Participants pose for a photo at the Holiday Inn during the first Small Town Summit's last day in Missoula on Wednesday June 7, 2023. Credit: Andrew Kemmis

MISSOULA — Organizers of the inaugural Small Town Summit hoped to create an event that would transcend boundaries, including township, city and state lines, as well as political boundaries. 

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This story also appeared in ICT

“Connectedness,” “empowerment” and “community-focused” were some of the words participants used to describe their experiences after attending the three-day Small Town Summit created to address the issues of rural America.

The event, put on by the nonprofit organizations United Today, Stronger Tomorrow and Hoosier Action, created a space to amplify small town and rural communities through strategies and collaboration that includes highlighting the voices of Indigenous, Black, immigrant and LGBTQ+ needs.

“Of course you have your paid organizing staff, but you also have community leaders, and you have union leaders, and you have all these different folks and then even within your organizing staff, you have folks of a lot of different experience,” said Micayla Ter Wee, the national organizer for United Today, Stronger Together.

“Sometimes folks, when you hear rural or small town, forget the diversity that is in those communities and we wanted to make sure that that was acknowledged,” Ter Wee said. “And, you know, everyone from the Indigenous communities to our Black and immigrant communities, also had those spaces to talk about their work and their successes and challenges and for all of us to learn from one another.”

Leanette Galaz, Montana Organizer for United Today, Stronger Tomorrow, said the summit in Missoula came together after attending a separate conference with other organizers who work in predominantly urban areas that lean liberal and are more progressive. 

Galaz recognizes that urban areas face issues themselves but felt like the “odd man out” because a lot of the organizing they do is usually in conservative areas.

“We started to realize that there were other organizations out there doing work similar to us, but there was no space for us to come together and share our work with each other,” she said. 

Ter Wee said that they anticipated to have around 70 people register for the event, however expectations were exceeded when the summit received around 250 registrants. She mentioned that organizations and other attendee expenses like room and board, travel and food were covered by the summit, making it more available for those who wanted to be included.

Trisha Rivers, who is a part of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, presented during the summit, where she helped lead discussions on race and Indigenous history. Her session, titled Indigified, encouraged people to initiate in the often hard conversation about colonization and the Doctrine of Discovery in order for others to understand the Indigenous approach and perspective to community building and empowerment.

“Addressing the real trauma that has happened to us as peoples and having those uncomfortable conversations with non-Natives to say, this is not how we specifically build power,” Rivers said in an interview after her session. “This is how we do things and how we look at community building and relationship building and nation building and it may look a little bit different.”

The ‘Indigified’ session created a safe space that welcomed everyone to be a part of the uncomfortable conversation about race. Rivers said she hopes participants left the session with better tools to address their own organizational spaces and mindsets. 

“What I would want for them to take away is that they know now that they have some kind of insight to begin their own decolonization process but to use the education and information and to really change the systems of oppression of overt racism and to really start calling out their own people to be honest to change.”

Located in Sioux City, Iowa, Rivers is also the Siouxland project director for the Great Plains Action Society, an Indigenous led nonprofit organization. The nonprofit’s work reaches Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota and focuses on issues including cultural revitalization and political engagement. 

She is also the first Indigenous representative to be on Sioux City’s first ever inclusive committee, where her role is to be the voice for her community when issues arise and to ensure that there are inviting spaces for Indigenous collaboration – initiatives that Rivers say begin with these uncomfortable conversations.

“What we see a lot of the times is that we, especially in rural areas and in small cities, that a lot of our boards and public elected officials are not really representative of our communities,” Rivers said. “It’s mostly Republican led, white males, and, you know, that’s not okay because our communities are not. We’re so diverse.”

Among the participants of the summit that was a part of the discussion was Michael Hovde with the For Our Future Foundation who sat in on the Indigified session. Hovde, who is based in Wisconsin, said during the discussion that the session delivered an impactful message which brought some insight to the Native perspective.

Hovde said he believes he will be able to take away ideas for his own work with Four Our Future Foundation when conducting their own Native outreach work within Wisconsin. He also didn’t mind being a part of the tough talk on Indigenous peoples as he was a contributor to the discussion.

“I think it’s important to lean into uncomfortable conversations sometimes because that’s how you make progress. That’s how you move forward,” Hovde said. “You know, if you don’t have an uncomfortable conversation where you, for example, confront your biases about a particular group, then how are you going to get past those biases or overcome or reshape them?”

Also from Sioux City was Brandon Arreaga, Omaha Tribe of Nebraska and Mexican. Before attending the summit, he had never been on a plane before. 

During a session titled, “Native Wins: Native organizers sharing stories with other Native and non-Native communities,” he spoke of his experience as a formerly incarcerated individual and reconnecting with his Native and Mexican identity.

Arreaga said that he doesn’t have a Native name but joked that if he did, it would be “NDN Taco.” He said Native wins are not only in the courthouse, but “our wins are everywhere;” adding that the session was insightful and powerful.

“To be able to hear those stories of different types of wins that our Native people have accomplished and those stories need to be shared more so we can see why we’re fighting, what we’re fighting for and we’re preserving our culture and our ways,” he said.

Now working as a carpenter, Arreaga said he is rebuilding communities he once destroyed as a gang member. The summit brought him out of his comfort zone and returning home, he wants to take back what he learned to help get out the Native vote and help Native men rise above any current situations they may find themselves in.

“Healing is the strongest medicine we have,” he said.

One primary example of a rural Indigenous organization facing issues in their home state is the Riverton Peace Mission located in Riverton, Wyoming, where they address bordertown racism and violence. 

“We’re here to get some more knowledge of how to better be advocates for what we’re doing. I think the leadership development here and the base building is gonna be really helpful in how we succeed,” said Leslie Spoonhunter, Northern Arapaho, co-chair for the Riverton Peace Mission.

Riverton is a town located on the Wind River Indian Reservation which is shared by two tribes, the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho. According to the Riverton Peace Mission webpage, its main goal is to focus on “advanced healing, reconciliation and community harmony,” concepts that Spoonhutner saw in the Indigified session. 

“It’s really a touchy subject, especially when there’s like non-Natives involved but I think we’re all here for the right reasons and forward thinking. So I felt good about it. You know, I haven’t really been into a session like that before, so I got a lot out of it,” Spoonhunter said after the session was out. “Very much needed because we all lived together on Earth, like we are all in our communities together. So yes, we need to have those very heartfelt and hard conversations.”

The summit featured a Native and Indigenous Caucus which Michelle Sparck, Cup’ik, was excited about. 

“I’m really psyched to see a caucus,” she said. “I mean, usually we don’t have that kind of presence, maybe there’s a one-off or a two-off, a token; but no, we have a caucus and that’s really exciting.”

Sparck works as the director of strategic initiatives for Get Out The Native Vote in Alaska. Organizing is not new to her, over the years she has worked in Washington, D.C., working with politicians and big agencies. 

She was heartened to see the Native representation at the summit and the ability to show others that Indigenous organizations can be a valuable ally.

“I just see so much potential in this kind of gathering.”


JoVonne Wagner is MTFP's Indigenous Legislative Fellow for 2023, a position created in collaboration with ICT (formerly Indian Country Today). A member of the Blackfeet Nation and a recent graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism, JoVonne interned two years with Buffalo’s Fire, an independent online Indigenous news website. JoVonne also recently finished her student-instructor role with the Montana Media Lab — an arm of the UM School of Journalism that aims to educate Indigenous and rural Montana high school students on media literacy and audio storytelling. Contact JoVonne...