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.