Crow Memories and Thoughts

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A recent New York Times article about disappeared and murdered Native American women–particularly Selena Not Afraid in Big Horn County, Montana–released a stream of memories of teaching on the Crow Indian Reservation when I was 19, in the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Yale. It was my first teaching experience outside of tutoring; years later, it influenced my decision to become a teacher. But whether I did any lasting good I don’t know. The children faced troubles beyond my comprehension; the summer class was probably just a blip in their lives. I stayed in touch with one of my students, who later became a friend; I visited her years later, when she had four children and a stepchild. But I am skipping ahead.

Six of us headed out there together, all of us Yale students, eager to learn something and do constructive work. A Yale alumnus had proposed the project and promised to fund it. (He would default on his promise, and Dwight Hall would end up footing the bill, but we didn’t know this yet; we saw this as an extraordinary summer job and education combined.) There were four men and two women, all around my age or a little older. I didn’t quite fit in with the others socially, though I liked most of them; when we arrived at our lodging, an unfurnished, vacant house on top of a hill, four members of the group claimed the downstairs room as their bedroom, leaving me upstairs with the group’s most cryptic member, with whom it was difficult to speak much. We all slept on the floor, in sleeping bags or blankets. But otherwise we were comfortable: we had a car for trips into town or beyond, we had plenty to eat, and people welcomed us.

Our road trip out to Crow still comes up dreamy in my mind. The others picked me up in Chicago, where I had been visiting my grandmother and working as an intern for a “World Without War” conference. We drove through the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, through hills and plains in Wyoming. We drove for hours without seeing a sign of another human being, and where we camped outside under the rivers of stars. While still in Wyoming, we saw a sign pointing to “New Haven” and followed it out of curiosity; when we arrived in the supposed town, we saw nothing but a tumbledown shack and a sign that said, “Get the hell out of here.” We headed north into Montana, where we could see storms and sunbursts in the distance, and where hills rose higher and higher.

Leaders of the Crow tribe gave us our welcome orientation, invited us to various events (including a Sun Dance), and gave us our choice of projects. We could teach in the elementary school’s summer enrichment program, tutor adults, create projects of our own (two members of the group led camping trips), help out with the local newspaper, or help program the reservation’s computer. I chose to teach in the elementary school. Adults on the reservation urged us to work with children; they said that was where the hope was. The school welcomed me on board and provided me with a room and supplies; I became the first-grade homeroom teacher (for the summer program) and taught the other grades too. There was even an assistant who passed out pencils and paper; I offered to share the teaching with her, but she was content with her role.

In my classes, we read and acted out stories; students wrote and told stories of their own. I gave them challenging math problems, which they eagerly figured out (the fourth and fifth graders were doing basic algebra). We went on a few field trips with the other classes, had some outdoor games–including a terrific water balloon fight–and completed a few art projects. Another Yale student joined me in the classroom partway through the summer, but he let me take the lead. I had no trouble coming up with ideas for lessons and was thoroughly enjoying the responsibilities.

One of my students, a second-grader, read everything in sight. Whenever I took a book out of the school library, I saw that she had taken it out previously. I remember this especially with Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which we acted out in class (she played the lion). Her mother was a police agent; I often saw her driving around in her cop car. I admired her to the skies. She (the mother) was the last person I saw before I headed back east at the end of the summer. The Greyhound bus stopped in Crow around midnight. I was standing alone at the bus stop, waiting. She pulled by in her car and asked me if I was all right. I told her that I was, that I was just waiting for the bus. At that moment I had an urge to talk to her, but I said no more, and she drove away.

I was all right, but just barely. I was dealing not only with my parents’ impending divorce, but with romantic disappointment. There was a young man (a student several years older than me) who met me by sitting across from me at a table at the library and gazing into my eyes. I then suggested getting together; we met weekly for almost a year. For months I thought the two of us were dating, or close to dating; when I asked, he said he enjoyed talking with me, and that that was where he wanted to keep things. At the end of the year, we had a brief and delightful tryst, after which he gave no sign that he wanted to continue anything at all. (In a letter, which I received while at Crow, he confirmed that he did not.) I was bewildered and had no one who could help me make sense of this. In addition, I wanted to take a break from Yale–I needed some room to decide what I wanted to do–but had agreed to continue into the next year. All in all, my life was a jumble; the teaching had probably been my happiest experience of the year. So when the policewoman, my student’s mother, asked me, “Are you all right?” part of me wanted to say, “No, no, no!” and start crying. But I didn’t.

I think it was through the mother that, years later, I obtained my student’s mailing address. We began to correspond through letters. In the 1990s and early 2000s I visited her twice or three times, when she was already a mother of three, then four, children, whom she adores with everything she has. Only over time did I understand how much she had been through. (Her mother, too–she had already left her police work by the time we were in touch.) I do not want to give details here. But I started to see the difference between my own troubles and troubles that run so deep that there is no secure place anywhere, nothing to lean on, no one to trust.

The difference is this. When you have not only a supportive family but examples, all around you, of people creating things, helping others, learning, and working at interesting jobs, you know there is always something to work on, take interest in, and care about. This does not mean that you are immune to despair, depression, or anything else; you just know that despair is not the only way. This knowledge strengthens over time. But if you grow up in despair itself, your efforts go into staying alive, supporting your family, and keeping up some kind of hope. Everything else is for later.

There’s also a question of leaving the reservation or staying on it. If you leave, you face hostility (from white people and others) and loneliness. If you remain, you are surrounded by the reservation’s problems and dangers. Finding a middle way is not easy. Even going away temporarily (to college, for instance) may prove too isolating and risky. Some manage to do it anyway–they pursue an education, get a degree, enter a profession–but many others try it out and quit.

That doesn’t mean that everything at Crow is bleak. Many are fighting for a better life for their families and tribes (not only Crow, but Cheyenne, Shoshoni, and others). The fight seems to be getting stronger. But what do you do when a family member goes missing? When people around you are dying? When you yourself are in trouble but have no one to talk to? When no one pulls up in a police car and asks you if you are all right? When, even if someone did, an answer would be futile, because the truth would have no answer, no redress?

 

Image credit: This photo is taken by “Montanabw” and found on the Crow Indian Reservation’s Wikipedia page. I have pictures I took, but they are in the U.S.; when I bring them over, I will add one or two here.