Power of Place: Community & Education in a Remote Setting

JV AmeriCorps member Hopey Fink (Hays, MT ’15-16) serves as Academic Support Specialist at St. Paul’s Grade School. Below, Fink shares her experience providing educational assistance to students in the remote setting of Hays, Montana.

There’s a lot of “far” between here and other places. This unintentionally profound observation of a first grader has been ringing in my ears since September, when she pointed to a plane flying across the big sky over the playground at recess and mused about the distance to its destination. As a JV AmeriCorps member serving as the Academic Support Specialist at Mission Grade School on the Ft. Belknap Indian Reservation in Hays, Montana, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the unique beauty and the particular challenges of living in a remote place – the joys, the struggles, and the stories that fill the spaces of far between here and other places.

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A horse outside a classroom at Mission Grade School

Nestled in the grasslands at the base of the Little Rockies an hour and a half from the nearest large town, Hays is a village of about seven hundred people, mostly enrolled members of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes. It’s a place where horses frequently wander along the main road, where elk and deer meat are normal neighborly gifts, and where the whole town watches high school football games from pickup trucks pulled up to the field. Like many rural communities across America, it’s a place where the bonds of family run strong but also where cycles of poverty and addiction test these bonds. In January, the Ft. Belknap tribal council voted unanimously to declare an official state of emergency regarding the abuse of meth, a drug that directly or indirectly affects the lives of many of the children at Mission Grade School.

In my tutoring placement, I work one-on-one and in small groups with students from kindergarten through sixth grade. Every day, I see the brightness and potential that these children and youth offer to the community. At the same time, I have also seen how the injustices in rural communities like Hays are intergenerational, and the paths to justice must also be intergenerational.

One place I have witnessed the power of generations working together has been at our school’s weekly Honor Night Book Club, which aims to support family involvement in student literacy. Honor Night is an evening of games and fun in the school gym held every Thursday for students who have attended school, done their homework, and maintained good behavior all week. Fink, HopeyWhen relatives come to pick up their children, they are invited to choose a book and read aloud for five minutes. If they spend this time, each child can take a book home. Seeing kids discover the enjoyment that even five minutes of reading with their grandmother can bring is a reminder of the importance of involving families in education, especially in a community where many, if not most, households are multi-generational.

I am learning more and more that education extends beyond the pages of our textbook readers. If it is to be an effective tool against the systemic problems that are particular to this reservation community, education needs to encompass the values and wisdom and stories that Native families have passed from generation to generation in this place. A rootedness in this land and a respect for culture and tradition are things that I, as an outsider, cannot teach in the same way that I can teach times table tricks or phonics practice.

My JV AmeriCorps community mates and I have stepped into a nearly fifty-year legacy of Jesuit Volunteer service in Hays. Each day I am humbled by the sense that this place– these prairies and pines and these stories of wounds and hope that are woven into the fabric of this community- has existed long before us. I am grateful for the ways that I have felt welcomed into sharing some of the uniqueness of this place, whether that be on hikes in the canyon or in the circle of the sweat lodge.

Hopey (second from the left) with her JV AmeriCorps community mates

The distance between here and other places cannot only be measured in miles. Hays is a lot of “far” from the nearest Wal-Mart, sure. But the struggles of rural poverty and addiction, along with the struggles of many Indigenous people to preserve their ways, are also far from the minds of most people in America. In coming together across ages and in honoring the traditions of family and culture, the “lot of far” between here and other places can seem less daunting. Recognizing the power of place, in all of its vastness and remoteness, might allow generations to work together to break harmful cycles that are specific to this community. I am thankful for the opportunity to learn from this place as a JV AmeriCorps member and to work with people in Hays to effect change- starting with times tables tricks and phonics practice.

Teaching, Serving, & Building Relationships

During the month of August, the Corporation for National and Community Service is celebrating the service of teachers and educators. In honor of this month’s theme,  JV AmeriCorps member Elle Ross (St. Xavier, MT ’13-15) shares her experience serving as Academic Support for the Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy in St. Xavier, MT. Below, Ross explains how she learned building relationships is the basis of  both teaching and service. 

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JV AmeriCorps members located in St. Xavier

I have always greatly valued my education, and serving in a school for the past two years has helped me come to appreciate the people who really made it happen – my teachers. So, throughout this year, I have been trying to contact or send a little note of appreciation to some of the teachers who really helped me become who I am.

As grateful and nostalgic as I am, I have found that it is really tough to find the time and energy to reach out to old teachers and friends as it is difficult to put into words all that I want to say. So, when a former student recently reached out to me, I was overwhelmed with joy and incredibly impressed.

I was Sandy’s (name has been changed) math teacher. She and I spent roughly an hour or two together every day for a year and a half. While we learned a lot of basic math in that time, we also learned way more about each other and ourselves. We learned together through laughter and sometimes even tears, whether we were working on math or not.14-15_JVs in Service_St. Xavier_Pretty Eagle_Catherine Morrison and Elle Ross (16)

Unfortunately, Sandy switched to another school and I was no longer her tutor. I was crushed. She started at another school and I kept tabs on her the best I could by sending notes, but I didn’t hear much of a reply. A few months later, I received a call from Sandy who said she received my note and asked if I would tutor her in math. I was shocked and ecstatic that she made such a big and brave effort to call a former teacher and ask for help. We were able to meet at the library, continue our lessons, and finish her math homework. I was happy to hear she was doing well in math because of the confidence she gained from our lessons. This experience helped me remember why teaching is not only so important to learning, but why teaching and service is rooted in building relationships.

Living with the Land and Building Community

JV AmeriCorps member Sarah Komisar serves at the Sitka Conservation Society in Sitka, Alaska. Below Komisar shares her experience teaching Sitka’s youth how to live with the land and build community through the processing of deer. 

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Miller explains how to process deer while respecting animals and native traditions. Photo by Bethany Goodrich

Living with the land and building community can be done in many ways. As a JV AmeriCorps member at The Sitka Conservation Society (SCS), my placement included working with the Alaska Way of Life 4-H program. During January of 2015, SCS and Sitka Native Education Program (SNEP) partnered to teach Sitka’s youth how to process one of Sitka’s local bounties: deer. The children from the 4-H program and SNEP Culture Class learned from Chuck Miller, SNEP Youth Program Coordinator, more than just how to butcher a deer as he removed the hide from the animal.

Miller shared with students the customary traditional practices of deer processing. Right away, Miller said, “It is important to not waste, and it is disrespectful to the animal to say ‘eww’ or ‘that’s gross’ because that animal gave up its life for you, so you can live.”

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Students learn how to wrap meat in freezer paper. Photo by Bethany Goodrich

The children were certainly not squeamish. No ‘ew’s resounded from the audience of eager and fascinated onlookers. The first thing he pointed out was that the head of the deer was missing. Chuck explained that the brain of the deer could be mixed with urine and used to tan the hides long ago. The children learned that the hoofs could be boiled down and used for rattling sticks to dance with. The hide was removed carefully, and the kids discovered that it could be used for clothing or drums. The children eagerly peered over each other to get a look at the deer’s heart, liver, and stomach. Chuck explained that the tendons are so strong that they have been used for battle armor, dream catchers, and to latch many other things together.

The class also discussed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations and the importance of limitations on does for protecting fawns to conserve the population.

Miller shared with students how to respect the animal by properly processing the meat, as well as by not wasting parts of the deer. He then explained how respecting the animal transfers to respect for the community: the first deer of the year you get should never be kept to yourself.

“You give it away to somebody who is a widow, an elder, or both. You want to make sure you take care of people in the community who cannot hunt for themselves and our elders.” One of the boys in the group whispered to his friend, “I’ll give it to my grandma.”

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Deer processing complete! Photo by Bethany Goodrich

The class was able to see the deer processing steps all the way from removing the hide to wrapping the meat in freezer paper. The kids shared stories of their own deer hunting experiences and favorite recipes as they packaged the meat. Students were enthralled and walked away with both a practical understanding of the deer butchering process as well as a stronger respect for this treasured resource.

The Sitka Conservation Society looks forward to partnering with the Sitka Native Education Program in the future to teach Sitka’s youth how to live with the land and build community.