Each summer, since 2000 (except for 2020), Global Volunteers has worked in partnerships with the Blackfeet people on community priorities – focusing on labor, elder services and family health and recreation projects. The first volunteer team in 2022 – 10 individuals aged19 to 73 – served from June 5-11. Thirteen service programs follow through early October. Following are highlights from the first team’s service journal.
“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give. Volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the earth who reflect this nation’s compassion, unselfish caring, patience, and just plain loving one another.” -Winston Churchill (from volunteers’ team journal)
FAST Blackfeet Quickly Engages Team in New Work Projects
A new work project for the second summer is with Blackfeet Food Access and Sustainability Team (FAST Blackfeet), supported by FNDI Strengthening Native Programs, Feeding Families grants, First Nations Development Institute and individual FAST donors.
One of the goals of FAST Blackfeet is to help the community access traditional foods, such as traditional medicinal teas and local bison used in nutrition classes and the Ō´yō´•ṗ´ Food Pantry.
Local organizers are grateful for the influx of volunteers every week, especially as the need for food grows with COVID-19 cases. The volunteers started on the first day of service filling boxes for families of 3-5 people with dry goods to be distributed.
According to the FAST Blackfeet website, the Ō´yō´•ṗ´Pantry opened the Medicine Bear building in Browning in September, 2019. Ō´yō´•ṗ´ is the Blackfeet way to say “We Are Eating” – a name that describes FAST Blackfeet’s vision to supply families with healthy food, and which captures “the inclusive, social relationship that surrounds the sharing and eating of food in Blackfeet culture.”
Helping Improve Local Families’ Health
One part of the team got to work immediately installing a raised garden arranged by FAST Blackfeet. “It was a good thing that we had so many people to take turns shoveling soil, which was a back-breaking project for sure,” said Mary Krug from New Jersey. She noted that the job was complicated by the high winds – so common on the Plains, but not experienced in her home town on the East Coast.
“We repeated the whole procedure at another home and left that family with two almost completed raised garden beds,” Mary continued.. “The homeowner watched gratefully as we built them, and it’s gratifying to help people on the path to growing their own produce. It would be wonderful to see the growing gardens and the end results of our labor.”
Community Hospitality Crowned by Cultural Activities
A significant attraction of Global Volunteers’ work with the Blackfeet Nation is the opportunity for team members to participate in traditional events such as sweats, Sun Dances, pow-wows and horseback riding. Chuck and Carrie DeBoo host a horseback riding evening for each team. “They were incredibly friendly and welcoming,” said Maci Flanagan. “Chuck and Carrie made us all feel like old-time friends.”
For two decades, Blackfeet elder Tom Crawford has invited volunteers to sweats on his ranch, and in recent years, community member Dan Wippert has also generously offered his time to introduce team members to cultural activities and cultural practices, such as smudging.
In a smudge ritual, sage is burned to release negativity, bad thoughts and emotions like anger or lust. Burning sweetgrass brings out positive energy. The smoke from the fire purifies ritual participants and sends prayers to be heard by the Creator.
“Our day started at 7AM with Dan leading us in a smudge. He prayed for us volunteers and Dale, one of our volunteers, prayed for Dan. It was a spiritual way to start the day, and it let me know that Dan – and maybe other members of the community – were praying for us; so what we do makes a difference.”Montana Volunteer Lourdes Flanagan
A Breezy End to the Children’s Fair Leads to Ranch Chores
On the last day of the service program, the team was introduced to the full force of the Montana wind – and left volunteers imagining what it’s like during the winter months with the snow whipping up around homes and down the frozen streets. Mark Flanagan, adult son of Lourdes and brother of Marci, all from Texas recounted the assignment: “We set off to Government Square to help set up the children’s fun fest (fair). Shortly after we arrived, we noticed that something was up. The wind was blowing. Hard. At first, the event organizers did their best to prepare the tables and chairs, but it was a battle against the elements, and we were losing.”
Organizers decided to postpone the events, so the team re-distributed themselves to work projects for elders at Eagle Shield and the BUMP ranch to assist Pastor Hill with horse care projects for vulnerable youth. “The Flanagan’s stayed behind to shear sheep,” wrote Mark, adding, “but first we cleaned the horse stalls. It was good to get out of the wind, even if we were digging in horse p**p.”
The team also visited the Kutoyis buffalo jump site at Two Medicine River. According to Archeology Magazine, it’s believed that the ancestors of the Blackfoot, a culture known to archaeologists as the Old Women’s Phase (after a Blackfoot mythological figure) arranged thousands of stones on the approaches to this high bit of prairie to enable large groups of men, women, and children to drive dozens or even hundreds of buffalo across the landscape to this spot. The buffalo driven to the edge of the cliff overlooking the river would fall to their deaths, making it possible for a tribe to feed themselves through another season, and creating a surplus of meat that would have been a valuable trading commodity.
“We headed to the Buffalo Jumping Grounds. It was depressing to think how the buffalo were once roaming all over the landscape we saw. Then Dan told us about how the buffalo had been so central to the Blackfeet way of life. Dan then took us to the site of a Catholic mission boarding school. His pain was palpable as re recounted what happened at this site. We stopped for a moment of silence and could hear the birds and the wind rustling in the trees. As we gathered in the van, we talked about the feelings of shame and outrage at what had happened to the Blackfeet there. It also made me feel very humbled, especially by Dan’s welcoming and gracious attitude towards all of us. He ended the evening by teaching us “key dockty moscun” we will meet again.”Montana Volunteer Lourdes Flanagan
As always, Global Volunteers’ cultural consultant, Joe Jessepe, led the team on a tour of the reservation – stopping for the traditional “team photo” at Duck Lake. “I learned so much about the Blackfeet culture,” said Terri Snyder, from Colorado. “I was surprised how open many local people were. This trip was rewarding, and I will remember the people in Global Volunteers and the community for the rest of my life.” Blackfeet Elder and Former Global Volunteers Community Partner Bob Tailfeathers extended his gracious hospitality to the team as well. “Bob regaled us with stories about the reservation, and everyone was impressed with his art and quillwork,” Mark continued. He patiently demonstrated the different parts of his regalia and let us take pictures of him. Then others joined us to eat fry bread and reflect on our educational week. We had such a wonderful time, although it was bittersweet because we knew this would be our last day (in the community). But we’re sure to see each other again.”