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Digital Storytelling Creates Next-Level Opportunities for Indigenous Communities

First Voices is rooted in the power of storytelling to create and enhance cultural connectedness—between generations, between tribes and between Native and non-Native people.

Following the success of First Voices: Lame Deer (2020-2022) working with the Northern Cheyenne community, the project is expanding to five reservations across Montana: Fort Peck; Fort Belknap; Crow; Blackfeet and Flathead, between  


Watch our short fundraising video below...and please consider supporting First Voices!


First Voices works with students at reservation high schools and tribal colleges to create digital (video-based) performances of ancestral stories which are published and distributed via a dedicated online portal. The narratives selected for performance range from ancient origin stories to recent colonial-era history.


The students work with professional artists (Native and non-Native), tribal elders and storytellers to produce the videos. Stories are presented in the original tribal language to create a rich archive for future generations.

First Voices is based on a core belief that learning through the arts is critical to young people's development of self-confidence, teamwork and leadership. Through First Voices, participants reconnect with indigenous ways of knowing, as they express ancestral stories within the context of their own lives.


Next-level opportunities open up for students as they build both interpersonal and technology-based skills. Through the online publication of their performance videos, First Voices participants build meaningful long-term connections with audiences within their own communities and beyond.

Importantly, completed story videos and related content are integrated into cross-curricular lesson plans for educators at high school and college level. We are currently in discussion with Indian Education for All, an initiative from the Office of Public Instruction in Montana, to ensure that tools and lesson plans follow guidelines mandated by the Montana Constitution.

First Voices was initiated as a response to the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. With the death of many elders, the younger generation was experiencing a critical loss—of ancestral connection, of hope and empowerment through the power of storytelling between the generations.

Thresh's connection with Lame Deer High School (situated at the heart of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation) began in 2017 when Founder & Artistic Director Preeti Vasudevan visited the school system as a storyteller-educator for Yo-Yo Ma's Silkroad organization. While working with the students and elders of the community, she recognized fascinating parallels with her own South Asian (Indian) heritage: by tapping into the ancient wisdom of elders, the younger generation can connect to their heritage and find ways to apply this wisdom to their own lives in a contemporary context.


First Voices is self-sustaining over a three-year cycle. In year 1, selected students are coached and mentored into the role of project leaders as they “shadow” professional artists and project managers. Over years 2 and 3 these student-leaders are able to take the project forward themselves, supported along the way by regular “check-ins” and coaching sessions with their professional mentors. 

The mentoring program provides course credits to both high-school and college-level participants, empowering them to excel in higher education—and helping them develop the interpersonal and media skills that are critical for success in today’s job market—for both in-person and remote career opportunities.

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  • To improve personal and educational outcomes for Indigenous young people by strengthening social and emotional skills, promoting teamwork and leadership and advancing their technical capabilities

  • To increase inter-generational understanding within tribal communities

  • To increase contact and partnership between tribal communities

  • For citizens across the USA, of every ethnicity, to understand and value the importance of the cultures and languages of the Indigenous nations of our country

IMPACT: What students are saying...

This project is a great way to promote our culture and show people that we are still here and our way is not lost... this is a great idea and I'm thankful that these artists are taking time out of their lives to do this because not everyone knows about us. Our creation stories are something that will be passed down for many generations to come.

Samuel H., Lame Deer High School

It was powerful and unique. I especially love how my culture is introduced and how well the story presented itself... Seeing it being displayed in an artistic vision, watching it all mesh well together, the music, the story, and the body language. It was engaging and different. First Voices is inspiring me!

Latessa T., Lame Deer High School

Our culture is very very beautiful from the stories to the paintings, beadwork, and people. It's great to see it come alive.

Davinia, Lame Deer High School

IMPACT: What elders are saying...

I was surprised about just how knowledgeable they [students] are and their willingness to try new things... Just to have that freedom and expression of movement is unbelievable. It makes my heart soar like a hawk.

Joesph R. McGeshick, Assiniboine and
Sioux Elder

It’s universal, in a way, the way that the tribes are related. We may have different designs, but we are all universal in the respect for mother earth, in our culture, our children, our ways of life. It’s all universal throughout America with Natives.

Alaina Buffalo Spirit, Northern Cheyenne Elder

There’s a lot of hardship in this story. [Young people] can take away that they can have endurance and that they can have faith.... Hope is something that we have to work towards... For me, as parents and as middle-aged people, we would have to work hard to ensure that that’s not lost. I see this event that we are doing to be a great part of it because you can see and know and understand where it came from.

Ruthie Shoulderblade, Northern Cheyenne Elder


IMPACT: What artists are saying...

It will give them [young people] the inspiration to strive towards art… to believe that through art there are a lot of possibilities. This project specifically will empower them… it will show them not to be ashamed of who they are as Native people. It will empower them to be proud as Native People. This is a good project to show youth around the world.

Chontay Standing Rock,
Musician & Composer

Although many Indigenous communities actively reclaim their narrative, allyship is still necessary. I believe this partnership will assist in the perpetuation of culture and heritage and highlight potential in the sovereignty of storytelling for cultural groups.

Ben Pease, Visual Artist

This project is really important and I’m very proud to be a part of it… I’m really proud to be a part of a project that is helping students know their background and stories but also helping promote and encourage students to express themselves, to find their art form—and capitalize on it!

Sammy Jo Bird, Visual Artist

IMPACT: What educators are saying...

This is important for many of our traditional people and indigenous nations because it’s a voice that is often not heard. To do it in this way, provides an avenue for others to know a little bit more about us, to have some of the original elders of this continent share some of their knowledge is an excellent way to come together and move forward in a positive way.

Don Wetzel Jr., Tribal Relations Advisor & Blackfeet Tribal Member

It's a fundamental human right to be heard and respected and these students are demonstrating so much of their talents in part because they had that. They had people listening, respecting them, and inviting them to create, to direct, and really engage in the entire process

Tami Haaland, Dean at Montana State University Billings and Author 

I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to work with Preeti and First Voices. What an incredible program that truly spans generations and brings communities together. Preeti has an incredible way of working with people, making them feel comfortable and bringing out the best in them. I look forward to seeing what else will be accomplished with First Voices in the future!

Carrie Got-Nettlon, Educator Director at Yellowstone Art Museum



Between 2023-2025 we are working with five reservations in Montana (Fort Peck; Fort Belknap; Crow; Blackfeet and Flathead). With each reservation, we are creating three stories and an intensive mentoring program working actively with tribal elders, local teaching artists, and students from reservation high schools and community colleges. The cost of implementing a First Voices project on a single reservation (3 stories plus mentorship) is $285,000. 


We invite you to join the First Voices family—your generous support is invaluable as we move the project forward. Support is suggested at the following levels:


  • Leadership Circle: $95,000 covers the completion of one full story, including all video production and teaching artists' fees (mentoring program)

  • Benefactor Circle: $65,000 covers the video production costs (personnel and equipment) for all three stories

  • Patron Circle: $35,000 covers teaching artists' fees (mentoring program) for all three stories

  • Supporter Circle: $20,000 supports story research with tribal elders and council members

  • Friend Circle: $5,000 supports capacity-building towards fostering new partnerships and project planning

  • Member Circle: Up to $5,000 provides generous support for ongoing First Voices project expenses

Corporate sponsorship

We are delighted to discuss corporate sponsorship opportunities. Importantly, First Voices encourages volunteering by our sponsors' employees in all the reservation communities we work with. These opportunities expand cultural responsiveness and foster engagement with Indigenous young people as they develop leadership skills and the capabilities to succeed—both within and beyond their own communities.


Please contact Preeti Vasudevan to discuss support opportunities at any of the above levels.

First Voices is deeply grateful for the support to date from the following organizations:

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Collaborators new

First Voices Team & stakeholders

"My favorite part has been the dancing, movement and's an amazing opportunity that I've been able to come on."


—Burton, Junior, Lame Deer High School

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Preeti Vasudevan

Artistic Director (Thresh)

Preeti is an award-winning choreographer and performer creating provocative contemporary works from her Indian tradition. Founder and Artistic Director of Thresh, her mission is to create experimental productions that foster a provocative dialogue with identity, and our relationship with heritage cultures and contemporary life

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Joseph R. McGeshick

Writer / Educator, Project Co-Leader

Joe is of Assiniboine, Sioux and Chippewa heritage, born and raised on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. He has taught Native American Studies, writing, and history at high school, community college, and university levels and has published five books. McGeshick currently is a consultant for the Yellowstone County Museum’s Native American collections.

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Ben Pease

Visual Artist

Ben is currently the artist-in-residence at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT, and his work has gained national & international attention. He was most recently named Artist-of-the-Year by the Yellowstone Art Museum’s Board of Trustees and was also commissioned to participate in a large group exhibition at the Chicago Field Museum, University of Chicago’s Neubauer Collegium.

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Ruthie Shoulderblade

Elder, Storyteller

Ruthie Shoulderblade was raised in Birney, Montana. She is Cheyenne, a Native American. Storytelling was one of her family's cultural practices at home. She was taught by her mother cultural knowledge. Her mother also taught her sisters and herself social dance. 


Ruthie is an accountant and has worked for the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana for twenty-eight years and she has a college degree in Business Management.

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Sammy Jo Bird


Sammy is an artist and barrel racer. She grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation and was raised with the “ponoka'o'mitta” (Blackfeet for "horse"). She has always had a close relationship with horses as they have played a huge role not only in her art but in her life.


The drive and passion behind Sammy's art is not only her love for animals but her love for people. She wants her paintings to help people, make people smile, and make a positive statement. Sammy wants her paintings to be someone's escape.

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Chontay Standing Rock

Musician, Composer

Chontay R. Mitchell (Chontay Standing Rock) comes from the Rocky Boys Indian reservation of the Chippewa Cree people in Montana. Despite struggling in school growing up, due to learning disabilities, Chontay graduated from Stone Child community college with an AA degree in Liberal Arts. In the future he hopes to pursue a BA in music technology with a minor in Native American Studies. Currently, Chontay is working at  the Rocky Boys tribal office as a security guard. Education has always been a big part of his life along with his cultural ways as he continues to put his best foot forward and hold his head high as a proud descendent of Chippewa Cree ancestors.

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Seidel Standing Elk

Cultural Advisor, Lame Deer School

Seidel Standing Elk is a Northern Cheyenne and Suhtai Artist. He currently teaches at the Lame Deer Public School as a junior high and high school Language and Culture Studies Instructor. The art history dates back from 1990 to the present, some art shows include out-of-state and international. His art reflects traditional and contemporary styles.

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Alaina Buffalo Spirit

Elder, Ledger Artist, Storyteller

Alaina Buffalo Spirit of the Northern Cheyenne Nation of Montana is a self-taught artist who specializes in Ledger Art. Alaina began her art career in 2003 and has shown in prestigious shows such as the Kentucky Crafted in Louisville,  Ky., the Montana Folk Festival, Butte, Montana, the Windy Flats Gallery in Nye, Montana, Settlers West, Tucson, Az., the International Kite Festival in Dieppe, France to name a few. Ledger Art began in the early 1860s, it is a rare technique of painting over script on antique paper and accounting sheets.

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Tami Haaland

Author, Dean, MSUB

Tami is the author of three poetry collections, and winner of the Nicholas Roerich First Book award and reissued by Red Hen Press in 2021. Her poems have appeared in many periodicals and anthologies including The Slowdown, The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and American Life in Poetry. A former Montana Poet Laureate, she is a professor of creative writing at MSU Billings.

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Susan Wolfe

Art Educator, Lame Deer School

Susan teaches Visual Art at Lame Deer Jr/Sr High School on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, which had been designated as a “School of Promise” by the Montana Office of Public Instruction. At the end of her first year, Lame Deer Jr High became one of eight schools in the nation selected to participate in the TurnAround Arts Initiative which spurned a partnership with Silkroad.

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Peter Tolton

Documentary Filmmaker

Pete is a Montana-based documentary filmmaker, educator, writer, and artist. His directorial debut, Edge of the Plains, tells the stories of nine Montana entrepreneurs who pursue their dreams while navigating the trials of life and business. Pete was awarded an artist residency from the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.

"Creating and sharing stories will help build a stronger community with more empathy because I could tell the story to my younger family members. They would most likely be more curious and they would want to tell other people. I was trying to make an example of how this can make a stronger community with more empathy."


—Juanita, Lame Deer High School

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