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Gail Small, Executive Director of Native Action and former Social Justice Fund NW Board Member, shared her story with attendees of the Social Justice Fund 2011 Annual Dinner on September 17, 2011. Below are her prepared remarks:

Peva Ea Shev. My name is Head Chief Woman, Ve Hon Naut, in the Cheyenne language and I bring good greetings from the Northern Plains to all of you who live on the beautiful west coast. I have a long history with Social Justice Fund going back to when I was on the board of ATR (A Territory Resources, SJF’s predecessor). I made friendships through ATR that persist to this day.

As we move through this world, the relationships we form with friends, family and our sense of place are the essence of life. Like you, I am tied to an extended family, a culture, and a special homeland—people and a place that strengthen my spirit. This is why I do social justice work.

I was born and raised on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Lame Deer, Montana, in a family of ten children. My parents are still alive and in their late 80’s now. My mother’s mother died when she was born so my mother survived by other nursing mothers’ kindness. That truly is love: when you can nurse a child not your own. Love has to be at the core of why we do this work—love for family, for the land, for future generations.

My mother is called Bird Woman in my Tribe, Vek se ha. She and her brothers are all named after birds. Perhaps that is why I fight so hard as a lawyer for clean air.

My mother is the matriarch of our family and she looks out for the whole Tribe. She told me one time when I wanted to quit law school, “You never give up, even if you have to crawl.” These are words I have never forgotten. When I get knocked off my feet, the echo of those words lifts me up again.

We need to teach this resiliency to our younger people. They need it now more than ever. They are being called “the lost generation” because they can’t find jobs. I have four children and numerous nieces and nephews that are struggling in today’s economy. On the Reservation, it’s more accurate to call the situation a Depression. Recession is too nice of a word for what is really happening to our youth. They were all so charged up with Obama and worked hard for his election. Obama visited the Crow Reservation during his campaign and my whole class at the tribal college attended. Now Obama’s lost the shine and we are facing a tough election year ahead. Hard lessons must drive this new generation—we are learning the reality of “push-back.”

I remember when I was in law school and how painful it was; the teaching of law can be very deflating even as it inspires in other ways. As progressives, we often don’t think this way because we want everybody to be happy. Rules of the game are changed all the time, depending on who gains power.

I wish I had more upbeat message but you know as well as I that our country faces arduous challenges. We must be very strategic and support each other because there is a lot at stake. In the words of Cheyenne historian, Mr. John-Stands-In-Timber, “Only the stones stay on earth forever. Use your best abilities.”