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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Chris, for telling this story and helping us keep in touch with you while you're there. It helps you seem closer. Thanks also for the photos. Wow.