Starting Our Montana Adventure

For many of us, the August 4-11 Global Volunteers adventure began at Great Falls Airport. Our team members arrived at various times from various locations, all wearing similar smiles. White t-shirts emblazoned with the GV logo helped us become immediately recognizable. The airport lobby was aglow with a sense of anticipation. Monroes and Schutts extended warm family welcomes to begin connecting our team. Michele arrived with her signature smile and bouncy step. Her first task was corralling us into the business room to iron out details for getting to the reservation.

Two teenage girls, two teenage boys, and their grandmother who had just finished their own GV trip were at the airport waiting for their plane’s departure. Michele encouraged them to speak to the newbies in the business room. The family happily shared stories about their own adventure, enticing us with tales about a sweat ceremony, horseback riding, and service projects. They also mentioned dogs, lots of stray dogs. As he was slipping out the door, Michael, a soft-spoken boy, said, “It’s going to be amazing. At the end you will definitely miss the place as much as I do right now.” Clearly, his GV experience had made an impact.

We and our gear piled into two vans to the Head Start Center in Browning. Pam had rented her own car for this adventure, and she would be driving by herself, so Laura volunteered to ride with her. Those who were in the Manpower van took a little detour to Walmart before heading north. After just a few minutes on Highway 15, the landscape opened up to reveal open plains and endless blue skies. Cattle and horses dotted the hills. Photo ops were abounded, but Michele was definitely on a mission. She obligingly stopped so we could snap two photos along the way. Everyone scrambled out to capture images of the site of Meriwether Lewis’ encounter with the Blackfeet, and the welcome sign to the reservation.

We pulled into the dusty parking lot of the Head Start Center, our home for the week. Michele gave us the grand tour, including our makeshift bedrooms, the meeting room, and our kitchen.  The giggles and whispers of the little people who learn and play here during the school year are almost audible. A few of us made a run to the grocery store across the street for dinner provisions. Lots of fruits and vegetables found their way into our carts.

Food is an amazing ice breaker. A sense of community started to build as we chopped and tossed salad and slathered butter and garlic on bread. There was a huge lasagna waiting for us, all cooked. After dinner, we made brief introductions around the table. By then it had become clear that the majority of us hail from the east coast. Ultimately, nine Monroes, five Schutts, and six other hardy souls will make up our team. We were eager to see our later arrivals, Rachel, Larisa, and Tatum. After dinner, Joe, who works at the high school preparing students for the college application process, generously shared a wealth of information with us to acquaint us with the Blackfeet culture. He is an incredible resource for those of us who are curious about the history, traditions, and current events of the tribe.

Joe told us that in the past, people were elected to the tribal council annually. There was a lot of leadership turnover, which inevitably led to confusion and inefficiencies. Elections are now held on a rotating basis. There is one group of four and one group of five that are elected every other year. In a recent election, all four tribal council members were replaced by new members. This has caused a level of unrest within the community, and has had an impact on the GV relationship with Head Start, as it is now under new leadership.

Joe talked a bit about the “pedigree” that Indians carry (yes, they like to be called Indians, and they refer to non-Indians as “white,” regardless of their race). In order to receive tribal benefits, one has to be at least ¼ Blackfeet. Joe also talked about the staggering unemployment rate in this community, somewhere between 70-80%. There are simply very few jobs to be had. He spoke about “Indian time” and numerous “holidays” that people take as being realities of tribal life.

Michele drove a group of volunteers around Browning to begin understanding the lay of the land. We passed by  the high school that was built within the past 3 years, a couple of elementary schools, the library, Community College, elder center, hospital, museum, and art gallery. We stopped briefly at the hospital to take photos of the sculpture in the parking lot, and a little longer at the assisted living center. Inside, there is a tipi that set up in the common area. This is where the ever-resourceful Michele stored bunks and other gear last year for lack of another suitable storage area. While we were visiting, a resident named Eddie rolled out of his room in his wheelchair. He told us he didn’t really like living there. It is too quiet and he gets lonely. He shook our hands, and pointed out his several missing fingers. Of course this led to a story. He told us he lost his fingers as a result of being bitten by a recluse spider. Connie reminded us how prevalent diabetes is on the reservation. Though Michele was eager to have us return to the van, it was hard to tear ourselves away from Eddie.  He continued to seek our company, telling us of his goal to keep busy by preserving some Blackfeet traditions. He talked about a sculpture that he would like to photograph and document, and burial grounds that people did not know about.

By the time we got back to the Head Start Center, everyone was pretty wiped out from the day. We vowed to watch the orientation videos another time. We sorted ourselves out and shuffled off to our makeshift bedrooms.

by Laura

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