Getting kids to eat breakfast at school sounds like an easy job, but it can be more complex than it seems. This reality is made even more difficult on American Indian reservations, where the employment and the graduation rates are the only low statistics. The rates of poverty, drug use, diabetes, high-blood pressure, obesity, sexual assault, PTSD, teen pregnancy, depression and suicide on reservations are often as high as double the rates in other areas of the country and among other demographic groups. American Indian and Alaska Native children have the same rate of PTSD as combat veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is three times higher than the national rate (DOJ, 2014). Here in Poplar on the Fort Peck Reservation, some students are fighting those statistics to be more than what intergenerational trauma gives them.
Due to these heartbreaking statistics, it can be difficult to find employees for the schools on the Fort Peck Reservation, as every employee is required to pass a drug test. A short-staffed food service department means difficulty in creating alternative breakfast models to allow breakfast to reach every student. Difficulty is an interesting word, often imbued with a sense of negativity, and a thesaurus would tell you the same thing. However, difficulty can also be synonymous with building character and creating growth, as long as there is at least some small view, some light shining through the window of change. Those windows can be role models, they can be community members passionate about change, they can be family members, they can be community organizations, they can be personal hobbies, they can be grades, they can be employment. At Poplar High School, I created a program that allows students to be hired through the school and work a few hours of the day as school food service employees. It gives them a sense of self-worth and accomplishment as they open their own paychecks, and it teaches them what responsibility means in an adult world.
One of these student workers has lived through a lot in her short life of fourteen years. Raised by her grandmother and grandfather, Anna fits the narrative seen in so many American Indian homes. Parents are often not present in reservation homes, for an amalgam of complicated reasons explained within the nuances of qualitative data that create those statistics and health outcomes. In Anna’s case, she was a product of young love and teen pregnancy. From a young age herself, Anna helped raise her young female cousin, as her cousin’s home environment was often taken over by the effects of drug use. She knows what it means to grow up quickly during childhood, and these early responsibilities may have jumpstarted her choice to volunteer at her high school. Anna has been volunteering for the Breakfast After the Bell program in Poplar for the majority of the 2017-2018 school year. She began as a volunteer without being recruited, and rose to the ranks of paid school employee though the student worker program. She is hardworking, proud yet modest, strong, resilient, and has an honest smile and a quirky sense of humor. She is passionate about art, music and YouTube theory, and has dreams to go to an art focused university in Canada after high school (after she works on getting a few grades up).
One day this week, Anna wore a very beautiful necklace to school. It just happened to be the same day she was the only one who showed up to push the breakfast cart from the cafeteria to the high school foyer, across the snow-covered playground between the elementary school building that houses the cafeteria and the high school building. On days that other student workers and volunteers don’t show up, Anna can usually be seen, pushing the huge, heavy breakfast cart, alone. I complimented Anna on her necklace, and she shared with me its history. It has rested on the necks of generations of women in her family, passed down to daughters, sisters, cousins. It once sat as a symbol of strength on one of the wives of Sitting Bull, her not-so-distant ancestor. The bone and sinew used for the original necklace have been replaced many times, sometimes with plastic elements. For many generations in her family, first born children have usually been girls. Anna is eager to pass down the necklace to her future daughter, and to instill in her the desire to learn the traditional American Indian dances shared by many tribes and usually seen at pow-wows across the country. To Anna, dancing is all about creating your own unique path, and it’s taught her that being different is a strength, not a weakness.
In Anna’s family, consisting of Japanese, Sioux, Crow and Navajo ancestry, difficulty is a concept that eventually transitions into strength, growth and love. Her great-great grandparents morphed the hardship, racism and violence of World War II into a narrative of love that continues to affect their family today. Fighting against the racism of the Japanese-American internment camps, Anna’s great-great grandfather, a guard at one of the camps, met one of the citizens who was forced to live at the camp, a woman with Japanese ancestry. As they later told the story, the eagle met the dragon over the ocean, and they fell in love, because the dragon thought that the eagle was a dragon, and the eagle thought that the dragon was an eagle. Love has no understanding of race, no understanding of names or terms. The waves we ride in life are often fought with hardship and difficulty, and they can drown us or make us strong. Anna has decided, whether consciously or subconsciously, that her path will be unique, that no one can take that from her, and that it’s up to her to keep swimming.
Montana No Kid Hungry-PRC AmeriCorps VISTA