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Serving and Learning from the People of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Tribes

Jesuit Volunteer Conal Fagan reflects on the unexpected ways he has experienced growth while serving as an Academic Specialist at St Labre Indian School in Ashland, Montana.

"Our land is everything to us… I will tell you one of the things that we remember on our land. We remember that our grandfathers paid for it – with their lives."

John Wooden Legs

Let me begin this correspondence with a land acknowledgement. For those of you who are unaware of the purpose of a land acknowledgement, it is “an expression of gratitude and appreciation to those whose territory we reside on and a way of honoring the people who have been living and working on this land from time immemorial” (Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, 2021). Land acknowledgments have become an integral component of my time here in Ashland, Montana, therefore, I will open each correspondence with the statement which follows: 

I humbly make a land acknowledgment in this moment, recognizing that as a Jesuit Volunteer, I stand upon the sacred ground of the Indigenous Northern Cheyenne and Crow peoples. While this acknowledgment is not enough in the fight for justice, it is once again a reminder of the history of systemic oppression and injustice which have occurred in this place. The inherent connection of this sacred land to its peoples – past, present, and future – is one which must remain at the forefront of our minds in this year of service as invited guests. Throughout my time here in Ashland, Montana, I am committed to not only a year of service at St. Labre Indian School but I am also committed to a process of listening and learning from the peoples in this sacred place. 

I am not sure what my expectations were coming into this year, but whatever they were, they were most certainly thrown out of the window within my first few moments. Moving to Ashland and embracing my new service position as a Fourth Grade Academic Specialist at St. Labre Indian School has been an adjustment. This year of service has challenged me more in a shorter space of time than many of my days in college. Indeed, for Mr. C, as I am now affectionately called by the students at St. Labre, this year has actively produced moments of growth, introspection, and reflection in ways beyond what I thought was possible prior to beginning my year with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest. To leave your service site at the end of an action-packed day and feel more energized than you were at the beginning of the day speaks to the way in which this place allows you to develop authentic relationships with those you meet. Spending 15 hours with students in various capacities is not something which has been required; rather, it is a desire to continue to grow in understanding and to have as many conversations as possible with some of the most impressive students I have ever met. I feel extremely blessed to have been invited to Ashland to serve and to learn from the people of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes. 

Sam, Will, and Meghan, and Conal on their first day of school serving at St. Labre Indian School.

Of course, it would be remiss of me to say that this transition has been straightforward. It simply has not been that way. Rather, the acuteness of challenges facing the Northern Cheyenne and Crow communities has been felt severely in recent times. Whether that was evacuation from the 170,000-acre Richard Springs Wildfire in early August; encountering significant grief and loss because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; or the reality of the injustices which have taken place, and continue to take place, on this sacred land, it is safe to say that these past few months have shifted the paradigm through which my life has been operating for the past 22 years. Above all else, my time here in Ashland has once again reinforced how crucial it is to first and foremost listen to the lived experiences of individuals who, historically, have been marginalized and disenfranchised. To process these challenges is indeed tough. Yet, it is important to recognize that to listen and to learn about such challenges from people within this community, as an invited guest, is an integral component of this year of service. It is from a place of privilege that I, as a Jesuit Volunteer, am witnessing how these events continue impact the Crow and Northern Cheyenne peoples. 

Despite the challenges which are present, I feel truly blessed to wake each morning to some of the most idyllic scenery, whether that is with 8 inches of snow or with the sun shining down upon the undulating hills. To arise to the sound of birds chirping and witnessing deer running through your front yard is a true gift. The connection that one feels here with the natural world is simply indescribable. There is a sincerity of being beyond much of what I have felt throughout my life to date. I have tried to place extra emphasis on the importance of solitude amid the chaos of everyday life by which we can become easily overwhelmed. To take a step back, breathe, and absorb the very essence of what life has to offer is a truly wonderful experience. It is in these moments of intentionality where I have been able to find great peace, stirring my soul to yearn for an even deeper connection with the very soil upon which we walk. It has been a blessing to listen to Elders within this community share their stories about the sanctity of this land and how they have been able to connect with the very essence of what it means to be one with nature. And for this education, I am deeply grateful.  

The unofficial motto of JVC Northwest is “Ruined for life.” And without doubt, that has already happened in the best possible way. I think one of my favorite books, Tuesdays with Morrie, sums it up best: 

“Once you get your fingers on the important questions, you can’t turn away from them” (175). 1

Indeed, I believe that it is in the moments of reflection, challenge, and introspection where the greatest learning emerges. It is up to each of us, as JVs and as agents of change, to decide exactly what we want to do with this learning. To simply show up and listen from the heart is often where change begins. Let it be so. 

Conal Fagan 
Ashland, MT (2021-22) 
K-4 Academic Support Specialist: St Labre Indian School 

  1. Albom, M. (2017). Tuesdays with Morrie: An old man, a young man, and lifes greatest lesson. New York: Broadway Books.

Gifts from donors like you allow stories of service and solidarity occur every day throughout the Pacific Northwest. Will you consider making a gift today to support our Jesuit Volunteers and JV EnCorps members? 

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