Hello from Montana, the land of endless sky, huckleberry-everything, and fields that go on forever! Nearly four weeks into my Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest journey, I have met many fascinating people, experienced elements of native culture, been to four new states, and traveled twenty-two hours and 900 miles by bus to make it to my destination for the year: St. Xavier, Montana.
My first week out west was spent at a camp outside Portland, OR, for JVCNW orientation along with 147 other Jesuit Volunteers (JVs). Much of our time was spent exploring the core values of JVCNW: community, spirituality, simple living, and social & ecological justice. This provided a great opportunity to reexamine my own reasons for committing to this year, as well as to understand the values in a new light, alongside my three community members, whom I will live with this year. From Portland, all the Montana JVs (Big Sky region!) set off on our bus ride through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana toward Billings.
After the long, but uneventful journey to Billings, my community made our way to St. Xavier. Because much of our trip through Montana to Billings was overnight, the trip to St. X from Billings was our first real glimpse of what much of Montana is like. Prairies abound, and miles span between exits on the highway. The route here is almost entirely fields, farms, and prairies. The sky is everywhere, and it makes for a striking landscape. St. Xavier is extremely rural; the school, post office, and soda machine are its only establishments. Being so remote (the nearest town with a grocery store, bank, and other amenities, Hardin, is a 22-mile drive) is a huge change from New England, where nearly every open space has been developed. While I’m prepared for the challenges of rural living to emerge as the year progresses, its advantages are not difficult to come by. Each evening boasts an incredible sunset, impending storms are visible for miles, and fresh berries and fruit grow wildly, just waiting to be picked!
Our first week in St. Xavier was spent settling into our home, obtaining Montana driver’s licenses, and attending orientation & training at the school, all followed by a weekend at Crow Fair.
Crow Fair is a giant, week-long celebration of the Crow culture. Held in the “Tipi Capital of the World,” it boasts a powwow, rodeo, and parade each day. Ivan, the superintendent of the school system in which the JVs are serving, invited our community, as well as two other Big Sky communities to camp at his family’s site for the weekend. We started out by setting up our own tipi, under careful guidance of Ivan’s nephew. Traditionally set up by the women, it was a difficult task, requiring strength, stability, and an eye for even ground. The long and rich history of Crow Fair and the Crow tribe was visible through Ivan’s family history at the festival; his family has been setting up at the same campsite for over eight decades. As families grow, camps expand likewise, underscoring the centrality of family in native culture. Because our school is located at the heart of Crow country, we even got to meet several excited students at the powwow. Learning more about native cultures through experience was one of the things I was (and am!) looking forward to most aboutcoming out here, and Crow Fair was an incredibly exciting way to begin doing so this year!
School began last Thursday! My community’s trailer is located on the grounds of the school, making for the shortest commute ever—a minute-long walk to the school’s front entrance. I was excited for it to begin, to meet the students and find my role within the school. Each day begins with a school-wide breakfast, where we eat alongside students, listen to the recitation of the school chant (hopefully I’ll learn it and be able to join in soon!), and participate in the weekly meditation, which includes smudging, a native practice of burning herbs for cleansing. In the mornings, I run language arts enrichment groups for eighth and sixth-graders. In the afternoons, I assist in fifth, fourth, and first grade classrooms, in a variety of capacities. I’ve even received a nickname from a first grader who had trouble saying my name- Miss “Celery”-it has caught on with a handful of
them already, and they love it. I’m enjoying working with in a variety of classrooms and subject areas. Another school tradition we get to partake in is Thursday mass, which is held at the church next door. Students sit by grade and participate in the highly interactive hour. The first two weeks have offered an exciting glimpse into the year ahead!
Outside of school, my community makes time for fun! Last weekend was our first one actually in St. X. We spent Friday night making dinner, making music and taking a stroll down to the town soda machine-quite the night! This past weekend, my community went to the Yellowtail Dam in the Big Horn Canyon. One of the teachers at the school operated the boat launch and let us take one of his pontoons out for a few hours! The red rocks, 2000-foot canyons, cliffs, and deep, blue water easily made this one of the most magnificent places I’ve visited in the United States.
It’s hard to believe I’ve been out west for nearly four weeks already! The incredible natural scenery, unyielding generosity of those we’ve met, and the rich culture have defined the start of my year. I can only look forward to the adventures to come!