Montana’s Champion for Change

By Beacon Staff

Last November, the Center for Native American Youth in Washington D.C. launched a new initiative called Champions for Change to promote hope and leadership among young tribal members in Indian Country.

The organization gathered inspirational stories from across the U.S. with the goal of shining a light on five Native American leaders.

The search led to the Flathead Indian Reservation and 19-year-old Vance Home Gun, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Inspired at a young age by relatives and tribal elders, Home Gun has become an advocate of saving his tribe’s native language from extinction.

The number of speakers who are fluent in Montana Salish has dwindled below 50 on the Flathead reservation. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization deemed the language “critically endangered” as of last year.

For the past six years, Home Gun has focused on following the example of his late aunt Sophie Quequesah, who dedicated her life to promoting and protecting the Salish language before passing away in 2009.

“Time is of the essence, and our young native people are the key to revitalizing our language,” Home Gun wrote in an essay to the Center for Native American Youth.

He began by meeting with tribal elders and soaked up all the information he could, learning the language and history of his tribe. Three years ago, Home Gun organized a youth group, called “Strong Young People” when translated to English, that meets regularly and learns traditional culture and language skills. He also teaches classes at area schools. He’s works on the staff of the Salish Culture Committee, based in St. Ignatius, which was created in 1974 to protect and promote the traditional heritage of the tribes.

“I’ve heard this language spoken my whole life but I never really cared to really get involved with it in my younger days, but now I’ve seen the importance and seen what it can do,” said Home Gun, who graduates from Arlee High School in May.

“A lot of people have told me ‘I really appreciate what you’re doing,’ and I just take it with a good heart and say ‘thank you.’ But it’s really for our language and for our people. None of it’s really for me. I just want to make sure it’s protected for the next 100 years.”

Home Gun was selected for the inaugural class of Champions for Change along with four other young leaders. In early March, he flew to Washington where he was honored at the National Congress of American Indians’ conference and other events, including a gathering with President Barack Obama.

Home Gun and his fellow “Champions” also became the founding members of a new advisory council that will work on addressing needs and issues among native youth.

“Extraordinary young folks like Vance who are willing to get involved are the future leaders of Indian Country, our state and our nation,” said Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who was one of the senators who hosted the Champions for Change.

“Highlighting the work these kids do is an inspiration to all of us.”

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