a lot of homes with single-mother families, or grandparents raising the children, he said. “Having that structure of male involvement serves as a model for having dads in their homes.”

Building on Culture

Fortunately, SONS of Mvskoke operates in a region steeped in Creek culture, and cultural settings in which to hold these activities are prominent. Still, SONS seeks to build on that culture, giving young men and boys a sense of their identity when it comes to what they believe manhood is about. “We have to go up against society, in how society says men should be,” he said. “We need to be men from a cultural aspect. What were the roles of men a hundred years ago, and how do we need to be today?”

What was effective then, Randall explained, is that sense of community that SONS aims to impart. “It was about community service, putting people first. It was about respect for each other and our responsibility to give back.”

Overcoming Barriers

At the same time, bringing men together – even in a cultural setting – does present challenges. One of the biggest, Randall said, has been participation. Randall explained that their first focus as a formal organization was providing a mentoring program. Yet, as they started identifying youth, they quickly saw a problem finding older men.

A field trip to the Tulsa Boxing Gym brings young men and boys together in respect and responsibility.

A field trip to the Tulsa Boxing Gym brings young men and boys together in respect and responsibility.

“The mentors are supposed to be men,” Randall said. “But where were they? We needed to get men to the program, too.”

Randall said he believes demands on men in the form of work, families and other commitments make it difficult for many to participate. Yet, he said, if we don’t take time to come together, to reinforce that culture, we’ll never be able to show that respect and responsibility, he said. “We have to see what it is and address it,” Randall said.

For All Who Can Come

To that end, SONS is moving forward with positive, action-based, non-blaming programming, making events open and available for all who can come. He said sometimes many men come, and sometimes only a few people can show up, but either way, SONS continues to instill that presence.

The SONS of Mvskoke mentoring program teaches young men hands-on skills such as car maintenance.

The SONS of Mvskoke mentoring program teaches young men hands-on skills such as car maintenance.

Funds from First Nation have supported this work, and the grant to SONS was made possible through RISE for Boys and Men of Color (BMOC). RISE BMOC is a project co-led by Equal Measure, a national nonprofit evaluation and philanthropic services firm, and the University of Southern California (USC), Rossier School of Education, USC Race and Equity Center. RISE for Boys and Men of Color is a field advancement effort that aims to better understand and strategically improve the lives, experiences and outcomes of boys and men of color in the United States. RISE spans five fields (education, health, human services and social policy, juvenile and criminal justice, and workforce development) and focuses on four populations (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans).

The funding to SONS is being used to expand programming, including SONS’ recent Men’s Summit, annual Toy Drive luncheon, and Cultural Garden.

Importantly, funding is helping the SONS of Mvskoke continue serving the Creek Tribe. And for the men and boys of Okmulgee, the activities, events and role models for respect and responsibility are adding up to big impact.

“The heart of it is the presence that we have,” said Randall. “Sometimes it is just a small group of us, but we’re here. We’re steady and we’re consistent.”

By Amy Jakober

Muckleshoot “Rethink Your Drink” Effort Aims for a Healthy Tribe

Healthy beverage posters intended for display in classrooms and throughout tribal communities to promote ancestral beverage consumption.

Healthy beverage posters intended for display in classrooms and throughout tribal communities to promote ancestral beverage consumption.

In 2016, under one of its programs, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) awarded 15 grants totaling $422,500. These grants were funded by the Seeds of Native Health campaign created by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) to improve the nutrition of Native Americans across the country. One of the grantees was the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe’s Traditional Foods and Medicines Program and its “Native Infusion: Rethink Your Drink Campaign.”

The project’s focus is to encourage tribal youth to incorporate and increase traditional, ancestral beverages, fruits and vegetables – healthy foods – into their diets. By focusing on traditional, ancestral beverages and foods, the tribe hopes to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks and improve the health of the younger tribal members to combat diabetes, obesity and tooth decay later in life.

Valerie Segrest

Valerie Segrest

Valerie Segrest is the Traditional Foods and Medicines Program manager, and a tribal member. Segrest says the implementation of the “Rethink Your Drink Campaign” is an important part of creating change in the eating habits of the tribe’s youth and their community.

“The discussion is focused on the facts and information … our communities have been disempowered for so long that we need to start with culture in the discussion. To let them (the community) be the driving force, so they feel more empowered to take their health into their own hands,” said Segrest.

Six healthy beverage posters were created by two Salish artists, Roger Fernandes (Lower Elwha) and Joe Seymour (Sqauxin), who drew the images; and Annie Brule, who was the graphic designer. The posters will be displayed throughout the tribal community in the schools and community centers. A curriculum guide was created and made available to educators to increase the number of people who can teach the youth about traditional diets and how to make healthy beverage choices.

A tea bar display that includes several herbs highlighted in the curriculum and recipe book.

A tea bar display that includes several herbs highlighted in the curriculum and recipe book.

Segrest and her colleague, Elise Krohn, M.Ed., co-authored Native Infusion: Rethink Your Drink – A Guide to Ancestral Beverages, which is included in the toolkit. The guide is extensive and provides information on how to “Navigate the Beverage Aisle” to avoid the sugary drinks; information on the six posters and how the images connect to the ancestral drinks and cultural teachings; how to make infused waters, herbal teas, sodas, bone broths and smoothies; how to set up a beverage station; and where to find further information and resources.

The curriculum includes how to set up an interactive, traditional, healthy beverage station. It includes ingredients for participants to make their own blends as well as pre-made teas such as dandelion root lattes and Douglas fir tip infused water.

The curriculum includes how to set up an interactive, traditional, healthy beverage station. It includes ingredients for participants to make their own blends as well as pre-made teas such as dandelion root lattes and Douglas fir tip infused water.

The Muckleshoot Tribe offered a one-day nutrition education summit in mid-May 2017 with 40 educators, tribal community members and youth leaders trained on using the healthy beverage toolkit. Youth representatives, mostly middle-schoolers from the Muckleshoot Tribal School, attended, along with youth from the after-school program.

There were guest speakers who addressed the health impacts of sugary drinks, the healthy beverage movement in British Columbia, and how to set up beverage stations. The summit was more than handing out information. It strived to engage the attendees and to encourage dialog to reinforce that the return to creating and drinking traditional healthy beverages is an act of tribal sovereignty.

“We traded our ancestral drinks in for the sugar and energy drinks, which don’t have our health in mind. There is a rich cultural tradition in our healthy beverages,” said Segrest.

Dr. Rose James discusses the importance of evaluating the reach of the healthy beverage campaign.

Dr. Rose James discusses the importance of evaluating the reach of the healthy beverage campaign.

At the one-day nutrition education summit, Segrest and Krohn demonstrated how to make bone broth, and teas out of leaves and flowers versus bark, roots and hard berries. Attendees also learned how to harvest, dry and store the teas correctly. There were beverage stations set up so people could sample the various teas, which reinforced the accessibility and taste of the teas.

Infused waters were made with fruits and vegetables to encourage the drinking of water. One theme Segrest often hears is that water has no taste, so people avoid drinking it. The infused waters gives people options and encourages them to stay hydrated.

The participants went home with their toolkits made up of the six posters to display around their communities, along with the guide and a tribal recipe book, which included a section on beverages. The recipe book is another Muckleshoot project supported by the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board and the Centers for Disease Control’s Good Health and Wellness in Indian Country (GHWIC) program. Segrest utilizes all available resources to maximize her program outreach and funding. She saw an opportunity to add beverage recipe cards to the existing popular recipe program that features foods specific to the area.

Presenters Fiona Deveraux (left) and Dr. Gary Ferguson (seated) listen intently as participants share their experiences teaching about healthy food traditions in tribal communities.

Presenters Fiona Deveraux (left) and Dr. Gary Ferguson (seated) listen intently as participants share their experiences teaching about healthy food traditions in tribal communities.

Segrest reminded the participants that “sovereignty isn’t an end goal, it’s something we do every day. Drinking ancestral beverages is a political act.”

Segrest and her colleagues will continue to provide trainings over the next several months and she is thankful to the Shakopee Seeds of Native Health campaign, the Muckleshoot Tribe’s Traditional Foods Program, and to First Nations for supporting her work as an activist for her community.

“The work wouldn’t be as prevalent or as strong without the support of First Nations, and it’s not just due to the funding, but to the relationships built with the folks within the organization. First Nations brings people together to feed off each other – to think, to partner. At First Nations’ gatherings you’re able to cross-pollinate with others, which reminds you that you’re not alone.”

The Seeds of Native Health effort encompasses efforts to improve awareness of Native nutrition problems, promote wider application of proven best practices, and encourage additional work related to food access, education and research. First Nations was one of SMSC’s strategic, inaugural partners in the effort. The campaign builds on localized efforts to solve the problems of Native American nutrition and hopes to raise awareness, spread knowledge, create capacity for change, and develop additional solutions on a broader scale.

By Mary K. Bowannie, First Nations Communications Officer