Tribal leader training in SLC provides growth, opportunity

by KATHRYN JONES

One man has high hopes for the education of Native American people, and 90 tribal leaders from across the U.S. have supported his life changing efforts.

His name is Forrest Cuch.

The program? Empowerment training.

And no, Cuch didn’t always see life the way he sees it now. As an enrolled member of the Ute Indian Tribe and executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs since 1997, he had to wade through years of his own fears and insecurities before he could help others tackle their own.

“We had a way of life that was good, but when I started hearing about Pilgrims the information was painful to me,” he says. “‘Oh, what about the Indians?'” he asked. “I didn’t feel good about school.”

Cuch admits he didn’t trust what he’d been taught by his parents and says he was confused about his heritage.

“Had the American Indians made no progress to society”? Did his people really kill those in wagon trains “without any provocation”? Were there historical inaccuracies that he should know about?

“I had to learn about my “own humanity,” he says, “my good side as well as my bad. My people enslaved [others]. I learned from that.”

Cuch also learned from a man named Mack Gift Ph.D., a non-Native American professor who taught him at Westminster College where he graduated in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science.

Twenty-nine years later, after Cuch had gained experience in Native American directing, planning and administration involving various endeavors, as well as becoming a department head and teacher in the social studies department at Wasatch Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, Cuch and Gift came together once again.

The rest may even be history.

About 30 tribal leaders from across the country were invited to attend that first empowerment training in 2002 at the Embassy Suites Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. Among other things, the experiential and lecture oriented training instructed Native American tribal leaders in history, community development, spirituality, government, business and physical and mental health.

The curriculum borrows from the Minnesota Model of “training and empowering disabled people under the National Governor’s Council for the Disabled program,” Cuch says. Passive/aggressive behavior as well as eye contact is a part of the agenda that helps to educate tribal leaders to improve their lives.

And the medium has proved a success.

Thirty tribal leaders were invited and spent one weekend a month for 10 months at the same location the following year. In 2005, 30 additional tribal leaders from various Native American tribes were selected, making a total of approximately 90 tribal leaders who would finish the program.

“There was no preaching,” Cuch says. The leaders were shown how to make a better life by contrast and by choice. Though education was given, it was up to the tribal leader to take it in and live it, he says.

“It was a respite for people, a respite for excellent learning,” Gift adds in a phone interview. “Each of the tribes learned to go beyond tribal identity. They found a commonality.”

Not surprisingly, with the training of tribal leaders came growth for others.

“Tribal leaders have shared it with other people,” Gift says.” It is a great program, but we are trying to get funding to go through it again.”

Currently, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Utah is evaluating Cuch’s program, which he said costs an average of $100,000 per training or about $3,300 per participant.

The research group was “pretty impressed with the program” Gift says. He has high hopes that, in time, the training will expand. Once it’s been established annually for Native American tribal leaders, Gift would like to involve as many Native Americans as possible.

“When we hear, ‘we’re ready to live now, we see clearly now,’ that makes us feel good,” Cuch says, speaking of the empowerment program his division provides. “We must use every medium possible, and it’s a very challenging thing to do. [But] the future hinges on the quality of education for all people.”