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Eagle Seeker Community Center opens in Billings, offers space for connection and resources

New project by the Native American Development Corporation
Eagle Seeker Community Center
Posted at 3:15 PM, May 12, 2023

BILLINGS — Montana is home to more than 65,000 Native Americans, but with the state being so spread out, connecting with one another can be difficult. But a new community center in Billings is aiming to bring more opportunities for healing, connection, and cultural preservation.

Nancy Birdtail and her daughters Makayla and Kamillia Poitra could benefit from more connection with their community, as they know the feeling of loss all too well.

“In the last 13 years, we have lost nine people. First, it was my dad Alex in 2009, then it was our brother-in-law Ronnie in 2014. And then another brother-in-law in 2016. Then it was a 17-year-old niece, Melissa, in 2018. And then another niece, Sheila, that was in 2019," Birdtail said on Saturday. "Then in the same year, we lost our mom. And then Ricky’s wife, he lost her three years ago in 2020. And then my girls, they lost their dad here in 2021. And now my brother here on the 29th."

Ricky Peltier and his wife
Ricky Peltier and his wife

On April 27th, Birdtail's brother, Ricky Peltier, suffered a massive stroke and ended up passing away on the 29th. His wife died in 2020 from a brain aneurysm.

“My brother Ricky, he was very loving. If it was his last dollar in his pocket, he would give it to you if he knew you needed it," Birdtail said. "He helped the community quite a bit. I’m sure people know who he is, he’s done a lot of work for them. Tree cutting, working on their cars, raking, lots of stuff. We sure miss him."

Nancy Birdtail
Nancy Birdtail

The Billings family are enrolled members of the Turtle Mountain tribe, but it's based out of North Dakota, so connecting with other members is difficult. Birdtail said the tribe won't assist in funeral costs because her family lives in Montana.

“It’s frustrating. We struggle financially. For us, we barely make it ourselves," Birdtail said. "And we only had a few days, you know, to plan on Ricky’s. Because we didn’t know he was going to pass away. We didn’t know he was going to have a massive stroke."

The family has set up a GoFundMe to assist with the costs.

“It seems like we hit a dead end everywhere. Most of our family, we weren’t able to bury them. They were cremated. To me, I don’t like the thought of being cremated. I feel like they’re still trapped. I would rather have them buried where they can fly and be free," Birdtail said. “(We've raised) probably close to $1,200. But that’s just a little dent in what we need."

Nancy's daughter, Kamillia, expressed how difficult this tragedy has been to navigate.

Kamillia Poitra
Kamillia Poitra

“We’ve all kind of been dealing with it in our own way. The best way we can do it, is just kind of text each other. Give each other our space, our time to grieve our uncle and my mom’s brother,” said Kamillia Poitra on Saturday. “It’s horrible. It’s just, there’s no way to explain how it feels to lose so many people. Especially such important people.”

Kamillia's sister, Makayla, said her uncle was a very giving man.

“He always wanted to help," Makayla Poitra said on Saturday. "No matter what it was. Always. If he had money, he’d give it to you. Not even money, just anything.”

Makayla Poitra
Makayla Poitra

The new community center in Billings, Eagle Seeker Community Center, aims to provide a space to come together and connect. Something Nancy's family is in desperate need of right now.

“I think that this community center is super important because there’s not really any cultural center in Billings. I think there hasn’t been one singular place really for community to gather," said Maddison Wilhite, the marketing and communications coordinator for the Native American Development Corporation, on Friday. "I’ve been with the Native American Development Corporation for five years, and in that time and working with this organization, I have seen the need for different programs in the community and the great work that we do. And it’s really great to have a space where we can bring people together, where we can do these cultural activities."

Wilhite said this project from the Billings-based Native American Development Corporation has some exciting plans underway.

Eagle Seeker Community Center
Eagle Seeker Community Center

“We have moved some of our staff over into this building. And so our youth suicide prevention staff, their office space is here in this building. And then they’re putting on youth activities every single month. They put on family nights every single month," Wilhite said. "They’re really using this space to bring youth here, celebrate with them, and do these activities with them. One of their focuses is 'Culture as Prevention'. So they do a lot of cultural activities.”

According to Wilhite, the land they have acquired is roughly six acres, and expansion plans are in the works.

On Friday, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the old Shrine building, located at 1125 Broadwater Ave. The space is now housing the community center.

"There is one detail that is probably different than with the previous owners, is that no matter what the event, this is an alcohol and drug-free facility. And that’s in part because we also run the Billings Urban Indian Health and Wellness Center, and so through that lens, we have a focus on recovery. On health and wellness," Wilhite said. “There are endless possibilities for this building. We want this to be a space not only for celebration, to come together, to eat together, to dance together. But also to heal together."

Maddison Wilhite
Maddison Wilhite

And this space is open to everyone.

“We also want this to be a space if you’re new to Billings. Say one, you’re Native American who's new to Billings and you’re looking to connect with the Native community here. We want this to be your first stop. If you’re non-Native and you want to learn more about the Native community here, we want this to be one of your first stops,” Wilhite said. “If you want to learn more about this specific facility, if you’re looking to rent it, if you just want to know more about our plans for the facility or our parent organization, check out eagleseeker.com and give us a follow on Facebook and Instagram."

To view Ricky Peltier's GoFundMe page, click here.

To learn more about the Eagle Seeker Community Center or the Native American Development Corporation, click here.

"Of course this building has a special focus on the Native American community, but it is here for the entire Billings community," Wilhite said. "I think that that’s really important to have a space where you can gather, where you can celebrate. You can eat together, you can dance together, and just have a really great safe space for all of those activities."