Hope and Opportunity Mamma Carrie Style
The land of no tears
It was on a Friday night at a high school football game on the Fort Peck Reservation that it dawned on me: the child whimpering in the parking lot was the first cry I’d heard since arriving almost two weeks before. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been around children. I’d been to two pow wows, a myriad of grocery stores, and a rodeo.
I wondered what was different here on the reservation.
The next night, Carrie, the youth project coordinator for meth and suicide prevention, and I sat in the bleachers watching the dancers at another powwow. A toddler did a face plant into the bleacher. His thud grabbed our attention. As we looked down, he got up, fuzzy eyed, and stumbled off. Not a single sound.
Later, Carrie said, “Not needing help is so ingrained in us. We won’t ask for help, even if it kills us.”
And then there’s this.
According to a study at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate in Montana is more than twice the national average. The suicide rate among Native Americans in Montana is 28.5 per 100,000. For Caucasians it’s 23.1.
In silence they hold their pain. In silence they take their life. In silence families mourn.
In case you’re tempted to run and find a more cheerful blog, here’s a picture of a gorgeous sunrise from the fantasmagoric skies of this Montana land of cowboy myth and forgotten tribes.
The Mamma Carrie Way
I’ve returned to this remote area of eastern Montana, to learn how Carrie has the success she does, helping her teens beat the odds in a land where hopelessness destroys families and meth is often easier to get a hold of than ice cream.
“It’s not that the violence isn’t there,” she tells me. “It’s just hidden.”
I’d met Carrie two years ago on my first trip across the country. I’d been sent here by an elder in Portland. In my interviews I was told, “If you want to understand the suicide and meth epidemic, you need to talk to Carrie.”
Two years ago, she graciously spent an entire afternoon with me sharing her her vision for youth. She wanted to build a sense of pride in the students, have them meet other Native youth across the nation and give them opportunity to have choices in the future.
“I believe,” she said, “that with training, our youth will become our next leaders for the tribe, for community councils, for school board councils, for the county commissioners, and eventually leaders in Congress.”
Since taking over the MSPI-Gen1 (Methamphetamine and Suicide Prevention Initiative: Generation Indigineous) program three years ago, here are a few of her achievements:
~100% of the youth she works with have graduated from high school
~ None of them have committed suicide
~ Four are college bound
~ Three have gone into the National Guard
~ One is a CNA
~ One is a cop
For three days I’ve shadowed her. The woman never stops. She’s either talking to teens, meeting with teachers, planning events, posting inspiration stories for her youth and their families, organizing a chili cook-off fundraiser or leading the kick-off of this years NDO youth council.
I quickly realized that the only way to get a list of things she does was to send her an email. Perhaps late one night, when no one was calling for her attention, I could get a couple minutes of her time.
Check out the list of what she’s done. (Keep in mind Carrie does all this herself. Everything!)
* She’s created the first reservation-wide youth council. Fort Peck is 100 miles long by 40 miles wide. In a region where lateral discrimination can be bitter and brutal, she hopes that connecting youth will connect the tribe.
* She’s brought her students to leadership conferences & business conferences across the country often driving them by herself. Last fall they won first place at the American Indigenous Business Leaders National business leaders conference for their business plan.
* This month her students will host the second annual suicide prevention walk.
* Teens at the local high school run a small coffee cart business to raise money to go to conferences.
* They have family movie nights, round dances, horse trail rides, bingo nights, turkey dinners, haunted forest, New Year’s Eve wacipi (powwow), a creator’s game and rodeo schools. All this in just four years.
* They are making PSAs about suicide prevention and meth addiction.
Redemption and Reclamation
Carrie doesn’t have a degree in social work. She has no degree at all. What she has is faith, life and determination. Carrie, or Mamma Carrie as her youth call her, has birthed three children, fostered many, and adopted a few. “I take one child under this wing—she points to one arm—and another under this wing.” She points to the other.
When I ask her how she does it, she says. “It’s not me. It’s all God’s work.”
It might be tempting to roll your eyes and stop listening, thinking, here’s yet another do-good Christian-y woman praying over the youth. My invitation: don’t. Her story and the reason for her success is so compelling.
For over a decade, Carrie’s life was a Native version of Breaking Bad. The only difference, both she and her husband were addicts and dealers selling meth in Reno, less than thirty miles from their reservation. Money flooded in, but they never had enough for diapers or milk for their babies.
Her story is similar to those of many other’s who have been able to rise up out of this horrific addition. “I finally got sick and tired of literally feeling sick and tired,” Carrie tells me. Like she had done for years when things got rocky, she ran, leaving her husband and her children behind.
For this part of the post, Carrie and her husband, Rob, wanted to tell me their story, together. The trauma from that time is still palpable.
I listened and tried to capture their story, there is still rawness and pain, disagreements and tears. But more than anything there is faith, love and forgiveness and a candor that I’ve rarely, if ever, witnessed. “We lived in blackness,” Rob says. “Now we live in the light of God’s love.” He pulls up his sleeve to show me his newest tattoo, a looming skull lurking behind an illuminated cross.
I asked if there was there a moment that changed their lives.
“One day,” Carrie tells me, “after Rob filed for divorce, we took a drive to finalize the details. Rob pulled over the side of the road. He started sobbing. He turned to me and said, ‘God has a plan for us. I can see it.’ At that moment Rob was touched by the Holy Spirit.”
They moved back up to Montana, then slowly, and at first falteringly, began to rebuild their lives. They eventually joined a church of like-minded people committed to living a clean and sober life dedicated to God. “Our life finally settled. We became rooted and grounded. We joined God’s family.”
If all Christians lived life the way they do, our world would be a miraculous place.
This month, September 2019, Carrie is 12 years clean. It is because of her faith, and her determination, that she isn’t another meth mom herself.
Having a supportive community is core to Carrie’s work and what she offers her youth. Bringing faith where hope has disappeared is her gift, Rob asserts. “The heart of what she does is her 24/7 commitment to her youth. If one of them is feeling suicidal, they have her number. They feel safe talking to her. She knows what can happen when they stay silent,” he says. “She sees all of them as her children.”
Family. Carrie works with her youth to be there for them, making sure there are people they can go to—before they feel hopeless. “We got to heal our family and help our youth feel they are part of a larger God-based family.”
The future of Hope
On top of all this, Carrie is also running for a position as a council member. When I asked her why she wanted to add this on top of all she is doing she said,
“I would like to become a council member to build healthy, productive relationships across the tribe. I believe our future is as bright as our youth, our families, and our communities. I would like to see all three strong.
I have no doubt she will.
To find out more about Carrie’s work and why she is so successful, check out her Facebook page.