Alyssa Speelman received the inaugural NHS Service award. 

I am an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and I live on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Southeastern Montana. I want to share what I have done, and will continue to do, after winning the inaugural National Honor Society (NHS) Service award.

During my time in NHS, I have learned the importance of each of the four pillars: Character, Scholarship, Leadership, and Service. Growing up in the small town of Lame Deer, MT, there weren’t as many educational opportunities given to us as there would be in a large, metropolitan area. However, that did not stop students like me from serving our community. As someone who joined the NHS chapter at my school my junior year, I was thrilled to be a part of an organization that teaches you how to carry yourself as a person. Seeing and experiencing how a willingness to serve others creates a positive impact not only in your community but also in the world was life-changing.

I soon grew to realize that I had already been embodying these core values in my everyday life. I learned that I modeled character by always staying true to myself; without it, I would not be the unique person that I am today. I exemplified scholarship by believing that I can do anything I put my mind to, including allowing myself to succeed even in the darkest of times. My commitment to leadership allowed me to possess the ability to lead others on their paths to success, whether I was helping them as a mentor or as a friend. Finally, my dedication to service granted me the capability to pursue goals and allow the goodness of my heart to serve others.

In April, I attended the NHS Gala celebrating outstanding student leaders during Trailblazing Leadership Week in Washington, D.C. It was an incredible opportunity to meet other young adults who share the same passion for the four pillars with different perspectives and life experiences. Knowing that there are other young people out there who are just as unique and amazing taught me the biggest lesson of all: Change can only happen when leaders unite and display shared values of determination, goal setting, and awareness of others’ needs.

For me, making change in my community is deeply personal. I believe change must begin with our justice system, which has failed to protect my community and other Indigenous people, myself included.

Speaking Out for Indigenous Women

For as long as I can remember, the people in my community around me have worked to raise awareness about the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). The past four years is when I myself have become most actively involved. I am someone who has been directly affected by this epidemic since I have lost people I love due to this.

My best friend, Henny Scott, was murdered in December 2018. Her killers were never charged, and the FBI closed her case, ruling that her death was due to hypothermia. My cousin, Hanna Harris, was murdered in July 2013. Her killers were caught, but her family never received closure due to an inadequate justice system. My cousin, Selena Not Afraid, was murdered in January 2020. Although the FBI was involved in her case, no one was charged, and her death was eventually ruled as a result of hypothermia as well. My brother, Arlin Bordeaux, was wrongfully killed by Bureau of Indian Affairs officers in December 2021. The murdering officers were recently cleared of any wrongdoing, and still, no justice has been served.

These are just a few of my friends and family members who are victims of a failed justice system. A majority of us, growing up on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, have been adversely affected by this flawed justice system. The names of missing Indigenous people rarely make it onto the local news, let alone national headlines. However, when a non-Indigenous person is missing, there is an immediate police response and national news coverage.

One recent example is the case of Gabby Petito, which made national headlines and received the immediate attention of multiple law enforcement agencies, including the FBI. However, when such horrific acts occur in Indigenous communities, the response pales in comparison.

The MMIW epidemic is like a virus, and it continues to ravage Indigenous communities. I use my voice to spread awareness of this issue on behalf of my loved ones whose voices have been silenced forever because they deserve justice. I believe the more that people can be educated about this epidemic, the more people will become interested in wanting to be a part of the change that needs to happen.

As a young Indigenous woman myself, I feel like I have a target on my back, not knowing if one day I won’t be able to come home either. Although I feel blessed to be able to come home to my loved ones and my family, the victims of the MMIW epidemic were less fortunate. They were ripped from this world without a second thought, and their killers can walk around as if nothing happened. Yet, our families are left to grieve knowing we’ll never see them again, knowing that justice has not been served.

When I was selected from among the 25 finalists for the NHS Scholarship and then was invited to attend Trailblazing Leadership Week, I was filled with many emotions. I was ecstatic that I could use my voice to speak for those who have been silenced. And I was honored to be able to represent myself, my family, my tribe, the state of Montana, and all young Indigenous people. Having the ability to share their stories with others in the hopes of changing the justice system has encouraged me to keep moving forward and carry on their legacies. I will continue to be a voice for those who cannot speak, and I will keep educating those who are willing to listen and learn. I hope that serving my community in this impactful way for the rest of my life will inspire others to do the same.

Supporting My Community During COVID-19

When the pandemic began in 2020, our community experienced many deaths. Casket covers are one of the many things that our family business, Speelman Construction, offers, and we have built these on and off for the past 13 years. With multiple deaths resulting from the virus in a short period of time, my father entrusted me with creating and designing these covers, which feature intricate artwork and Native names. Throughout the pandemic, we built an overwhelming number of them—as many as three to four covers each week.

This work became emotionally draining since we were making these covers for our friends, close family members, and a number of elders who were the heart of our community. Each cover was created to fit the unique personality of the deceased. Seeing these covers allowed families to begin the healing process knowing they were able to express their love for their family.

I wrote about making these covers and my advocacy on behalf of MMIW in applying for the NHS Scholarship. Winning the Service award means the world to me and has reaffirmed my dedication to serve people in a positive way. To be able to come back to my community and show others that they, too, are fully capable of doing what I did, will hopefully inspire more people to want to become the change they seek in the world.

Although some days I felt like giving up, my family has pushed me to keep going. They have taught me that there are two types of people in this world: the givers and the takers. It was up to me to decide which kind of person I wanted to be. They have supported all of my decisions and I am beyond grateful to have a support system like them. To be recognized for being the kind of person that I am, and continue to be, I believe I made the right decision to become a giver. Growing up I always wanted to help people. And looking back at my younger self, she would be so proud of the woman and mentor that we have grown up to be.

For anyone who is in the process of learning about themselves and wanting to become someone who others can look up to, I have a few words of advice: Always be yourself, continue to have that heart of gold, and no matter what, always be proud of yourself. Some days you may feel like you’re not doing enough, but always remember that progress is still progress, no matter how slow it seems. If a small-town, Indigenous girl from Montana who serves people out of the goodness of her heart can be recognized, so can you.

In the years ahead, I will continue to embody the NHS pillars. With them as my foundation, I believe I can excel and pursue the goals that I have set for my life.

As for my future career, law school has always struck me as a real possibility. A law degree would enable me to care for individuals in need of help and instill change in the justice system. I may be one person, but one person is all it takes to inspire others to take the lead and create change in our world.

Alyssa Speelman is a freshman at Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, MT, and a graduate of St. Labre Indian Catholic School in Ashland, MT. She is a 2022 NHS Scholarship winner and the recipient of the inaugural NHS Scholarship Service award.