September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The Pac Haci Youth Council initiated the Prevent Suicide Conference held September 19-22 at the Siga Funmaker Community Center near Wittenberg, Wis.
The conference organizers effectively interlaced Ho-Chunk culture, suicide awareness, physical activity, Indigenous culture, and suicide prevention tools and resources into an influential four-day event. An amazingly caring staff, community leaders, families, youth, and veterans supported one another and discussed pathways to healing.
The conference began with a word of prayer and opening fire. Those that tended the fire, Lorenzo Perry Funmaker and helpers, kept cedar, tobacco, sweetgrass, and other ceremonial items available for attendees’ custom.
The evening session followed and participants were provided a meal after registration. Registration included t-shirts, hoodies, and backpacks filled with a water bottle, a dish, a collapsible bowl, and a spoon-fork utensil with a protective cover. Registrants were instructed to use the provided dinnerware for all meals served during the conference in practice with reducing single-use plastics and Styrofoam.
Several sponsors funded the event which included the Ho-Chunk Nation Youth Services Division, Behavioral Health Division, and a Suicide and Methamphetamine Grant.
To reduce echoes in the gymnasium, Pendleton blankets were gathered from the Wittenberg community and Cody Cloud hung them from the rafters. The end product created a comforting atmosphere and made the large area warm and welcoming.
Mr. Ronnie Preston was the emcee for the culture night and duration of the conference. His wit, energy, and knowledge of customs added a unique flare perfect for the various topics at hand. Preston is from the San Carlos Apache tribe and is a champion grass dancer, singer, storyteller, and accomplished artist.
Lanette Walker assisted with keeping the conference progressing and coordinating efforts behind the scene.
Evangeline Suquet and the Behavioral Health staff made themselves available to conference participants.
Culture night consisted of powwow singing and dancing. Arts and crafts vendors and various informational booths that provided suicide awareness were also on hand. Aztec Dancers presented an exhibition.
The second day opened with prayer, breakfast, registration, and a welcome address by District 3 Representative Lawrence Walker, Jr. and Representative Darren Brinegar.
World Indigenous Suicide Prevention Conference Board Member Nicky Thompson was the keynote speaker before attendees dispersed into breakout sessions. Thompson is from the Seneca Nation.
Breakout sessions included Aces Scores by Jon Greendeer and Kathleen Clemons; Let your Fingers do the Talking – How Texting Save Lives by Mike Crum; Sew What by Pam Hesse, BreeAnna Walker, and Aissa Roberts; Identity VS Bullying by Brian Frejo; and Peace Day Cranes by Racheal Frederick. Conference-goers rotated to each breakout session so that everyone experienced each presentation. Sessions went until dinner time.
The Sew What presentation provided hands-on experience with a sewing machine. Participants sewed material together to form strips used later to produce two quilts. Those quilts were displayed and raffled off near the conclusion of the conference.
After dinner, keynote speaker Brian Frejo shared Leadership Changes Suicide. Frejo is Pawnee/Seminole and is a motivational speaker, DJ, leadership trainer, and performer.
Friday ended with a Health and Wellness Candlelight Remembrance Walk. Those willing to walk the two miles were signed up and accounted for before the trek outdoors and after. Jon Greendeer and staff organized the walk and provided flashlights, bug spray, and guidance for the walking route.
Saturday morning opened with prayer and then a flag raising. After breakfast was served and participants cleaned their dishware, they listened to keynote speaker Mike Crum. Mr. Crum is a Marine Veteran and a Veteran Outreach and Education representative from the Center for Suicide Awareness.
After the keynote speaker, any Veterans in attendance were welcomed to a Special Session tailored for Veterans. Those over the age of 18 were invited to attend QPR (Question, Persuade, Respond) by Ronelle McKernan. Youth attended an Elder Panel session.
Then the conference was brought back together to listen to keynote speaker Lea Denny about Healing Intergenerational Roots. Denny is Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and started Thriving Legacies Consulting Services LLC.
Following Denny was a Lacrosse presentation by Green Bay Youth Julian Greendeer and Laken Hargrove. Together they discussed the origin of the game of Lacrosse and displayed sports equipment. They also ran a contest where male conference-goers raced to throw a ball into a basket.
Gang Prevention Specialist John Skenandore (Oneida) spoke about Project Lights Out whose mission is to protect and preserve the people, giving the community a voice, spreading love to all and not being self-motivated but community driven.
Dinner was served and an Open Mic contest began. Soundman Travis Rave provided karaoke and various audience members donated prize money. Deion Miller from Black River Falls sang 7 Years Old by Lucas Graham and awarded the champion.
The big drum was brought out and guests were invited to participate in social dancing. Shortly after, a Moccasin Game started. Players rotated in and many were given an opportunity to compete. This game concluded Saturday night.
Sunday was open with prayer. The original plan was to serve a light breakfast before the Run/Walk but it was raining. Cooks quickly adjusted and prepared a hearty breakfast. The Run/Walk route was shortened to the length of the driveway leading up to the Siga Funmaker Community Center. Participants were instructed that four rounds equaled one mile.
After everyone gathered together in the gymnasium, a Haka exhibition took place. Haka is a Maori ceremonial dance and is performed by a group to welcome guests, or to acknowledge great achievements, occasions, or funerals. The dance often includes stomping, vigorous movement, hand gestures, protruding of the tongue, and rhythmically shouted accompaniment.
Ronnie Preston gathered conference participants a circle one final time. Preston spoke about his eagle feather and provided time for all those in attendance to express themselves. The Prevent Suicide Conference concluded with heartfelt words of encouragement by young and old.