Unscripted and Unplanned Rewards: Blackfeet Reservation Volunteer’s Best Memories
New York mother and retail professional Tenley Zinke recalls her excitement of discovering new project opportunities each day as a Montana volunteer. A highlight: Getting to meet local people in their typical daily routines. Read on for her description of a day’s volunteering schedule in Montana.
By Tenley Zinke
Volunteering on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation cannot be compared to any experience I have ever had. It might also differ from many Global Volunteers programs with the variety of work projects to choose from – some long-standing and others more circumstantial.
Each experience will be unique, even if the projects are the same, because so many of the memories and the value derived is from the interactions that you engage in with the Blackfeet people.
Like all Global Volunteers service programs, our experience was under-girded by the structure, training, and team building that form the basis of the dynamic among volunteers and with the community. This prepares everyone to get and give the most during their time spent in service to the tribe under their leadership.
Here I share examples of what we did, with the caveat that your experience will differ based on what needs the community has during the week that you are there. But, you’re likely to encounter some of the same people who have been engaged with Global Volunteers for a decade or more.
The Blackfeet Reservation Daily Volunteering Schedule
Arrival Day and Welcome
Volunteers are picked up at the airport in Great Falls by a staff member of Global Volunteers to share a ride to Browning, Montana that is approximately two hours. My daughters and I spent a week exploring Glacier National Park, which is adjacent to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and therefore met the Team Leader and the other volunteers at the lodging location. We were not the only ones to have a car for the week, which we did use on occasion to have flexibility when participating in optional activities. However, there was always transportation provided for the team.
As we experienced every stop along the way, we were greeted by well-behaved dogs. (Dogs are integral to Plains Indians who used them to pull their belongings before horses were introduced, and they are well cared for.) We were also greeted warmly by our team leader, who gave us a few safety precautions about personal items; showed us our sleeping quarters and where the laundry, kitchen, and communal areas were; and let us know that dinner would be prepared daily by local women, but we would be making breakfast and lunch for ourselves.
We chose our bunks in the women’s sleeping quarters upstairs, and had dinner with our new acquaintances. The kids quickly made friends on the basketball court outside. After dinner, we were able to join the opening ceremonies of a local Pow Wow, in honor of Indian Days, five minutes away.
Given that it is only possible to serve during the summer months due to the harsh winters, there is a good chance you may be fortunate to experience “Indian Days” as we did, the biggest of which may include a Pow Wow, Indian Relays, and a Rodeo. Indian Days have become important in the celebration of Indian culture with the regalia, singing, dancing, naming ceremonies, memorials, prayers, and competitions.
We seemed to be the only spectators from outside this intimate community, and to us it was impressive, loud, proud, joyous, solemn, and celebratory.
The ceremonial clothes seem in perpetual motion with fringes, feathers, shells, teeth, bones, skins, beads, mirrors, threads, bands, braids, paintings, and bustles. Together with necklaces, earring, shawls, staffs, fans, and moccasins created a collage of vibrant colors and patterns where the beauty of each individual added to a portrait of the Blackfeet Nation on proud display.
“We seemed to be the only spectators from outside this intimate community, and to us it was impressive, loud, proud, joyous, solemn, and celebratory.”– Tenley Zinke, Montana volunteer
Face paint and strands of beads enhanced the impression that the regalia transformed the individual into a moving, breathing, work of art embodying a dynamism expressed in the three dimensionality of the designs.
The first night was not an easy adjustment to shared sleeping quarters with some snoring and a creaky fan, so I highly recommend for light sleepers to bring noise-cancelling earphones, a sleep mask, and even an over-the-counter or prescription sleep aid. I was grateful I did, as I wanted to reserve all my energy for everything that each day had in store.
Orientation (First Full Day)
The first full day we attended an orientation and planning session. This session allows team members to get to know each other; discuss the program, team, and individual goals; review the week itinerary; discuss skills and interests; set initial service assignments; and highlight any cultural, safety, or service concerns. These sessions are fun, informative, and the best place to ask any questions and time to get to know the Global Volunteer staff.
We woke to make breakfast and pack lunch before orientation, where we played a name game and did an exercise about what makes an effective team and decided on four team goals we wanted to achieve during the week, which where:
1) to serve and help the community under their direction
2) to be open and learn about the community and culture
3) to strengthen bonds between people
4) to grow as a human
We learned about the primary work projects of the week:
Eagle Shield: Serving Seniors/Kitchen prep and Staining fence
Blackfeet Care Center: Assisted Living
Food Distribution Program: Stocking Shelves
Man Power: Labor breaking down from the Pow Wow
Pastor Hill: Labor completing building a barn and mucking the barn
Preparing the school to reopen: culling books, arranging furniture, cleaning the floor
None of the above can possibly describe the unscripted and unplanned rewards that develop through conversations with the members of the community you work alongside and under the supervision of. There is a high level of flexibility required, as plans often change last minute. Because of the long-standing relationships in the community, our team leader always managed to quickly pivot any time there was a need, and everyone got paired with a project and even had the opportunity to experience as much variety as was available, even though there was no guarantee of that.
After orientation, we left for Browning and to meet our guide of the reservation. We learned from his vast knowledge of history, both U.S. American and Native American. He knows what is being transported by train from where, to where, and by whom. He knows about the Great Northern Railroad, the land surveyors, Lewis and Clark, and their interactions with the Indians to learn the passageways through the mountains. We saw Buffalo and entered Glacier National Park for free on his Blackfeet Nation Citizenship card, then stopped for ice cream.
“None of the above can possibly describe the unscripted and unplanned rewards that develop through conversations with the members of the community you work alongside and under the supervision of.”– Tenley Zinke, Montana volunteer
Monday to Friday Schedule
Breakfast & Morning Meeting (~8AM): Early in the week, we discussed a few special meals that the volunteers would prepare for each other, but otherwise, each person or family prepared something simple from the fridge or on the stove, and packed a bag lunch to take on the work project before the Morning Meeting run by the Team Leader.
At the team meeting, one person read a journal entry based on the previous day’s experience (the journal duty would rotate daily), and similarly one person read an inspirational Message of the Day. The Team Leader would then ask for volunteers for team jobs, such as helping clean up, taking out trash, or bringing water for the group before reviewing assignments and any special considerations for the day, including anticipating that evening’s activity.
It was especially meaningful to hear the kids’ enthusiasm for the experiences they had had on certain projects, as it helped the other kids get excited to give them a try themselves.
Service Location (~9AM-4PM): Doing your volunteer service is the majority of the day ( ~6 to 7 hours) under the leadership and alongside local people who will describe what is needed. The instructions will often be accompanied by the observation that many Global Volunteers are high achievers who want to rush to complete the task in their enthusiasm to “help” when in fact, in their rush they not only make mistakes requiring the work to be redone, but missing the most important part: to take the time to have a conversation with the local people who are often eager to share about themselves and their culture and who want to know about you, such as where you are from. There is an appreciation that you made the effort to come to the reservation to learn more about them, their life, their culture, and they are also curious to learn about you. I found many of the people who I spoke with to be very open, often funny, and very reflective about the challenges they face on the reservation, but also very proud. I noticed that while many houses needed a paint job, they were often adorned with cheerful signs like “Free Hugs and Kisses!” and “Good Cookies Galore!” which provided a valuable counterbalance to the many stories of hardship we heard from people, all of whom have stories of affliction with drug abuse, addiction, and disease in their community.
Free Time (~4PM): At the end of the workday, there is usually an hour or two of down time before dinner. The kids would regale each other with the days’ adventures and play volleyball. The adults did any number of things: nap, update journals, read. In Browning there is an excellent museum; a wonderful gallery; and stores filled with books, chotchkes, clothing, and the like, all of which are possible to see in between or after work programs if there is time.
Dinner (~5:30PM): Dinner is always a good time to get to know some of the other volunteers better – either those you have had a chance to work alongside and have clicked with, or spending time hearing from others about their experiences. The food, prepared by locals, was always very good and satisfying after the simpler, self-prepared meals earlier in the day. We were hosted for dinner in/at the homes of local people during some of the evening activities, which is even more special.
Evening (~7PM–10PM): With the exception of one evening, we had optional activities on offer every night.
The first was to participate in a traditional “sweat.” Girls and women need to wear full-length skirts or dresses and have their shoulders covered.
We started by making offerings of tobacco with requests for prayers for loved ones. In addition to being very hot and dark inside, it can also be very smoky when the pipes are passed around before the praying begins, but it is with good humor and understanding that all visitors are made aware that they can leave the lodge any moment they feel the need, so do not let these concerns prevent you from participating in this extraordinary experience.
The next night a local artist shared his story and his artwork and dance for us. We were able to buy his quillwork jewelry and drawings to take a piece of this magical place with us home, so it is a good idea to have some cash in case you have the same attachment to the person keeping these traditional artforms alive and have an appreciation for his work.
Some days you may finish your work projects early, giving you the opportunity to see a bit more of Browning and some of the people, shops, galleries, and ranches nearby, so again, it is good to be prepared and have your wallet with you.
Some other activities are planned during the day, such as visiting an herbalist, from whom we bought herbal remedies, lotions, teas, honey, and more, and learned that to be allowed to pick plants, one has to know 200 songs.
One of the highlights was to take a sunset ride at a local ranch and enjoy a campfire. When not riding, the kids entertained themselves chasing a fat pig, petting a calf, and playing horseshoes and beanbag toss.
On our last night when a young man shared his personal story particularly geared towards the kids, they responded by making a gorgeous cake with “Blackfeet” written in confectioners’ sugar for him and the community members who were available throughout the week to spend time with us. They were very happy with the gesture. They never came empty handed themselves – be it toting licorice root tea with unrefined honey, or some dried sage. It was wonderful to have the flexibility to create these moments with the ingredients that we had on hand in the kitchen.
We had our last campfire that night and laughed and told stories like old friends.
Tenley says community members are grateful to learn about volunteers’ various lifestyles, careers and life experiences.
Departure (Final Day): On our last day, we filled out some evaluation forms, and coordinated departure times based on flights for those who didn’t have their own transportation, and we said our goodbyes. A few of us have stayed in touch having formed a bond not thought possible after only a week together.
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