Last summer, my family and I volunteered for a week at the Blackfeet Indian reservation in Browning, Montana. The reservation is very isolated; the closest big town is Great Falls, about 50 miles away. We stayed in a church on the reservation with about twenty other volunteers. Each volunteer was assigned to a week-long task. I worked at the senior center, setting up for and serving lunch, and my husband helped construct a building for a youth group. My 20-year-old daughter worked at a facility run by child protective services for children who were removed from their homes for various reasons.
The people living on the reservation wanted us to call them Indians not Native Americans because "Native Americans live in the cities, but Indians live on the reservation." One night they invited us to a sweat lodge ceremony. The Indians were so generous and welcoming in including us in this ritual. Some people didn't go, and one woman left because of the intense heat and crowding, but the three of us and a few other volunteers stayed. It was completely dark and crowded in the tent. The leader periodically splashed hot stones with water that sizzled and produced steam. The chanting was multileveled. While most of the Indians sang out the main refrain in their native language, another one uttered a low, resonant prayer out of time with the beat of the first one. They intermittently prayed to the creator and conducted healings for a white woman with cancer and for a native woman. I'm sure we witnessed only the outer trappings of the ceremony and were not privy to the underlying meaning of the event. After it was over, the leader invited us to his house for soup and bread.
Below is a write up of one of my work days that I had to read aloud one night. “Sylvia” is the native woman who runs the kitchen at the senior center where I worked, but I’ve changed her name and those of others to protect their privacy.
Wednesday was an easy day because Sylvia planned make-it-yourself subway sandwiches and because fewer seniors than usual showed up for the noonday meal. But even on easy days, there's much work to do. We have to get the Meals on Wheels trays ready for delivery and put the meals on plates for the people who come into the center. Then we have to clean the kitchen and vacuum the hallways and reception room. This is all work that Sylvia and her helper, Lawrence, will have to do without us when we’re gone, in addition to cooking the food. Sylvia is a marvel of efficiency and dedication. While we assemble plastic-ware setups or assembly-line meals, she may be wiping down the cabinets or making sure the counters are spotless. Lawrence is just as dedicated. Wednesday was the first time I had had a chance to talk to him. He spoke of his interest in healthy eating and health supplements. He was very knowledgeable about fish oil capsules and how they benefit the body. Lawrence exercises too, running on the jogging track in town. He wants to stay healthy for his son.
On Tuesday, I helped deliver meals to the homebound elders of Browning with Ernest, the Meals on Wheels driver. Ernest went to a trade school after high school, but still could not find steady work. Most of the businesses in town are small, he said, and they like to hire their relatives. He applied for a couple of other jobs, but they wanted only veterans. So after three years of spotty work, he ended up becoming a security guard for his entire career. It's sad that although he tried to secure his future by becoming a tradesman, the job opportunities in Browning were still so limited.
Where I come from, people treat dogs like people. Riding with Ernest showed me that in Browning, people treat dogs like dogs. They feed them scraps, let them chase cars, and use them to protect their homes. Ernest wouldn't let me deliver a meal to one home. “They have mean dogs,” he said. “One of them bit me but it didn't break the skin. He's afraid of me now because I threw a rock at him.” I told him if he did that in my hometown, the owner would call the police.
After work ended on Wednesday, another volunteer and I walked into town to have coffee. Later, we all piled into vans and rode to the ranch owned by a local horse breeder for burgers and horseback rides. Our group didn’t start riding until after sunset, and my horse, Cheyenne, didn’t like following the trails. He was slow going out, but he sure wanted to come home fast. After warming ourselves at a bonfire, we climbed back into the vans while admiring the starry sky show featuring the Milky Way.
Life in Browning will go on as usual after we leave, but we all hope we made a small difference for the time we were here. We know that Sylvia and Lawrence will have lots more work to do when we’re gone, because we have stayed busy at Eagle Shields. But Sylvia takes it all in stride as she philosophically marks the passage of time in Browning with her favorite phrase, “Another day, another dollar and a half.”