In mid-June of last year I went on my site visit to Browning, Montana. I stayed in community there and visited De La Salle Blackfeet School, my prospective service site for the coming year. I committed to Browning and was convinced to return as a Lasallian Volunteer, in part because of the uniqueness of the site compared to other options. Those who have visited our community know that the natural beauty of the area is unsurpassed. Our house sits on a roughly 1000-acre property that includes a section of the Two Medicine River and is within sight of some of the last buffalo jumps—small cliffs used to hunt bison—used by the Blackfeet tribe. To the west are usually visible snow-capped Rocky Mountains and Glacier National Park. We are continually visited by our animal neighbors, including coyotes, mountain lions, and bears. And the bird life is rich, with magpies, finches, hawks, owls, and the occasional bald eagle flying above the tree line or perched, searching for food.
A less natural—though still spectacular—feature of our community is the ruins of the Holy Family Mission boarding school, a Jesuit-run school that housed and educated Blackfeet children for 50 years beginning in 1890. Though the school closed in 1940, the ruins of the dormitories are yet visible next to a church that still celebrates Mass each Sunday. The school was but one part of a nationwide project of Indian education that lasted from the mid-19th century through much of the 20th. Its purpose was to assimilate Native American students and use education to enculturate Indian children according to European-American values. This project included the prohibition of Native dress and language, as well as customs and religious beliefs. As Captain Richard Pratt, who started the infamous Carlisle Indian School, stated, these schools were intended to take Native American children, “kill the Indian in him and save the man.”
Though I cannot speak with any degree of authority as to how exactly Holy Family Mission fit into this larger project, it was still connected in ways that make me wonder about what this history means for us today. Having the school so present in our daily lives requires some engagement with this history. It also means that to live and work here demands that we think about what it means to be a Catholic educator on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. When the Jesuits began educating Blackfeet children over 100 years ago, their mission was in part tied to a government project to make “respectable” citizens and Christians out of Indian children. Today, as Lasallians, we are tasked instead with a mission to educate the whole child in a way that is appropriate to their circumstances and context, and to respond to the social justice needs of children in our world.
In Browning, this means being attentive to the lived realities of our students as well as the particular needs of Indian students living on a reservation today. Admittedly this is not always easy, but it is critically important because it helps us to shape the future for our students as well as ourselves. Talking to fellow volunteers at this point in the year, it is clear that many of us are facing this similar issue, of trying to integrate ourselves into our local communities and learn what we can in order to more effectively address the needs of our students and clients. Whether we are teaching or working outside of the classroom in schools, serving in retreat centers or administrative posts, or filling one of the many roles that we are given at any time, our challenge is to always learn, to never stop being students. As we learn from our students and clients we must always learn what we can to prepare ourselves to live and work with others. As volunteers, community members, and citizens we are given this challenge, and as Lasallians we must read the “signs of the times” and the signs from history that can teach us how to respond.
John Joyce, 12-13, De La Salle Blackfeet School, Browning, MT
Trafzer, Clifford E., Jean A. Keller, and Lorene Sisquoc. “Origin and Development of the American Indian Boarding School System.” In Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences. Omaha: University of Nebraska Press (2006), 2.
Zitkala-Sa, “Holy Family Mission.” http://www.browningmontana.com/ mission.html