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Serving—and Learning from—the Blackfeet People


A “working vacation” in Montana

By Francoise Yohalem

As a Volunteer Team Leader for Global Volunteers I have, during more than 18 years, led many teams of volunteers to communities in developing countries on several continents. Together, we have cared for children at risk in Peru and Brazil, taught conversational English in South Africa, Portugal, and Vietnam, and worked on construction projects in Costa Rica. Several years ago, I had enjoyed serving on a program in the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, and this past summer I agreed to lead three consecutive one-week teams of “servant learners” to Browning, Montana, in the heart of the Blackfeet Nation. I was looking forward to working with and learning from the Blackfeet people.

Global Volunteers has had a long-standing relationship with the Tribe and, during several consecutive summers has been sending teams of volunteers to work in partnership with the Blackfeet people on community-driven service projects. Our hosts this summer were The Blackfeet Community College (BCC), the Blackfeet Head Start, Care Center, and Tribal Office.

Before my departure, I visited the excellent exhibit about the Blackfeet Indians at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. and read about their tragic history, way of life, traditions, beliefs, and crafts. I learned that the nomadic “Lords of the Great Plains” were once fierce warriors and expert horseback riders that followed buffalo herds. They lived in easily dismantled lodges (or tipis) and up to the mid 19th century—controlled a vast territory. Over the years the tribe was decimated by a series of tragedies: diseases, starvation, alcohol, and fighting with the U.S. government troops. At the same time, the original land belonging to the Blackfeet Nation kept shrinking dramatically and the current reservation in Montana consists of 1.5 million acres, located a few miles from the entrance to Glacier National Park and the Canadian border. About 8,000 tribal members now live on the reservation itself and 6,000 are in Alberta, Canada. The Montana tribe is the “Pikuni ” nation, the other three in Canada, are the “Blood” “Siksika” and “Peigan” nations.

On each Saturday I drove to Great Falls airport to meet the volunteers who were not driving and had come from all the over the United States and Canada. The drive from Great Falls to Browning is 2½ hours on an almost deserted highway and under the famous “big Montana sky,” with the dramatic silhouette of the peaks of Glacier National Park ahead, growing closer and crisper.

Browning, the center of the tribe’s administrative sovereign government and Bureau of Indian Affairs local offices, is a grayish and sad looking town, filled with social service agencies from the Federal, State, or Tribal governments. Apart from a few loose dogs (which Blackfeet have a special respect or fondness for) it feels quite safe, and the volunteers were able to walk to their work sites and visit local shops and the Museum of the Plain Indians which showcases the Lords of the Plains’ way of life and traditions, from feared warriors to accomplished craftsmen with a love for ornamentation.

Each of the three teams I led included between eight and eighteen volunteers, ranging in age from 9 to 80. Among them were a couple of families, a group of high school boys and girls, and several retired professionals. We were housed in the empty classrooms of a Head Start School. The facilities were quite adequate, and we slept on air mattresses. A cook prepared our meals in the large school kitchen, and we took turns helping and cleaning up. In the morning as we looked west we could see the peaks of Glacier Park set ablaze by the rising sun. In July the temperature was in the 70s during the day—no humidity but breezy—and the 50s at night.

At the end of each orientation weekend we went for a mini excursion into Glacier National Park, enjoying breathtaking views of majestic mountains and crystal clear lakes, all the way to the frontier with Canada where Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park has been named one of the world’s richest ecosystems. Native people have hunted and gathered plants in these mountains for thousands of years and still very much respect and revere them. (We were lucky to be able to observe a black bear foraging among the greenery along the road, one of the many native species still surviving in the park.)

Now ready for the week ahead, the volunteers in each team had bonded and were looking forward to the work week ahead. Our teams’ goals were to “serve” wherever needed, and learn more about our hosts’ history, culture, struggles, and dreams for the future.

We divided ourselves according to our interests and strengths among several work sites: Those who wanted to do physical work could remove landscaping rocks, trim bushes, and plant a vegetable garden on the campus of BCC. We also dug and built a cement patio for wheelchair access outside the Care Center. At the Care Center itself (a very well-run senior care facility), volunteers exchanged stories or played games with some of the residents. There were also opportunities to help in the kitchen and serve meals at Eagle Start (another senior center) assemble food packages for distribution, or help with some clerical work at the Head Start offices. At each site, we worked together with community people and according to their schedule.

In the evening, we enjoyed cultural programs. “Little Sam”—a six-foot, six-inch former basketball star who was our appointed gregarious guide/driver/helper/ambassador—shared many fascinating stories about his family, community, and the “Blackfeet ways.” As he described his winter hunting in deep snow, far into the mountains, the antlers of the trophy elk he killed grew larger in size with each team! Some of us accepted his special invitation to participate in a “sweats” (a spiritual sauna) near a beautiful lake. It was a powerful and moving experience. Another evening, Joe Bremner, a local business man, visited us with his son, Joseph, who attends a Blackfeet immersion school in Browning where he learns the language and culture. (The College also offers courses to encourage young people to recapture those traditional learning skills lost to acculturation, as a way or restoring culture, self-esteem, and motivation.) Joseph spoke to us in the Blackfeet language and sang and danced while his father demonstrated the tradition of “smudging” and told us stories he learned from the elders. Another night, Calvin and Pauline Weatherwax, herbalists, talked to us about their love and respect for the plants and their medicinal and spiritual value. We were also invited to the beautiful 5,000 acres ranch of the DeBoo’s family, where we rode horses in a setting made for a Western movie and enjoyed a cook-out, while watching the sun set behind the Rockies.

But if local people were generous in sharing their traditions and culture, they were also very honest in describing the dire conditions on the reservation: more than 50% of the population is unemployed, more than 50% of ninth-graders drop out of school, and there is severe alcoholism, depression and rampant obesity and diabetes. Young people feel trapped. There are no jobs on the reservation, and few succeed in building a life outside the “rez.” This leads to overwhelming feelings of resignation and desperation. While we were there, a local young man from a prominent family and father of four children died, another victim of alcohol and depression, and the whole town turned out to mourn his loss, as they had so many times before.

During our time in Browning, we were lucky to have the opportunity to participate in two special events: The Annual Blackfoot Confederacy Conference brought together the nations of Blackfeet, whose participants were allowed for the first time to set up their camp on the grounds of Glacier National Park (their land which they leased to the Federal government almost 100 years ago.) Some volunteers learned to help set up several of the 21-pole tipis, which were then decorated with special “story-telling” paintings. We felt privileged to be invited to the “blessing of the grounds” by the chiefs and to witness the ceremonial placing of the central stone of the “Wheel of Life.”

The second weekend in July we all took part in the North American Indian Days, a huge annual event bringing together more than two hundred tribes from the US and Canada. The “Grand Entry” with all the dancers in their regalia was quite a spectacle! During four days, families gathered, practiced their cultural ceremonies, shared food, and participated in dances, rodeos, and other games. As we walked around the hundreds of tipis set up there we could feel a sense of celebration and pride, and we felt very privileged to be allowed to share and learn.

Back home in my comfortable apartment, I ponder the words said by Theodore Roosevelt in a speech he made after visiting a Western reservation: “We will never understand the American Indians; we can only pretend to understand them.” After my time as a “servant learner” in Browning I certainly feel that the Indians themselves have been very generous in sharing information about their culture. I don’t want to “pretend” that I understand them, so I will return next summer to continue to serve and learn more.

* Browning, Montana
* The Blackfeet Country
* National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC

About Global Volunteers

Global Volunteers is a private nonprofit, nonsectarian international development organization based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Founded in 1984, Global Volunteers strives to wage peace throughout the world by helping to establish mutual understanding between people of diverse cultures. Global Volunteers is a NGO (non-governmental organization) in special consultative status with the United Nations.

Global Volunteers builds bridges of understanding between people of diverse cultures by involving them in one-on-one service projects. The function of “servant-learner” volunteers is to serve local people by sharing their talents with them. Volunteers do not impose outside views, recognizing that to be truly helpful, the servant-learner must fully respect the wisdom and potential of the host community.

Volunteers work only at the invitation and under the direction of local project leaders. Projects include tutoring children, teaching conversational English or business skills, renovating and painting community buildings, assisting in health care or with natural resource projects, and nurturing at-risk kids.

In 2007, Global Volunteers mobilized some 2,300 volunteers on over 185 teams to work on genuine development projects in 20 countries on six continents. More than 35 percent of these volunteers had served with us before…with some 18-team veterans!

Two- and three-week volunteer service-learning programs are scheduled throughout the year to Australia, Brazil, China, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ghana, Greece, Hungary, India, Northern Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, South Africa, Tanzania and Vietnam with one-week service-programs offered throughout the United States. The service program fee for Global Volunteers’ one- to three-week programs ranges from $795 to $2,895, excluding transportation to the site. The fee includes all meals as well as lodging and ground transportation in the host community. All costs, including airfare, are tax-deductible for U.S. taxpayers. A portion of each fee provides direct financial support for local work projects.

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