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Bryce Hanks: Dreaming big

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Bryce Hanks
Bryce Hanks has big dreams for himself. He wants to attend college and eventually become chairman of the White Earth band.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

On a crisp January evening, laughter spills from a home on "The Hill," a housing project in the village of White Earth. 

A half dozen women prepare supper and visit, while kids of all ages play, watch television and do homework. 

These neighbors have come together out of a desire to reclaim the kids of White Earth.


These mothers believe gathering their kids around the drum is protection against the alcohol, drugs and crime that surround them.  American Indian belief in the spiritual power of the drum goes back thousands of years.

The 'hill'
"The hill," a neighborhood housing project in the town of White Earth.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Spiritual leader Michael Dahl is teaching the boys traditional songs and values. 

"This is what's going to work," said Dahl.  "We're doing our job as parents, as adults, to help them do what they want to do, to grow into the men we know they can be, and the women we know they can be."

Dahl says he knows change will come one child at a time, and they won't all make it. But he's looking to the future.

"I'm excited for 40 years from now, when these guys sit there and say to their sons, 'That old man over there told us. When we were your age that old man yelled at us. Now I'm yelling at you. That old man taught us this song. Now we're going to teach it to you,'" said Dahl. 

The teenage boys sit around the drum, and the younger ones gather close to the drum. Some try tentatively to match the beat. One little boy stops roughhousing with his friends, climbs on the couch and sits quietly, listening. 

The mothers and girls stand around the drum, swaying to the beat, and adding their voices to the songs. 


One of the most intense faces around the drum belongs to 15-year-old Bryce Hanks. A tightly pulled black braid hangs halfway down his back, and his eyes reflect anger when he talks about the broken lives he sees around him. 

"I just don't want to be like all them other people. They're high school dropouts. All they do is nothing with their lives. I don't want to be like that," said Hanks. "I want to be something different. I want to prove drugs and alcohol and being a high school dropout isn't only what White Earth kids are."

Mike Dahl
Mike Dahl is a spiritual advisor for young men on White Earth. He says they are the hope for the future.
MPR file photo

Bryce Hanks lives with his grandmother. When he was 9, his father was murdered. His mother struggles with alcoholism. He says he loves her when she's not drinking, but a few months ago he decided he could no longer live with her.

"Every time my mom and her boyfriend would fight is when they were drunk," said Hanks. "I got kicked out of the house more than once. And every time she was drunk."

Bryce says he used drugs and drank from the time he was 10 or 11. He says there was always a party somewhere in White Earth. 


He says the turning point for him came when a group of mothers suggested he should be chosen to care for a ceremonial pipe. With the pipe came an expectation that he would follow traditional ways.

"That's the night I quit. I gave everything up once I had that. It gave me a reason to stop. There was no other reason to stop," said Hanks. "I think of it as a lifesaver. Without it I don't know what I'd be doing. I'd probably be out getting high and drinking. Probably be getting stoned right now." 

I believe I can make this place a better place. I want to go to college. And once I get back, I know for sure I'm going to run for tribal chairman. That's one of my dreams.

Bryce Hanks says there's nothing to do in reservation communities. He tries to stay busy by being involved in sports and after-school activities.  

Some reservation communities are building recreation centers. But White Earth doesn't have one yet, leaving kids with no place to hang out. So they drink because they're bored, and because many see alcohol abuse as normal behavior. 

"Most kids want to be like their parents," Hanks said. "They look at them and see them as role models and they'll be like, 'Oh, my dad drinks so I'm going to drink, too.'"

Bryce considers spiritual leader Michael Dahl his role model and father figure. Through a ceremonial adoption, Hanks recently became Dahl's son, meaning Dahl assumes responsibility for teaching Bryce traditional values. 

Bryce has big dreams. 

"I want to stay around here. I believe I can make this place a better place," said Hanks. "I want to go to college. And once I get back, I know for sure I'm going to run for tribal chairman. That's one of my dreams. I want to run for White Earth tribal chairman -- make this place a better place. "

Dreams can be hard to come by in Indian Country, and even harder to hold onto. Bryce Hanks hopes his generation will be the one to make it easier for Indian kids to follow their dreams in the future.