It was the spring of 1805 when Lewis and Clark passed through Montana. They discovered a Blackfeet Tribe that was proud, rich in heritage, and self-sufficient. The Blackfeet were nomads that followed the buffalo around the plains. The buffalo supplied everything they needed: housing, clothing, and food.
The Blackfeet and the white man co-existed for 60 years until after the Civil War. Then, in one of the most disgusting programs ever implemented in Washington D.C., The Blackfeet and all other Indian tribes in the west were intentionally killed, their land taken, their religion and culture de-emphasized in favor of that of the white man; and intentionally forced into subservience and dependence.
For the Blackfeet this was done through the intentional introduction of blankets infested with yellow fever, which decimated the population and the systematic killing of the buffalo. With no means to feed, cloth or shelter themselves they became dependent on the government to keep them alive by 1885.
Today, what I have observed is a Blackfeet Tribe that remains proud and rich in heritage, but they remain dependent on the government and Tribe. With land that cannot be planted and is only marginal for ranching, it is difficult to envision a way for them to step up and become self-sufficient again. Let’s hope that wind turbines or oil or something else will come their way in this generation, so that the 80+ % unemployment rate can be addressed. I do get the sense that most Blackfeet want to work, but there are simply too few opportunities.
So, enough with history! But I do think that this historical summary is a great backdrop for understanding what this Global Volunteer team experienced this week. Yes, we can be critical of the trash that is everywhere, the difficult living conditions, the lax commitment to work and getting places on time that the Blackfeet Community exhibit. But this is superficial and would miss the bigger point. The Blackfeet remain a proud people and remain rich in heritage and culture. Without exception I have found them to be friendly, open and welcoming. I have learned about them as people and their culture as much as could be learned in a week- and it has been extremely educational and satisfying for me. I leave with a very warm feeling for the Blackfeet and appreciate everything they have shared with me during my brief visit.
Friday morning I woke with the sunrise as I have done every day this week. I watched 30 minutes of news on CNN and enjoyed an hour of peaceful reading time. We have our typical breakfast of cereal and fruit and received our work assignments for the day. Danny and Terri would continue their work on five signs for other Head Start facilities, Brian and I would once again help Wilbert with his gardens, and Marisa would help Smokey in the maintenance shop at BCC.
But, once again proving that flexibility and patience are required traits on the Blackfeet Reservation, everything changed. Apparently, the $550/a person checks handed out Thursday reduced the need for some to work on Friday. Checking in with Wilbert we discovered that his workers would not be reporting so Brian and I would not be needed. No problem, we’d just join Marisa and help Smokey at BCC. We drove to the maintenance shop to be greeted by Smokey and the news that neither of his crew had reported to work this morning either; so he also did not need help.
After taking a very interesting tour of BCC’s new energy efficient science building, we returned to the head Start building looking for work. We minimally helped Danny and Terri for a while Joe lined up alternatives. Brian and Marisa went to build a recycling bin out of old wood pallets (a true engineering feat-good thing Marisa was assigned) and I would accompany Bill to Cut Bank to buy paint for the signs that Danny and Terri were working on. After determining that Bill had left without me, I searched for some doors that needed sanding. The paint arrived and Danny and Terri set out to complete at least one of the five signs they were working on while the rest of us cleaned up the Head Start building for the next Global Volunteer Group. Not the most satisfying day of work for me personally, but I do want to compliment Terri and Danny for doing a fantastic job on the signs.
At 4 we hopped into the van to head out to a 5000-acre ranch for horseback riding. What an experience! The weather was sunny and perfect and the host family was fun and welcoming. A few in our team were a bit tentative about riding horses but we all soon realized that these horses were well trained, gentle and responsive to our commands. Chuck, our trail leader, was fantastic. We rode up to a rock formation, which was fascinating in itself, but also gave us an expansive view of Montana’s rolling hills, lakes, and streams. The mountains stood majestically in the background. It wasn’t possible to capture beauty on camera, but we all tried anyway. We returned to a delicious meal of burgers from beef raised on the ranch, fruit salad, chips, and cake. Afterwards we gathered around the campfire to tell stories and snuggle with the eight puppies that couldn’t have been cuter. The best $60 I ever spent.
We returned to the Head Start building around 11 and quickly headed to bed- like usual we were all very tired. This was different than other nights however; as there was a bit of sorrow in knowing we had to leave in the morning. The experience has been so fulfilling, interesting, and rewarding that I do not want it to end. But, like they say, all good things have to come to an end! So, we’ll all head back to our busy lives after spending a week with a bunch of strangers that formed into a fantastic team. I really enjoyed everyone; Danny and Terri from California, Marisa from New Hampshire and our team leader Joe. We all leave as newly found friends and with the common memories of a fulfilling and fun week on the Blackfeet Reservation.
Build on this experience to make the world a better place for everyone!