In this moving story of her experience in service with the Blackfeet in Montana, Jessica Kohn of Philadelphia describes a “life-changing experience” learning about the talents and roles of the Blackfeet people and the welfare of their community.
by Jessica Kohn
It was Saturday, August 7, 2021, sometime in the late afternoon. We were driving along Route 89, about 20 minutes from Browning, Montana, when my friend and I pulled over to take in our surroundings. Rolling fields in every direction, the landscape spotted here and there with clusters of dark-colored cows. The sun’s rays were reaching toward the ground, as if it needed to touch this beautiful land. A first-time traveler to the state, as well as my inaugural volunteer week with Global Volunteers, I was giddy, much the way I was excited for the family to wake up on Christmas morning when I was a child. I had no idea what to expect for the week ahead, but this was a promising start.
What brought me to volunteer with the Blackfeet was set into motion as an adolescent. My mom had recently remarried and we moved to a small town in the suburbs. There was a cluster of little shops within walking distance, one of which was an authentic Native American store selling handmade crafts and goods. Until then I’d never met an Indigenous person but immediately felt a connection. I spent many afternoons and weekends there, talking with the owners and their visitors, learning about the culture, spirituality, legends, and more. They welcomed me with open arms and treated me as one of their own. I remember the pow wows they held, just feet away from my backyard. I loved the drumming and singing and was mesmerized by the beautifully adorned dancers.
What they didn’t know is I’d been going through a deeply personal and ongoing trauma, longing for a place where I felt safe and accepted. I found it at this shop and with the people. They never knew how critical their friendship was to my mental well-being. I swore to myself then I would find a way to return that kindness. It took several decades but the opportunity came through Global Volunteers.
“They never knew how critical their friendship was to my mental well-being. I swore to myself then I would find a way to return that kindness. It took several decades but the opportunity came through Global Volunteers.”– Jessica Kohn, Montana volunteer
I arrived in Browning ready to learn and be of use in whatever way I was invited. As a graduate student in Social Work and having been certified as an End-of-Life Doula a few weeks earlier, I was well-practiced in what is called a beginner’s mind, going into a situation without assumptions or preexisting opinions. Instead, you open your mind and heart, listen, and be authentic with everyone you meet. I brought this up in our first orientation meeting and everyone was receptive to the idea. As the week progressed, I watched some of my fellow volunteers try this approach, whether consciously or not though, I’m not sure. What was harder to see was the way it enabled the Blackfeet to view us. We didn’t come there as White saviors, but as fellow human beings who sincerely cared about the welfare of their community. We were eager to learn about their culture and history. We made space for them to share their personal stories and tribal traditions. We demonstrated a genuine interest in their talents and roles on the reservation. We worked hard on our assigned projects and when finished, asked if there was more we could do.
“We were eager to learn about their culture and history. We made space for them to share their personal stories and tribal traditions. We demonstrated a genuine interest in their talents and roles on the reservation. We worked hard on our assigned projects and when finished, asked if there was more we could do.”– Jessica Kohn, Montana volunteer
The response overall was reserved yet receptive. When we reflected on the week at the end of the trip, a few volunteers said they had gained more from the Blackfeet than they gave back or there wasn’t really anything to show for our time there. Weeks later, I was told our group opened doors that had previously been closed in the community. I’d like to think that our sincerity and respect played a role in that. Maybe we didn’t leave a tangible mark like building a house and they may not recall our names, but the connection we made is more meaningful and will last much longer.
We also made an impact for subsequent volunteers. Our team started a morning smudge session about halfway through the week with one of our Blackfeet friends. It became an essential start to our day, just like getting dressed and brushing your teeth. I learned that the tradition carried on to the final groups of the summer. I hope the volunteers of 2022 and beyond keep it going. I also learned that several of us still smudge at home, including me. I’ve introduced it to family and friends who all have found it meaningful.
“Weeks later, I was told our group opened doors that had previously been closed in the community. I’d like to think that our sincerity and respect played a role in that. Maybe we didn’t leave a tangible mark like building a house and they may not recall our names, but the connection we made is more meaningful and will last much longer.”– Jessica Kohn, Montana volunteer
There were many more wonderful experiences throughout the week, but one that stands out was horseback riding at DeBoos Ranch. Being on a strong, beautiful animal with nothing but open space as far as the eye could see was almost surreal. I suddenly felt so small in this very big world of hills and valleys, the mountains of Glacier National Park towering in the distance. It seemed there was nothing and no one else outside of this place. No responsibilities, no jobs, no appointments, no schedules. The constraints and noise of everyday life simply fell away. This feeling of being truly free, profound and all-encompassing, was something I’d never experienced before. I’ve struggled for months with how to describe it to others. A new show, 1883, summed it up perfectly, “Freedom is riding wild over the untamed land with no notion that any moment exists beyond the one you are living.”
I knew this trip would be life changing. But it wasn’t this huge “A-ha!” moment. It was more of a subtle shift, these moments of giving, mindfulness, and being present taking root deep within. I didn’t sense it though until after I’d returned home. The city of Philadelphia is a sharp contrast to the vast lands of Montana. Here I’m surrounded by high rises of glass and steel rather than trees. The clamor and commotion of the city is sometimes deafening, the constant rushing around to get here or there exhausting. It took weeks to readjust to city life and I often still feel out of place. I try to find balance by visiting the woods near my house, immersing myself in nature, and allowing myself to rediscover that sense of solitude and peace I found over 2000 miles away. I often reflect on the generations of Indigenous people who walked these same trails and honor them by caring for the land and its inhabitants. I share their stories, the ones history classes didn’t tell and try to bring awareness to the injustices still occurring today.
“I knew this trip would be life changing. But it wasn’t this huge “A-ha!” moment. It was more of a subtle shift, these moments of giving, mindfulness, and being present taking root deep within.”– Jessica Kohn, Montana volunteer
I don’t know if I fulfilled my childhood promise during my time with the Blackfeet, but I am certain it has made me more conscientious and compassionate. My relationship with the natural world is deeper and my commitment to helping others stronger, thanks to my week with Global Volunteers. It was an extraordinary experience and I am already looking at possible volunteer opportunities in 2022. I don’t yet know if Montana will be one of them but my work there is not done and I will return one day. Until then, kiakitamatsin.
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