Meeting with students at Chief Dullknife Community College in Lame Deer this spring, debate instructor Shelby Jo Long-Hammond hoped to lead a spirited discussion on the pros and cons of mining on the reservation.
Lame Deer sits on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, where deals with the federal government might allow coal mining on reservation land — a pretty hot topic, Long-Hammond said.
But the topic didn't really connect with the students, and as they moved onto other issues the class found itself talking about the ethics of Happy Meals.
"It was great," Long-Hammond said.
It opened discussions on health care and nutrition, on markets and consumer rights, and really got the kids engaged. And it was a good reminder for Long-Hammond that some debate topics need to come up organically.
For the past year, Long-Hammond, an associate professor of communication studies at Rocky Mountain College, has been working with tribal colleges to build up debate programs.
A skilled debater in college, Long-Hammond firmly believes that teaching debate skills to students can transform them.
"They learn advocacy skills, they learn speaking skills. They learn to research," she said. "It helps them become a better speaker, helps them become more organized."
For years, she's traveled the world with the International Debate Education Association, attending two-week conferences across Europe in places like Dublin and Sarajevo, helping to set up debate programs at various schools and colleges.
It's been powerful, she said. She loves traveling and advocating for debate programs. In Sarajevo she saw Muslim and Christian students come together and talk — something that never would have occurred outside of a debate forum.
"And then I thought, is there something I can do around here," she said.
A Montana girl who attended Carroll College and the University of Montana, Long-Hammond knew she could do the same advocacy work with tribal schools and build up debate programs there. Programs that would greatly benefit students.
In March and April, Long-Hammond, along with a small group of students from her courses at Rocky, visited Chief Dullknife Community College twice and Blackfeet Community College in Browning.
When she and her students first sat down to plan out what they'd do with the tribal colleges, they thought they'd meet with students and faculty and start a fully functioning debate program.
But they quickly saw how overwhelming that would be for them to put together and for the different colleges to try and maintain.
So instead, they've held a series of debate workshops.
"There has to be a foundation laid first," Long-Hammond said.
She's excited to be doing just that much. She's seen debate training and competition change the lives of her students at Rocky. She's knows it can have a similar impact in other places.
"It's needed for a well-rounded education," she said. "For any college student."
At their last visit to Lame Deer, the crew from Rocky led workshops covering introduction to debate, basic argumentation, style and delivery, value clashes and argumentation drills.
Once school starts this fall, she and her students will return to the tribal colleges and the workshops. She's excited to see what kind of discussions and dialogue it will bring.
"It's something that doesn't happen in very many other places," she said.