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Ambassador of opportunity
Eldena Bear Don't Walk views her selection as one of 16 ambassadors in the American Indian Ambassadors Program as an opportunity to make life better for her 8-year-old daughter Mitchell and all Indian people.
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

UM student chosen to participate in national Indian leadership program

Eldena Bear Don't Walk is a single mom and a University of Montana student who is finishing her law degree, pursuing her master's degree in public administration and works as an independent legal researcher in Missoula.

Now the 29-year-old has another task.

She's been selected from a national application pool of more than 200 people to participate in a prestigious leadership program with Americans for Indian Opportunity, a national nonprofit advocacy group.

For the next two years, Bear Don't Walk will represent Montana and her Salish and Crow heritage as one of 16 people chosen for AIO's American Indian Ambassadors Program.

"This is a very prestigious honor, and a reflection of the high potential that she has for being a leader in Indian Country," said David Beck, a UM professor of Native American Studies, and one of Bear Don't Walk's mentors.

While an ambassador, Bear Don't Walk will travel to New Zealand to meet with the Maori counterpart to the ambassador program, and talk about global issues of indigenous people. She will also travel to Washington, D.C., to meet Cabinet members, national Indian leaders and influential policymakers, and travel to other tribal communities in the United States.

The goal is to not only bring together emerging Indian leaders to strengthen their ties to each other, but to also help them better understand how their work and the issues of their tribes mirror work on a national and international level, said Laura Harris, executive director of AIO.

"The most effective leaders in tribal America are those who know their own history and the history of their communities," Harris said. "They are grounded in community identity, yet have a broad world view."

Although the ambassador program is only 10 years old, already there is evidence that it is making an impact, Harris said.

Many former ambassadors have become members of their tribal government or members of national Indian organizations. Some have helped return natural resources to their tribes that were wrongfully taken.

Such was the impact one former ambassador had when she collected a group of photos from the National Archives at the Smithsonian Institute to identify the Indian people and places in the photo.

After documenting the material, her tribe was able to use the photos in a lawsuit over land that had been illegally taken from them by non-Indians, Harris said.

Bear Don't Walk said she is honored by AIO's recognition, but more excited about the tools the program will give her to become a better advocate for her tribes.

"Just the networking alone among the other ambassadors is incredible - they are all vibrant young Indian people doing amazing things," Bear Don't Walk said. "It's an opportunity to learn new leadership skills in a program that really develops a bigger family for me that I can lean on long after it's over."

As part of their commitment to the program, the ambassadors have each outlined a project or initiative they will accomplish for their own tribes.

Bear Don't Walk will focus her efforts on developing an Indian lawyer mentoring program, which aims to explain to high school students why the law is important, to encourage those students to pursue a law career and to assist Indian college students who are in or enrolled in law school.

Also on her to-do list is to develop a law school application guideline that will help steer Indian students through the tangled, frustrating paperwork of financial aid, LSATs and how to write a great personal essay for applications.

"There are a lot of first generation Indian college students who don't have mentoring, who don't have someone to help guide them," Bear Don't Walk said. "It's largely because there are so few Indian lawyers."

As she sees it, her work will help establish a legacy - a clear path for others to follow and be encouraged by - at UM, and for all Montana Indians.

A lesson she will be sure to pass on to future students is one she lives by: "You don't have to be brilliant to succeed in law school, just diligent."

"I think the same is true for most things in life," she said.

No one at UM's law school is surprised by Bear Don't Walk's latest achievement.

"I call her the 'cruise director' because she always gets involved with things, she gets other people involved with things, and she's so vivacious and outgoing," said Maylinn Smith, a UM law professor. "She's a perfect ambassador because she has those people skills down and she knows how to work a crowd."

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com

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