By Sarah Wurst
I have been on the Crow Reservation for eight months. It feels absurd to even write that sentence, for the time has flown by in a whirl of recesses and powwows, community feeds and muddy drives on the reservation roads. And now spring is showing up on the edges of our lawn and in our hearts.
Since you last heard from me, my community (made up of three other volunteers and myself) finally had electricity hooked up to our trailer. Our job descriptions have shifted to meet the needs and understandings of our role as yearlong volunteers. We have been fully welcomed and absorbed by the community. The most perfect example of this is that all four of us were adopted into the Crow Clan System. I am now a part of the Piegan clan and a child of Ties the Bundle. (The clan system itself could be the subject of several articles.) For those of you who are interested in some background of the Crow people, I would highly recommend “Pretty-shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows” by Frank Linderman. I have been reading this book aloud to my third-graders in the afternoon. This is a different sort of experience than reading, say, “Charlotte’s Web” because of its cultural relevance and potency. I was hesitant to read “Pretty-shield” to them because of the vocabulary and some of the content, but they are following along with rapt attention, and I love bringing Pretty-shield’s word to life. (The great-great-great-grandson of Pretty-shield is in my class.)
When I can, I like to read The Jesuit Post online (thejesuitpost.org). I find it to be a wonderful tie to the broader organization that I am a part of as a Jesuit Volunteer. The down-to-earth, regular, world-infused spirituality with a focus on the vulnerable and a double-expresso of love, grace and glory are all very helpful to this theology nerd stranded in poverty-stricken America. (Actually, I shouldn’t make myself sound so isolated. While, admittedly, I do live in a town made up of three houses, a school, and a post office, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest does provide a network of fantastic resources, insight and thinking materials for its volunteers.)
Today I was reading there, and ran across this quote by John Steinbeck.
“First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing.”
I have learned that this kind of work is very scary, and also quite ineffective if you are not willing to open yourself up, stretch yourself out and be vulnerable. I have been in a constant state of newness and relative uncertainty for months. (I did not realize how important familiarity, normalness and unspoken understanding are until going without them for this long. They provided a peaceful ease that I had taken for granted.) Though this can be exhausting, there is also a certain joy that exists in its humility. I can only pray that I handle new and challenging situations correctly every day and constantly ask for pushes and guidance. Within that, extreme gratitude and yes, fantastic love, follow in the tiniest moments. Hearing an old woman’s stories as she looks at you with laughing eyes. A little girl making a traditional doll for you and naming it “Elk Woman.” A particularly poetic kindergartner requesting a piggyback so that he may “touch the sky.”
I find it funny that when I talk to my old classmates, who, mind you, are very familiar with collegiate and church-group-esque service trips, they always say something about “what an impact” I am making. While I make agreeable noises, I find myself inwardly flinching away from this description. This year has been about sharing: mutual giving, all helping in the small ways where we can. Yet, when it comes down to it, it is I who am being changed. It is the reservation that has had the impact on me.
(Sarah Wurst is a 2011 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport. She is spending a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana.)