Wednesday, March 14, 2012

KONY 2012

We just watched KONY 2012 with students at the dorm. It is quite strange to me to feel so connected here, on an Indian reservation in the foothills of SE Montana, where we do not have internet at our house, to a movement that is spreading throughout the rest of the world.

If you haven't seen it, watch it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Road Trip!!

We left Ashland at 4am Friday morning.

First stop: Sunrise at Devil's tower

The U.S.'s first declared National Monument; it rises 1,267 feet above the surrounding terrain and the summit is 5,112 feet above sea level.

The iPad!

Kellie and Kathryn helping Jimmy take photos...

Then we were on to Crazy Horse. This monument to the famous Lakota warrior has been under private construction since 1948. When it is finished, it will stand 641 feet wide and 563 feet high. The head of Crazy Horse will be 87 feet high; by comparison, the heads of the four U.S. Presidents at Mount Rushmore are each 60 feet high.

By the time afternoon rolled around Bryan was happy to see Mt. Rushmore and his hero, honest Abe.

The iPad is back!

How many photos does it take to get a good group shot?


Third time's the charm?

Nope, four?

Surely by number five?

Number six it is...

And seven is even better (from L-R,Jimmy, Meredith, Kristin, Kathryn, Tony, Bryan, Me and Kellie)

A spectacular monument

And on to a much needed rest in Rapid City, SD

An added bonus, here's a few photos from last weekend's retreat weekend in Great Falls...

On the way there, we checked out downtown Helena:

And Our Lady of Helena Cathedral:

The Ursuline Retreat Center is home to a school and also served as a convent:

Here's our entire group, incl. JVs from Hays, Billings, St. Xavier and Us:

On our way back, we stopped at First People's Buffalo Jump outside of GF:

Prior to the introduction of horses to the plains, 14 different tribes would travel from hundreds of miles away to harvest buffalo by driving them over the edge of a sheer cliff:

One runner wearing a buffalo calf hide would draw the lead cow towards the cliff, until they were close enough for the entire tribe to stampede them over the edge. The runner had to be agile enough to make it to the edge first and find a crevice for cover of the stampeding herd.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Colstrip, MT

A picture I took of the Colstrip power plant in all its glory. I found an interesting article in the Billings Gazette the other day. It details an EPA report that cites coal power plants as the main source of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming. The plant in Colstrip (30 minutes from Ashland) is number eight on the list. It's a source of cheap power and is the main economic source of jobs in the community. Colstrip was named the top sports town in Montana as part of Sports Illustrated Magazine's 50th anniversary. Coincidence? I don't think so. Colstrip is a thriving community in an otherwise economically depressed part of the state, where ranching remains king. Coal has been found on the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations, could possibly be a significant source of jobs. However, mining would forever change the landscape of the country. There are no easy solutions, US energy independence, global warming, jobs-its all tied up together, right here in the heart of Montana.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas

May God's love be with you and your family on this Holy Night

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Photo blog

This is a photo of all of my housemates from the beginning of the year.

I've included a link to one of my housemates' blogs below. It has some great photos from our time here.

Jimmy Le works in the Middle School Academy and just finished up his first season of coaching wrestling.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Story

This is a short story. It’s also a true story. I call it a short story because it is a glimpse into the lives of the students here at St. Labre, specifically one student named James. While it is his unique experience, it also adds real insight to the larger issues many kids face on the reservation. James lived in the group home when he was younger.
Two of my housemates work in Shiloh, the group home, this year. They work, play and mentor the six elementary aged children currently living there. These are kids whose parents have lost custody or, in some cases, voluntarily bring their kids to stay at the home because of their own parenting challenges. Just two weeks ago, a mother brought her son to Shiloh with a mixed explanation of his unruly behavior and her own lack of parenting skills. She told him that when his behavior improved he could return home. Her son could not control his temper, often violently reacted to the other kids in the group home and as a result, he was not allowed to play with the other kids, and vice versa. His mom missed a scheduled appointment to drop off his things at Shiloh, only to return a week later to pick him on short notice and bring him home. Grandma and grandpa had convinced her that the little boy belonged at home. The administrators and counselors who run Shiloh had no control because she had retained custody throughout the entire affair.
While returning home was hard for the little boy (he cried, hid in the corner, not wanting to leave), it was also hard for the other kids living there. They had no home to return to and no mother or father to pick them up. This is part of the reality they face.
This year was James’ first back at St. Labre. Living according to the expectations at the dorm was difficult because he had experience many different home environments, including stints in jail. At first, he refused to respond to attendants requests for him to do his chores and make his bed, but slowly he came around. At first, he refused to do any homework in study hall, but then he slowly began to work, even if only in certain subjects. His behavior began to improve and it seemed the dorms were having a positive impact on him. Suddenly, he was gone from school for a week. After ten to fifteen unexcused absences from school students may be dismissed from St. Labre and James was asked to leave. It turns out the week he missed was spent in jail. I don’t know why he went to jail and I don’t know where he was headed after St. Labre. Most likely it will be one of the high schools on the reservation. While St. Labre isn’t perfect, it’s supposedly a much better institution than many of the other schools in the area. I will probably never see or hear from him again and I doubt his future will be easy. Before he left, he was given a heavy winter coat. He didn’t have anything thicker than a t-shirt to wear. This past week, it reached 3 degrees outside.
Last week, I chaperoned a wrestling match for the middle school. At the end of the night, we dropped many of the kids off at their homes. The final kid, Chris, we dropped off at a bar in Ashland. His grandmother worked inside and would take him home after her shift was over. He told me sometimes his family would not eat dinner until 11pm because his grandfather was drunk all the time, so his grandmother would have to work at the bar, and his uncle wouldn’t come home from work until 11 and then he would make dinner. Chris will probably come live in the dorm this next week. There are 70 other students who live at the dorm. Some may have stories and backgrounds similar to his. Some may not.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A typical day in the life of an Ashland JV...

It’s funny to me to think that even though I’ve been here for two months now and have tried to blog steadily over the last few weeks, you probably have no idea what I do or how my life looks. So far, I’ve written about the things that stand out to me and the unique experiences I have had. Of course, my whole year here in Ashland, working as a Jesuit Volunteer, is a unique experience. So, now that I have had a chance to settle into my placement and my work schedule, let me describe a typical day (of course, remember no two days are alike) in my life as a JV working in the dorms.

8:30AM - 12:00PM: I wake up
Earlier in the year I was doing a lot of overnight shifts in the Middle School wing because St. Labre had not yet hired an overnight attendant. When the Dorm quickly filled to near-capacity at 78 students, my supervisor could justify the need for an additional staff member on payroll. But until that attendant came on board, the rest of us were sharing the load and I regularly worked 1 to 2 nights a week for a month or so.
This involved getting the dorm residents to bed at a reasonable hour (its lights out at 10:15) and making sure they don’t stay up late talking, listening to their iPods or fooling around and then getting them up early the next morning (usually 6:15AM, but sometimes 5:30AM if a student “needs” to do laundry because they have run out of clean clothing. There is one particular student who has made this early morning task a routine- I think it is more his desire not to waste his afternoon free time than out of a real lack of clean clothes.) and making sure they do their chore.
While working the additional time gave me an extra opportunity to get to know the kids, it also really disrupted my sleep cycle, and thankfully that time is over. Whereas before, I might get 4-5 hours of sleep at the Dorm plus a few more back at home just in time to wake up at noon to get ready to go back to the Dorms, I am now getting a comfortable 8-9 hours of sleep every night.

10:00AM - 3:00PM: Feeding and reading, blogging, logging, running and funning (I made that up-it means to have fun), preening, cleaning, lounging and scrounging, and much more…
Working the afternoon shift is foreign to me; my day starts afterschool when all the Dorm students return from school, so my mornings are open for however I choose to fill them. After 4 years of working hard and “never having the time” to read for pleasure, I have thoroughly enjoyed creating a big stack of books and making my way through their pages. I’ve been able to read a number of Sherman Alexie books that have really enlightened my experiences and broadened my perspective on the experiences of Indians living on reservations. I’ve also read a great book about Custer, Crazy Horse and the circumstances that led to the creation of the reservations (check out the side bar!), plus a number of purely pleasure reads: Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Stilmarillion (the first Tolkien precursor to LOTR), Tattoos on the Heart, In the Shadow of Denali, The Amateurs (about four Olympic rower hopefuls) and I have a sizable stack waiting to be read. It really has been a pleasure to have the time to sit down and read, something that is quite a luxury.
After a few weeks, though, these pleasant mornings became too routine for me and I found myself wanting a little more fulfillment in my day. So, I began to seek out other things to do, both around the house and in the community. As we just moved into this house this year, it has been nice to have some time to clean up the year and garage and throw out some junk. On the one hand, I feel that having less clutter around the house makes for a simpler life where you can enjoy the things you do have, and personally, cleaning releases my own mental burdens.
On the other hand, however, the house was filled with a lot of garbage and broken items that cannot be reused. (We have given much away to the St. Labre Clothing Room, where things are recycled in the community for 25 cents apiece! It’s a great place to find cheap clothes that in pretty good shape.) In a rural community where recycling is not available, I know much of this will go to the landfill. This saddens me and causes me to reflect on the consequences of our material culture. Our society is built on this notion that the more things we have, the happier we will be. Instead, I think this mindset leads to stress and clutter-filled lives that damage our relationships with other people and with God. I believe it is the relationships with those close to us that give us real, long-lasting fulfillment.
Besides, the more things you have, the less time you have to use them and enjoy them! I also think it highlights the importance of following the 3 R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle. Many times, we just think to recycle, but if we first reduce our use of the Earth’s resources and our consumption we will not have to recycle or trash as much later. Then, we should try to reuse what we can, and lastly recycle the things that can be streamed back into production. Ok, enough of my ranting…
I’ve also tried to broaden my outreach in the community and have found real joy in those experiences. I have particularly enjoyed going to mass with the kids every other week at the school, less for the spiritual fulfillment (I find the Sunday mass and sweats are very enriching) and more to spend time with the kids outside of my normal role in the dorms. It is important to me to show the students and the community that I am really invested in Ashland and St. Labre and that I care about what is going on here, whether at the school, in town, or at the Heritage Living Center.
A few weeks ago, I spent a really nice Friday with Richard Tallbull. He took me into Lame Deer, showed me around the town, the fully accredited, two year Chief Dull Knife College and much of the local history and culture. We capped it off with a meal at the local casino. Whatever your views on gambling, for better or worse, the casino is a part of the community fabric here on the reservation. While we did not gamble, I appreciated Richard taking me out to eat. Various opportunities have come up to spend time with other members of the community, having lunch, helping with yard work or bigger projects. I really enjoy using my hands and working outside, so it has been doubly nice to help out in the community this way.
I also hope to start subbing in the school soon. Many of you know that Medical School is one possible destination for me, and I do plan to study for and take the MCATs this winter when we become more confined to our home. However, I find my working with the kids to be very fulfilling. I really enjoy hanging out with the kids and building relationships with them-whether that is on the basketball court, talking about their day, through some activity on a JV night, or even working through homework in study hall. I enjoy encouraging these kids, giving them advice, even redirecting them when they might need help. I see myself as a mentor, an older brother figure.
When we first arrived two of the dorm attendants took me aside and told me the kids don’t need another friend, they need someone to look up to. I can really relate to this-I’ve had numerous individuals (siblings, coaches, teachers, mentors) throughout my life that have helped me become the person I am today. During this year, I am trying to give these kids what I have received from others. And, I see education as a possible way to do this in the long run, and something that I may really enjoy (coaching too!). For now, while Medicine is still on the horizon, Education is another route I could see myself taking, and I thinking subbing here at St. Labre is a great place to start.

3:15PM - 9:30PM: Work; staff meeting, study hall, dinner, additional study hall, gym time, pool and ping pong, JV nights, Coffee Talk and just hanging out…
Every work day starts with a staff meeting at 3:15 and the students show up around 4:00 after school gets out. The first part of the afternoon is routine-study hall for most students (dependent on their GPA) where Kathryn (the other Dorm JV) and I tutor and offer homework help, followed by dinner at 5:30. After that, some kids may have another study hour (or athletes who missed the first study hall may have one) while other kids get free time. This might be filled with TV, pool or ping pong at the dorms but most often kids head to the school gym where they can play basketball.
Everyone tells us that “Basketball is King here.” It certainly reflects in how time the kids spend on the court and it will be very interesting come basketball season. Apparently schools even schedule days off around tournaments so players and fans can more easily travel. It’s been fun to get involved in some basketball games. It’s a fast-break game and seeing as I only played a few years of organized ball in elementary school I find myself pushed. But, I enjoy the challenge-it gives me one more thing to focus on improving while I’m here and it’s still fun just to be on the court.
Some nights, Kathryn and I organize “JV Nights.” These might simply be a night filled with organized games or other times we discuss more serious issues, like the power of words or relating to members of the opposite sex. This topic we covered at a Coffee House night, where we brought a ton of snacks and then we gave the kids turns to ask members of the opposite sex a question while we moderated.
Over the course of this year I hope to help build community in the Dorm. Part of this comes from putting on game nights for everyone to hang out together and spend time together in a fun, but relaxed setting. I think it’s in these settings where kids are more likely to hang out with other kids who don’t share their same interests. I see the other part of my role as a person who will listen to these kids. They have a lot of intense and complicated experiences to share, and they often don’t have an outlet for processing those experiences. Kathryn and I are working to create an environment where these kids feel comfortable to share.

9:30PM - 12:00PM
After our night is over at the Dorms, we head back to the house. Towards the beginning of the year we made the mile and a half journey walk back to Tall White Man, but lately it has gotten very cold, so we are driving now. One of the hardest parts about the JV experience in Ashland, is that all of my housemates have such different schedules. Two JVs work at the school on a normal 9-5 shift, while four of us work afterschool and the seventh works three 12 hour shifts and a 4 hour shift. This makes time together as a community rare, and the late evening hours are some of the only ones we have together.
Often, we sit around and talk about our days, though sometimes we have an organized spirituality night that one person will lead. The 4 JVC values are: community, simplicity, social justice and spirituality. So, as part of this shared commitment, we discuss topics ranging from gratitude to faith journeys to food justice and more…

I hope this wasn’t too much of a boring, drawn out description. I just wanted to give you a better picture of my life as an Ashland JV.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


I know some of my posts are really long and drawn out, which might make for boring reading. It’s difficult because so much goes on and I am not articulate enough sometimes to clearly state my thoughts or I just haven’t had enough time removed from the topic to reflect enough.

For this posting I wanted to share just one thing I learned at Mission Quest, a St. Labre-wide training on Monday. We had a speaker come in to talk about 2 of the Labre values, respect and excellence, and he caused me to think about a listening in a different way. I will not underestimate the reader enough to think that you haven’t already heard of ‘emphatic listening’ but there is a chance you are like me and you might find this classification of listening novel and thought-provoking.

I have learned about the difference between passive listening (not talking while others talk) and active listening (verbal and non-verbal clues that show you understand the speaker). Mission Quest added a new ‘level’ of listening to my model: emphatic listening, “giving of verbal and non-verbal messages that suggest you understand how the speaker feels.” I think I had tried to do this in the past, though I never classified it as such. I always just thought of myself as listening and trying to relate. According to our handout, emphatic listening includes the following actions: verifying feelings-not just facts, being positive and supportive about how they feel, avoiding judgment and critical feedback, providing empathic feedback that suggests similar feelings, hypothesizing around the idea that you would feel similarly, building rapport and common ground around their feelings, and continuing to listen until they feel heard.

I have picked a few tips from examples of good listeners in my own life that I think fall under emphatic listening. Two examples: one of my good friends who is also a mentor in my life will often nod or verbally cue that he is listening to what someone is saying to him, showing that he thinks it may be interesting or important. I regard this person I quite an authority on listening because I have found that he is often able to extract the feelings, emotion or underlying message when I cannot process what I am trying to personally express.

Another tip I picked up on at JVC NW orientation is called the “Jedi Mind Trick.” It was suggested as a method of handling interpersonal conflict in our communities. It looks like this: If someone is talking to you, an effective way of showing them that you are listening to what they are saying and also hearing it (or understanding it), you repeat back to them what they say. For example, if one of my housemates tells me my habit of leaving moldy leftovers in the fridge is disturbing and they would like me to stop, then I repeat back to them, “What I hear you saying is that I leave leftovers in the fridge to mold and it disturbs you.” Just like that. Very simple and yet it communicates that you are indeed listening to what they are telling you.

I think these are both very good listening skills that really work. You should try them! The JVC tip comes from a husband who says it apparently works very well when his wife gets upset.

I do not however, completely agree with the entire list of exemplary emphatic listening offered above. I think sometimes it is not appropriate to suggest we can understand how someone feels or that we feel the same way. In fact, I think that in some situations we may never be able to relate to someone’s personal experiences. For example, there are some ways I will never be able to empathize with a woman or with a Native American. It is a simple matter of fact that we face different realities. This does not mean that I cannot listen, I can certainly do that. But, in order to listen more completely and unhindered by a misguided attempt to empathize, I should just hear what they have to say.


Fall is truly here. Friday was the first rainy day we have had since we’ve been here. Throughout the summer we had a few thunderstorms; dark clouds rolled in announced by thunderous cracks followed by flashing bursts of light. Heavy rain might shower down for 15 minutes or so but never any longer than 30 minutes. In contrast, the Friday sky was grey and cloudy all day and reminded me of the beautiful fall weather back home that makes you want to curl up by a fire with a good book and a cup of hot chocolate.

After a few hours of training at school (we’ve been learning self-defense and use of force to defuse violent situations by a former cop. I thought it was going to be a class that would teach us methods of de-escalation (i.e. non-violent forms like mediation) to defuse tension, which in my perspective would have been more helpful. Instead the course was geared towards those situations you avoid where a student resorts to violence. At times this may happen, and has happened to various degrees, in the school here. Remember, these kids come from damaged homes where physical violence or at least verbal abuse is common. Often, our students may not learn the healthy forms of self expression we all take for granted. In some ways, this class was a direct consequence of Columbine, and the factors that contributed. In that sense, it is important. Also, knives and guns are very common in the rural Montana culture because the majority of people hunt-and usually to put food on the table. I am not trying to make a moral judgment of that culture in any way. However, I think the majority of our time and effort, including our training, should focus on what we do during 99.9% of our work hours, if not 100% of the time on the job: Creating an environment where kids learn healthy, non-violent ways to deal with intra- and inter-personal conflict, stress, and emotion. We need to set our students up to make the good decision, so they do not feel they have to resort to a situation where violence is necessary.) Anyways, enough about that… So once again, we journeyed to Billings to run errands, shop for groceries and to pick up Meredith’s Mom, Diane, and her friend, Carol, for the weekend. The entire time it drizzled and we had a cozy drive in to town.

On Sunday, we went trail riding for a few hours. I had so much fun-it was one of the best things we’ve done so far, and I could not get over how beautiful the country is-the Cottonwood leaves were dressed in their Autumn best-shades of orange, yellow, red, green and brown, and the green pines stood out against the golden wild grasses. We climbed a bluff West of the school to a beautiful lookout where you could see both valleys stretching out below. To our East you could make out the Tongue River, snaking its way below, lined with blooming Cotton woods, and to the West the golden valley floor stretched for miles and miles until it reached a “mountain range” in the distance (the mountains in SE Montana rise like the foothills in Washington). My horse, named Max, was a little antsy, so when I first got on he was a littler ornery and didn’t want to listen to directions. He trotted off in all different directions and I had to really rein him in. But, this just got my blood pumping and made the experience a little more fun. Most of my housemates had never ridden before, though one of them is a pretty experienced rider. She and I would hold back occasionally, giving our horses plenty of space to take off and trot or lope for a bit. It tried our horses’ patience, but I hope they also had fun getting a little speed. We both also offered to help out around the rancher’s place, take care of his horses, and even ride them (hint, hint… ;) ) if need be. He thought he could find some work for us, so hopefully there will be more riding in the future!

Richard Tallbull took us to Medicine Rock on Saturday and also coordinated the trail riding the following day. Richard is a Southern Cheyenne Indian who was born and raised in Oklahoma by white parents and Indian grandparents. As such, he did not really learn about Cheyenne culture until he moved out to Montana and the Northern Cheyenne reservation. Since then, he has learned the language, culture and history of the Cheyenne people. Medicine Rock is the site of numerous pictographs, pictures and symbols left behind by Indians who lived near here or passed through the area. Richard showed us all number of animals: elk, deer, bear, turtles and lizards, human people, teepees, medicine bags and other symbols. The tribal identities of human figures are differentiated so that Cheyenne are distinct from Arapahos, women are distinguished from men, and holy men from warriors. One of the more “famous” pictographs on Medicine rock is the depiction of a vision Sitting Bull had at a Sun Dance ceremony before the Battle of Little Bighorn: “Soldiers and some Indians on horseback coming down like grasshoppers, with their heads down and their hats falling off. They were falling right into [their] camp.” Sitting Bull interpreted this as a sign of success in the ensuing Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s Last Stand.

Richard has also invited us to participate in sweats in the local community. Sweat lodges have been used in numerous cultures throughout history. When I traveled in the NW highlands of Guatemala two summers ago, I saw concrete and earthen sweat lodges used by the indigenous people. In contrast to the Plains Indians, it is my understanding that the Guatemalan people use their lodges to relieve pain, hitting themselves with reeds in sore areas. The sweat lodges of the Native American people are places of prayer, chapels of God’s creation close to Mother Earth.

Richard estimated that sweats have been around since the 16th century. The lodges, where the sweats take place, are round domes made of willow branches lashed together and covered with some type of insulated material. Historically, sweats were only used by medicine men; these ceremonial sweats, as Richard calls them are much smaller, fitting only a few men. They are still in use today, “off in the hills” for certain ceremonial purposes. Often, these spiritual men pray for the tribe or the needs of certain individuals. With time the modern co-ed sweat evolved for warriors who desired a place to pray before heading out on a war party. The young man’s sweat, as Richard commonly refers to it, is much larger (fitting 12-15 individuals if everyone slides in together) and is a place for all to pray: men, women, young old, Indian, white and everyone in between. It has been a very special privilege for me to attend the sweat that Ernie and Mary Jane Robinson put on every Sunday. Mary Jane is a teacher at St. Labre and Ernie works at the Cheyenne tribal housing authority.

Historically, sweat lodges were covered with buckskin. The Robinson’s sweat lodge is covered by large blankets and comforters and the dirt ground is lined with carpet. Everyone sits around the edge of a three foot pit that is dug in the center. The hosts of the sweat sit near the front door that faces to the East and the women sit on the Southern side. Going around the circle, the men sit on the Northern side, and any holy men sit on the other side of the Eastern door, along with the rock man. The rock man uses a pitchfork to gather large lava rocks that have been heated for a few hours in the fire and brings them in the center pit before each of the four ‘rounds.’ The rocks are called the Grandfathers, because they are so old, too old to really know their age, born long before any of us. Ernie reminds us that they will also live long after us, part of the Maheyote’s (God) creation. Each of the four parts of the circle (the hosts, the women, the men, the holy men and rock man) takes a round to pray. One may thank and pray for the host, the rock man, those who helped to prepare the sweat (chopping wood, gathering rocks, etc.) or prepared food for the potluck afterwards. One may also pray for their own needs and special intentions.

I have found this experience to be so special. Whatever is said at the sweat remains in that circle, and MJ often reminds us that the rocks are so old that they have experienced more than anything we will tell them and so we should not have fear. A deep sense of community is created as people bring their vulnerable selves-sharing their needs and brokenness, as much or little of their humanness as they choose to. Cedar is sprinkled on the rocks, emitting a fragrant smoke for everyone to bless themselves and the doors are pulled shut, sending everyone into complete darkness. The men lead the prayer songs, shaking a gourd to keep time and singing in their native language as the women sing along, while members of the circle give their pray aloud, or in silence, whatever they desire.

The heat reaches higher than any sauna I have ever been into. We estimated the temperature from 125-130ยบ. (On a side note: I know you’re probably thinking, “Is this safe?” This is spiritual practice that has been around for hundreds of years. In fact, it is believed the Native people even used sweating as a form of medicine; I read somewhere that bacteria and viruses cannot survive at a temperature much higher than our internal body temp. The organic ingenuity, the practice of sustainable practices (like the respect for Salmon that causes Indian to return the filleted body to the streams, enriching the forest and stream beds with important nutrients) or medical knowledge they have accumulated, of Native cultures continues to astound me.

Richard has often reminded me to pay attention to what we are here for in the sweat, to our prayers and to whom we are praying to, God. I have found this focus on my prayers or the music helps to make the heat more bearable during the 6-10 minute round. My first time in the dark and music of the sweat was a surreal, almost psychedelic experience. The stark contrast of complete darkness shocked my body as I began to feel the extreme heat waves flow over my body. Then, the music began; songs that sounded as if they had been around from the beginning of creation, in a language that was as organic as the rocks in the center of the pit, the gourd shaking moving these prayers out of our bodies as the sweat ran down our skin. I found my head starting to spin from the sensory overload and I had to close my eyes (most of the time now I sweat with my eyes closed), and focus on the rhythm of the music so I would not pass out. The heat feels much less harsh after 3 weeks of sweating and in a way, is therapeutic. Every sweat is different. Sometimes the rounds are longer, sometimes the heat is more intense as an entire bucket of water is poured over the rocks. Richard tells me that for him, certain sweats may be draining if not everyone is singing and he feels like he has to sustain the entire circle for four rounds. I can very much see how that could be, and am very grateful for those who sustain the sweats-Richard, MJ and Ernie- though for me (and this is part of why I am so grateful), every sweat rejuvenates me and heals me. They say the sweat exiting our pores is the poison and bad spirits leaving our body and soul. I find this to be very true, similar to how a good run or workout can rejuvenate you mentally and emotionally, though I do not diminish the spiritual importance of the sweat.

Again, I just have to say how grateful I am for the invitation to this community-the sweats, the culture, the lives of this people.

Monday, October 3, 2011

First Impressions

October 3, 2011

I know I’ve been since August 14th (50 days already), so this blog doesn’t exactly capture my first impression of Ashland, but the additional time since I’ve arrived has given me a better perspective. The one thing that stood out to me during the first two weeks of our stay was the hospitality, kindness and welcoming of everyone here in Ashland. We have multiple communities, the St. Labre school community (made up of the students, teachers and parents), the St. Labre Mission church community (these families often overlap with the teachers, but also include other members of the community that we don’t typically interact with during a school day), the Ashland town community (folks we normally see when we go “uptown” for various errands, and the Indian communities on the reservation.

Just a quick note as to political correctness of the terms “Indian” and its counterpart, Native American: Most of those living on the reservation refer to themselves as Indian, though Native American is also used. I will use both terms interchangeably while I blog. Other tribes in the U.S. may not embrace the same language as the people here on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Indian reservations. Interestingly, the Canadian tribes have come together and identified themselves as the First Nations or First Peoples.

Back to Montana: Montana hospitality stands out. Many individuals made an effort to introduce themselves following our arrival. Everyone is interested to hear where we are from, and an especially interesting question is: “Why did you come to Ashland?” (many people point out that they would not choose to come to Ashland over other locations and want to know what we think of their home. As for me, my journey to Ashland was a result of both my choice and placement by JVC Northwest. It was an interesting process, that I’ll cover in more detail later. What I think of Ashland? Beautiful, rugged country. Isolated, definitely, but a great place to be for a year.) We are very lucky to also have numerous individuals that make up our support team, some fill a formal role while others are just great neighbors.

The Sisolaks are one of our main support families. Ed teaches high school Math at St. Labre, while Luz works part time at the Heritage Assisted Living Center. (2 JV’s work at the school, 1 in the middle and 1 in the high school, 2 work at the group home on the St. Labre campus and 2 of us work at the dorms after school, while 1 of my housemates works at Heritage). They have 3 children, Joshua, Jacob and Sara, who all go to St. Labre. Ed and Luz met in the Philippines where both were working for Maryknoll. They meet with us at least once a month to guide conversation on various topics that are central to a JVC year (spirituality, solidarity, community, etc), and have also invited us over for dinner, bon fires, etc. Tony Uceda is one of our main contacts at St. Labre. He makes sure all of our logistical needs are met and also invites us out when we need to get away. We spent this past weekend in the sleepy town of Story, Wyoming (pop. 828, so still bigger than Ashland) at a cabin he has access to. Mike and Karen Scott are members of the St. Labre parish community and dropped off food for us on multiple occasions after visiting Costco in Billings, lent us their fishing gear and generally look after us.

There are many other individuals I won’t name here, but who have also played a role in our experience thus far. I know they will come up later.

One of the defining experiences in our first few weeks was an invitation to Crow Fair. Crow Fair is the largest powwow in the US and is appropriately nicknamed, “Teepee Capitol of the World.” We were invited to stay in the camps of Ivan Small, the St. Labre Director of Schools, Linda Brien, the Middle School Academy principal and Garla (her last name is escaping me), the principal at the St. Xavier Pretty Eagle school. Families camp in the same sites every year, until the group gets too large and they have to split up to find a new site, so it the gift of a camp to stay in was very considerate. Moreover, we fed heartily and included in the weekends’ events. We watched Ivan and his family perform in the rodeo, and sat with Linda as her grandchildren rode by in the parade. Each day, notched full of events, started with a parade of Native handiwork and art. Most individuals rode by on horse, dressed in full regalia-beautiful beading, tailoring and artistry for both rider and horse, though some also rode on “floats,” their pick-up trucks dressed with blankets, furs and animal skulls, great antlers or horns protruding from the bone. A few hours after the parade, Grand Entry would commence and more than a hundred dancers (all who would dance that day), again in beautiful garb, would process into the Dance Arbor. Grand Entry was led by a military Color Guard. Indian people value military service very deeply; and respect veterans at many public ceremonies. I think this is very interesting, both as a reflection of their culture and also in light of the history of United States governmental oppression of Native peoples. After Grand Entry, dancing would begin and continue until past midnight. People started to camp early in the week, Monday or Tuesday and the weekend’s events began on Friday. Every day got bigger and bigger, culminating in Monday’s celebration of native culture and the addition of many Crow-specific ceremonies. Some religious ceremonies and the tribal council voting followed the weekend’s festivities. We stayed at the powwow from Friday morning until Saturday night.

It was an experience unlike any I’ve ever had. I don’t know if I have witnessed a celebration of culture quite like this, with the number of people there, the beautiful garb, individually beaded and decorated, and the setting of the tipis on the prairie landscape. Not to mention the great food-fry bread and buffalo stew! The element that made the biggest impression on me was the intimacy of it all: staying in camp, playing with the kids and swimming in the Little Bighorn river, buying pie and ice cream for lunch from the Amish stand at the rodeo (because Meredith and I missed lunch while we were moving the car) :(, walking through the stables and petting the horses, standing an arm’s length away from the drum circles, so close that I could feel the music resonate off my chest. The pictures only capture one part of the experience, but hopefully they will bring this weekend to life for you, as Crow Fair brought native culture to life for me.

Our discussions this past weekend, when we met with the Sisolaks, centered on how we shared our stories with our friends and family back home. Something proposed to our group was that the people here did not share their culture with us just for our direct benefit, but also in hope that we would share the beauty of their culture with the world. That assumption emphasizes a greater privilege in my experience here and also places an even greater responsibility on my shoulders to share the unique experiences I have throughout this year.

Just two weeks ago, Native American Day was celebrated across the country. In the days leading up to that Friday, St. Labre held Native American week, where they invited a number of guest speakers and elders on to campus to educate their students about the ways of Indian life. I was able to attend a number of classes, including ethnobotany (the cultural and medicinal use of plants), knife sheath making, meat cutting and drying, and cooking. In my cooking class, I learned to make fry bread and choke cherry (a small, tart cherry that grows on large shrubs usually by creeks and streambeds). Fry bread is a relatively new part of Native American life, as are many other facets of their culture I ignorantly assumed have always been so. Fry bread began when Indians were moved onto reservations and received large quantities of flour and oil in the distribution of commodity goods by the Indian agencies. They learned to make an extremely delicious, but unhealthy food: just as it sounds, sweet dough deep fried in oil. The use of horses by Indians on the Great Plains is also a moderately new development, introduced to North America by Spanish explorers to the New World. Even the beautiful bead work exhibited on many buckskin clothing, moccasins and other garb is a result of the influence of the white man. Traders offered beads, whiskey and other white goods for the beautiful and highly sought after goods that the Natives could provide. Most clothing worn at powwows today are no longer made of buckskin, as the process takes too much time and energy. Instead, dresses are made from cloth. Teepees, for example, are no longer made from buckskin, and have not for years. Instead they are made of canvas. Much of the regalia displays the influence of outside forces on Native life. Patterns and styles that once identified certain tribes have meshed together, and cheaper, manufactured goods are now used. So, the culture lives on, but it continuously changes and evolves, as do all cultures, with the forces of time. Now, even globalization plays a hand. The elk teeth that once covered traditional Crow elk teeth dresses have been replaced by manufactured plastic elk teeth, probably made in China.

I do not think it is appropriate to label this change with the judgmental terms of “good” or “bad.” Sometimes, it is out of necessity that these changes are made, so that the culture may live on. For example, sweats or prayer lodges (I will dedicate an entire post to talk about these later), were original a place only for the prayers of ceremonial men. Now, however, sweats are built to accommodate “lay” men and women, so that they may also pray and engage their heritage. Even, white men, outsiders and symbols of historical oppression, are invited to sweats. I have been to two now. It will be difficult for me to express the gratitude I feel to be invited to such a special place and into such a special ceremony with such kindness. I can only say it is a blessing and grace.