Emily Rood’s Year of Service to the Cheyenne Nation in Eastern Montana


[Emily Rood gives a fine report about her work among the Northern Cheyenne in the year following her graduation from HSU with a double major in Native American Studies and Religious Studies. She’s now back in Arcata, and has given guest lectures on campus.]

(June 10, 2015)

After graduation in Spring 2014, I ventured off to the Southeast corner of Montana to serve with the Capuchin Volunteer Corps Midwest at St. Labre Indian Catholic School. With a major in Religious Studies and a minor in Native American Studies, my passion lies with bridging the gap between the privileged, and the marginalized and oppressed in our society. I was searching for an organization where I could work with a Native community and live in an intentional community rooted in spirituality and social justice. It was fate when I happened upon the Cap Corps program. This being the organizations first year sending volunteers to St. Labre, it was chalk full of different challenges and adventures.

At the beginning of my year in August, I had a realization that set the theme for the rest of my service year and has provided a context for which I hope everyone can better understand how and why this year has been so transformative for me. And also why I believe that St. Labre is truly a miraculous place.

It started with our first day of orientation. When Father Paschal introduced himself, before he started us off with prayer, he mentioned the things he’s done and places he’s been in his 60 some years as a friar and priest. The thing he said that really stuck with me was how the Northern Cheyenne taught him to survive. Throughout my years in Native American Studies, survival was always the underlying theme no matter the focus of the class. For centuries indigenous peoples in the United States have struggled to survive and are still struggling. But the miracle is that many tribes have survived; they’ve survived genocide, and are rebuilding their populations, relearning their traditional languages, songs and dances. In many areas the indigenous peoples of this country have found ways to thrive amidst oppression and marginalization. After talking with some of the people in the community, It became very clear that I was called here to better understand what it truly means to survive in this world and what it means to thrive.

Jensen and Casey

With this in mind, the first day of school at St. Labre really opened my eyes to an entirely new way of seeing education. I know that education is a powerful tool in the empowerment of an individual’s human dignity and attaining self-sufficiency. Yet, I always struggled with it being controlled by an outside system. I’ve always thought that to help maintain the beauty and wisdom of native tradition the outside needed to stop trying to force its way in. In the beginning I was worried that St. Labre would not contribute to the survival of tradition, but instead only perpetuating the American capitalist system. I see now that St. Labre is doing its best to balance between both. Of course, it’s not a perfect system (what man­-made system is?) but I believe they are a necessary part of the survival of many of these Northern Cheyenne and Crow kids. And in many cases the education and community that St. Labre provides give them the chances to not only survive, but to thrive through cultural learning and a spiritual community.

St. Labre Indian Catholic School ranges from a well-rounded pre-school program to a college aimed High School Academy. However, the non-profit organization is even bigger. St. Labre runs entirely on private donations; they do not have federal, state or church funding. Serving a 98% Native American community, as it is located on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation line, St. Labre also has their own Youth & Family Services department. Here they run a group home for students who do not have another healthy environment to go home to, manage a childcare center, offer community and elderly outreach service, hold the only food pantry available in the area, and facilitate a work incentive program that provides members of the community with an opportunity to take classes and volunteer in exchange for food or gas vouchers.

Emily's studentsOriginally I was chosen to be a reading interventionist at the Middle School Academy. Although I must admit I never expected to be working as academic support in a middle school, the need for assistance in the middle school was real. While implementing and maintaining behavior programs for the students in the reading intervention program, stepping in as a substitute teacher for all grades and subjects, and assisting in the main office with a variety of secretarial duties, I expressed my interest to step outside of the school environment and work with Youth & Family Services (YFS). Not long after I began my work at the school, I began co-coordinating St. Labre’s Food Pantry. I organized volunteers, assisted in management of clients’ paperwork and monthly reports. Once I saw the need for extra supplies and food in the Pantry, I began conducting fundraisers in the Middle and High School. We raised over $700 throughout the entire year for extra food to fill in the gaps from what we get as donations, as well as to stock up on the most sought after item: toilet paper. After one fundraiser, we were able to stock our warehouse full over 400 rolls of toilet paper. My work with the Food Pantry lasted the entire year. The relationships I’ve built with volunteers, staff members and students has been rewarding beyond words.

In January I started to begin plans for a program that is known by many as the “Backpack Program.” It’s a program that is run through Montana Food Bank Network in which they help provide a bag of non-perishable food items for chronically hungry students to take home on the weekends. Attempting to start this program was when I really realized the disconnect between YFS and the school. Before I arrived there was little to no communication between these two departments. Even when we attempted to bridge that gap, the administration and teachers were already struggling to stay above water, adding another program to their plate was challenging. So, I pushed it until they gave me the signatures I needed and managed to set up the whole program so that it should be easily manageable for next year as long as everyone does their part.

Every part of living in the middle of nowhere Montana has been an adventure. I’ve learned so much about myself having been pushed to limits I didn’t even know I had. The most rewarding part of being in Montana for me was getting to know the extraordinary culture and the people. I’ll admit, watching my students dance at the local powwows has almost brought me to tears a few times. They are thriving. Reservation life is different from the injustices experienced by those in marginalized communities in other areas of the United States. The people have a completely different worldview. They have a reverent relationship with their creator and every piece of creation is sacred. Many of the people here are still devoted to the traditional way of life, however, when you are here you can see what the federal policies have done to destroy that relationship and how it’s affected the community. Now native people are trying to live in two separate worlds.

One of the best ways I have come to truly experience connection with the community, that transcends all of actual work I do every day, is my participation in the sweat lodge. There are usually several elders there, and a few other members from the community (some I know, some I don’t). Before the sweat we sit outside and talk about our weeks. We complain and we rejoice about the things that have happened. We share stories about our lives and our culture to better understand each other. In the sweat lodge everyone has a chance to share their prayers. We pray together as one people, as God’s people. It is the closest I have ever felt with a group of people, and many of them I have never met. Afterwards, it is traditional to share a meal together. Listening to the elders share their stories, old and new, has been the most uplifting experience. A woman at one of the sweats I went to said that being Northern Cheyenne means living in a good way. “You have to be a really good person,” she said. I have never felt closer to God, so well connected with my fellow man, than during a sweat. After a sweat, I feel prepared to walk through the next week in a good way, in community with every person I meet.

There are so many things I could talk about, but I did my best to sum up what this place means to me and the things I have been doing here. So what does it mean to survive in this world? And to thrive? It means to never stop fighting for what you believe in, for what you know in your heart to be right. To survive means to get back up when you’ve been beaten down; getting back up because there are other people in this world that need you, because you have something to contribute. Thriving means to be connected, to not expect to do everything on your own, to ask for help, and to take care of one another. Thriving is a balance between self-care and caring for others. Thriving is knowing who you are and where you came from. Thriving is being grateful.

In closing, I want to take a moment to express my admiration for the will of indigenous peoples in this country. They have resisted and survived. Each and every one of them deserves the utmost honor for that alone. These men and women are fighters and today some of them make up many different important social and environmental activist groups that will continue to fight for just legislation to improve the lives of their people. May we remember and honor those that have developed the strength to resist and those that have not yet healed and still suffer from historical trauma. Also I’d like to acknowledge those non-indigenous folk who are almost equally connected to this land and equally dedicated to St. Labre and the empowerment of the Native communities in Montana. I am honored and grateful to have worked with and learned from all of them.