Seniors Volunteer in Browning, Montana

Article written by Jessica Miano of the Newark Archdiocese

Over spring break, 14 seniors from Lacordaire Academy in Upper Montclair traveled to Browning, Mont. to learn more about the Indigenous Americans of the area and their faith.

From Feb. 24 to March 3, the students participated in the De la Salle Blackfeet School Immersion Program, performing service and learning about life on the reservation.

“In light of Catholic Social Teaching, this trip was a great opportunity for the students to practice solidarity and genuine care for someone else,” said Nathan Houston, Lacordaire Academy’s religion teacher and campus minister who led the trip.

The students helped fourth and fifth graders with classwork. And they spent time getting to know them.

The De la Salle Blackfeet School is a member of the American Indian Catholic Schools Network and partner of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education which created the immersion program in 2003 welcoming high school and college students from around the country to visit the school. The visitors build relationships with the community and learn about the culture of the Blackfeet Indians by serving in the classrooms, engaging with the community, exploring Glacier National Park, and undergoing a transformational experience outside of their day-to-day lives. The program, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is based on the Blackfoot word “Oki-Ni-Soo-Ka-Wa,” meaning “come and see.”

During their stay, the Lacordaire students worked as teachers’ aides at the school assisting with tutoring and mentoring of the students. When not at the school, they explored the scenery. The students met with Blackfeet Nation community members over dinners to learn more about Blackfeet culture, history, spirituality, and what it was like growing up on the Blackfeet Reservation, according to Houston. The Blackfoot Nation members also shared their perspectives on the hardship they or family members have experienced while living on the reservation and accessing quality education.

“The meals allowed our students to learn from and engage with the speakers on a personal level,” Houston said.

Patricia Running Crane Devereau, a Blackfoot woman, told the students about how her Blackfeet spirituality aligned with her Catholic beliefs and how she had come to experience God’s presence in her life through a combination of the Catholic Mass and traditional Blackfeet practices. According to Houston, she told the students that she finds God when in prayer in a sweat lodge or during a Sun Dance, a traditional community gathering to pray for healing practices by several Native American Nations. She also feels God’s presence while praying the rosary and participating in Catholic prayer groups.

Students helped prepare meals in the school cafeteria.

Kira, one of the students who attended the trip, said the trip gave her classmates and her a new perspective. “Seeing how much comfort faith and religion bring to the members of the Blackfeet community was honestly refreshing, which made me take a step back to find comfort in my own faith,” said Kira. “It allowed my classmates and me to open up about our own experiences, which provided us the opportunity to support one another, especially being in an environment very different from our own.”

The trip provided insight into the educational disadvantages some youth in other parts of the country face, especially Native Americans living on reservations, Houston said.

Kira also said that she learned about teaching strategies from observing the teachers at the Blackfeet school.

“I got to see that there is more than one way to learn, and more than one way to teach something,” she said.

Her favorite memory of the trip was the time she spent with the fourth and fifth-grade class.

“I instantly bonded with so many of these kids, and it was so enjoyable to get to know them and their personalities throughout the week,” Kira said.

In the evenings, the students reflected on their faith experiences through group discussions. Houston said he witnessed the students open up to each other about how they’ve grown in their faith, both through the immersion trip and over the last four years at Lacordaire Academy.

“It was nice to get the opportunity to be somewhere new together,” he said. “It helped them to open up and talk about their faith journey and where it can go after (high school).”

This is the second year that Lacordaire Academy has volunteered at the De la Salle School Immersion Program during spring break.

The students had the chance to explore Glacier National Park during their trip.