The De La Salle Blackfeet school on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana, has afforded many visitors from Lasallian schools in the District of San Francisco an opportunity to participate with fellow Lasallians in the educational mission to those members of our society who face poverty and marginalization.
La Salle Catholic College Preparatory in Milwaukie, Oregon, and De La Salle Blackfeet School are ‘sister schools,’ says La Salle Prep President Denise Jones. In 2007 the students in Milwaukie raised $800 for resurfacing the playground of the students in Montana; and in 2008 the “Dance, Dance Lunch Competition” that Milwaukie students staged raised $2,200 to contribute to the Browning school’s lunch program.
The recent trip by members of the La Salle Prep community also generated rich reflections by students and staff at the Milwaukie school, which are shared below:
As reported by student writer Jordan Durham in The Falcon Express,
“On the 25th of October, 2008, seven La Salle students left by train to embark on the Browning Montana immersion trip. The students involved in the outreach to the De La Salle Blackfeet school are: Kelly Davis, Lindsey Allais, Sarah Lynn Landers, Anni Chatterton, Shandee Paulson, Gina Cheianello, Brianna Nagel, along with staff member Michelle Mitchell…. They spent a week at the school mentoring the students. This group of women went out in order to better themselves and the community. The trip was not a vacation. When the girls got their they were all assigned a grade to mentor. The girls were called on to teach the children anything they needed help with and also to just interact with them. During the trip the girls witnessed the harsh realities of life. On the reservation, most of the students that do attend school don’t go on to college and some don’t even graduate high school. The community has fallen into the cycle of poverty because they have a lack of funding. Education is low and even those who do excel academically leave and often never return because there is no career there for them. The girls not only helped the community but the community helped them: They had guest speakers that talked with them about the economics and spiritual life of the people that live on the reservation. The girls were asked to share their dreams and future plans to continue education as a hope to encourage the children.”
Michelle Mitchell, who accompanied the students in the immersion, is the bookkeeper at La Salle Prep. She says, “One thing that I truly loved while we were at the De La Salle Blackfeet School was the ‘Student Tales’ book-writing project – that was a magical thing that the students are working on. This project assists each student in writing and illustrating a book about themselves which is then published and hard bound. Leo John Bird, an eighth-grade student, traded me his writings for my La Salle Prep sweatshirt. He was so bright and engaging in all of his classes, math, science, and writing.” Here is one of the poems from Leo John’s book:
I am From
I am from the stars, the place where my ancestors came from and where they watch over me.
I am from my mom, the best business woman, mother and provider I know.
I am from picnics which are my family’s big social gathering, filled with laughter.
I am from the straight up war bonnet, a sacred symbol of the Blackfeet people.
I am from Missoula, my home away from home.
I am from my dad an awesome teacher and very fine cook.
I am from washing dishes, my least favorite chore around the house.
I am from the Raven clan of my Alaskan ancestors.
I am from my Grandma’s house, our picnicking place and where laughter is always heard.
I am from my sister, a hard worker who knows how to have fun.
I am from a broken arm that taught me to be more careful and showed me what irony really is.
I am from the otter a sacred animal that I dance with.
I am from the Cuts Wood School a place where I can keep my language alive.
I am from my younger brother, my best friend and enemy through life.
I am from teasing; something that never fails to hurt me.
I am from French royalty something that makes me feel special.
After retuning from Montana, Michelle wrote, reflecting on her experience:
“The experience of visiting the Blackfeet Reservation was at times uncomfortable, and not always positive. The young people who attend this school grow up in a community that is harsh, with many social challenges. Yet the school is a hopeful place filled with activity and laughter and a devoted administration and staff. .. The students are clearly loved; as one school administrator told me, someone in their family values their education experience and wants them to have something more. Some bright moments in our school day included a visit one afternoon from an elderly woman from the Blackfeet community. She sat with the students for about ½ hour and told stories of her life. It was a simple moment, a moment for the young to connect to their heritage and to honor and respect one of their elders. It was precious.
“The students at the DLSB School are so blessed with this safe, nurturing place to grow and learn for only a four-year time in their lives. Christian Brothers Paul Ackerman and Ray Bonderer are the school’s center and the model of strength and devotion. How inspiring it was to witness two such individuals willing to give their entire purpose over to educating these young persons. Their daily focus is to manage the school and all of its financial and social difficulties. This place thrives because of the goodness of others and the persistence of these two Brothers.
“Overall our trip was a week of very simple experiences and kind gestures. It was only a brief moment to learn about and understand the Blackfeet people and life in this place. This trip was a strong reminder of our founder’s mission and the value our work adds to human life.”
La Salle Prep’s Principal, Tom Dudley, writing in the school’s family newsletter, gave the broader picture of how this type of activity is an essential part of the educational experience at La Salle Prep:
“Two of our Lasallian core principles are concern for the poor/social justice
and respecting the dignity of all individuals. We are in solidarity with the poor and advocate for those suffering from injustices. The service component of our curriculum is designed to deepen students’ understanding of these principles and includes three parts. The first part we identify as Service Learning. La Salle’s Service Learning Program is a key aspect of Lasallian education. We provide service learning opportunities integrated into the Christian Service Learning curriculum at all levels. Service is on-going, meets a need in the community and gives students the opportunity to engage in self-directed learning. Reflection on the service experience and partnerships with businesses, families and community agencies are pivotal to this program. Our goal is to be recognized as a Christian Service Learning center in the Portland area.
“Community service is the second component of our curriculum. There are many opportunities to provide services to those in the Portland area and in our Lasallian district. This is accomplished through many school-wide drives. Last year, students raised $1,000 for Portland's Doernbecher Hospital and $800 to resurface the playground at Montana's De La Salle Blackfeet School.
“The third component of our curriculum is service immersions. Week-long service immersions in Browning, Montana, Tijuana, Mexico and Salinas, California are offered each year. Students can also participate in a week-long summer service experience as part of our Lasallian Youth Assembly. These immersions offer students a chance to live our Lasallian mission of service in cultures which are very different from what they experience in their daily lives.
“These opportunities are a great starting point, but much more is required to understand the Christian definition of social justice. Students must think dialogically and understand problems from multiple viewpoints. They must discern what a responsible person would do and learn to take right action for both personal and common good. Service that is connected to deep learning about social justice issues and perspectives can help students develop a personal identity that understands how structures of society must be impacted to lift up all people and truly create a just world. “
Complete information about the De La Salle Blackfeet School can be found at its web site www.dlsbs.org and at the web site of Little Flower Parish, www.littleflowerparish.catholicweb.com
Some of the material above first appeared in publications of La Salle Catholic College Preparatory, Milwaukie, Oregon, the Falcon Family Newsletter (Nov/Dec 2008) and The Falcon Express student newspaper (Nov. 24, 2008). Thanks to the school for sharing.