Fort Peck encompasses two separate nations, the Assiniboine and Sioux. The Sioux are famous for the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, partially led by the famous Lakota Sioux Sitting Bull, or in Lakota, Tatanka Yotanka. After relocation to Fort Peck, the nations suffered great trauma from lack of resources and re allotment of land to non-Indians who hunted the Bison to near extinction. The Boarding School era from 1877 to 1920 also caused a great deal of trauma, in which children were forced from their homes to American boarding schools that stripped them of their culture and forced them to speak English. Let’s also not forget the introduction of alcohol, also known as “fire water”.
The Tribal Government has control over most activities on the reservation, which can be good and bad. They are the largest employer on the reservation, providing economic opportunity to tribal members, but things in government move slowly. Fort Peck Tribes Health Promotion Disease Prevention, who I am partnering with through No Kid Hungry, is under the Tribal Government. In 2012, 63 American Bison were transferred from Yellowstone National Park to a preserve north of Poplar. 136 more were transferred in 2014.
Poplar has a population of 810 as of 2010. I see lots of wild dogs, and rescued a puppy who is still learning that nipping is not okay. The kids in my neighborhood love her and she loves them. I love them too. I feel extremely welcomed and supported by the community, and I’m making an effort as an outsider to listen more than I speak.
I arrived at the end of Pow Wow season, which includes weekends of dancing and elaborate regalia. Some people keep their dress strictly traditional, but I saw some kids with Frozen and Captain America themed clothing. I was invited to a sweat, which I learned is a great honor. I drove down what I didn’t realize was a road off of the main highway down to the Missouri River, where I was greeted by my new friend that had invited me. I thought this had been a trick because the area was so secluded and the area was fenced off and had to be unlocked. I learned that the fences were to keep the cows out.
After some more off road driving, we arrived at the river, where about 12 people were waiting outside a small dome-shaped lodge that looked like it could only fit 6 comfortably. They told me they would go easy on me as to not scare me off. In an Assiniboine sweat, the men enter first and smoke the pipe, and the women enter when they are finished. We entered the lodge and passed around sage to smudge ourselves (I learned this means wafting the smoke around my body as a cleansing method). Then they loaded hot rocks into a pit in the center of the lodge and closed the door. My heart began racing and my skin was burning from the heat, but they hadn’t even started yet. We prayed and one man began pouring hot water on the rocks, and I didn’t think a room could be so hot. I tried to focus on my breathing and tune out the singing and praying in Dakota around me, but it was so hot and my clothes were soaked in sweat less than a minute in. I started focusing on the voices of the people around me.
Maybe it was the heat that made me feel lightheaded, but I definitely felt something. I am not a spiritual person, but something was present that day. I felt deeply connected to and grateful to the friends around me that had welcomed me and taken care of me during my first sweat. Despite my soaked clothing, I felt cleaner than I had in a long time.
Last week, I attended a Food Sovereignty conference in Billings, where I met members of other tribes in Montana, particularly Blackfeet and Crow. I learned about the history of Native food and its medicinal qualities, as well as the near-poisonous effects of many Western processed foods, such as milk, on Native communities. We learned about trauma but we also learned about how to heal.
Trauma and healing have been major themes in most of my interactions with the tribes. There is a recognition of the past and the devastating impact of alcohol and drug use. There is also hope - hope that this trauma can still be overcome through reconnection to the culture of a nation that has not completely lost its strength. Fort Peck is full of good people ready to make positive change.
PRC AmeriCorps VISTA serving with Montana No Kid Hungry