BETWEEN NATIONS: Choosing to live on or off reservations

Story by Kath­eryn Houghton
Pho­tos by Leslie Hittmeier


THE FADED black and white photo was the first clue Carol Gilham found that hinted at the two years her fam­ily lived in San Jose when they left behind their reser­va­tion life of Fort Peck located in the north­east­ern cor­ner of Montana.

The photo, which has since been lost, was from 1958. She still remem­bers its yel­low­ing edges faded into the image of Gilham as a tod­dler rid­ing a carousel with her two older sis­ters. The ride looked new to Gilham, like they were at an amuse­ment park or fair, but she couldn’t quite tell.

She remem­bers study­ing the photo, its grey tones spun into bright col­ors as she imag­ined how the carousel must have been then.

Now, more than 40 years later, she remem­bers look­ing through the pho­tos as a child from the liv­ing room of their home in Fort Peck, in which the floors sank every time she walked across its center.

The images showed a stark dif­fer­ence between the life she remem­bers, grow­ing up on Montana’s most remote reser­va­tion, the home of the Assini­boine and Sioux tribes, and the life she could have had in the city. They sparked her curios­ity. Gilham wanted to know why they ever left Mon­tana and why they ulti­mately came back.

Major Robinson's kids, Kira and Colton, play at their home on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. It is important to Robinson that his children grow up knowing about their culture as Northern Cheyenne Indians.She can’t remem­ber when or how she asked but she can vividly remem­ber her mom’s answer: Life in the city wasn’t what it looked like.

Her mom described the Thanks­giv­ing they didn’t have any food, “not even baby for­mula for me,” Gilham said. Her mom said while the weather seemed warm, she felt cold every night in the rows of tin dwelling units that Native Amer­i­cans lived in.

When she got to the part of the story where an anony­mous per­son left a frozen turkey on their doorstep with all of the season’s fix­ings, Gilham said her mom began to cry. Though she never asked and her mom never said so, Gilham believed the tears came from the mem­ory of find­ing unim­pos­ing gen­eros­ity on their doorstep.

They were all Native Amer­i­can and all poor for the most part,” she said of the inter-tribal com­mu­nity within the city. “No mat­ter where they were from, they made their own fam­ily because their home, their tribe, was so far way.”

Much like Gilham’s fam­ily, Native Amer­i­cans face a con­stant con­flict: A push to move into a city, go to school, find a job, per­haps start a fam­ily and a pull to stay on the reser­va­tion, where there’s fam­ily and gen­er­a­tions of sup­port. The con­flict is rea­son­able, tribal reser­va­tions are often impov­er­ished and have unem­ploy­ment rates well into the dou­ble dig­its. Urban areas are increas­ingly becom­ing rife with promise and opportunity.

IT TAKES 206 miles of high­way and nearly four hours for Dustin Mon­roe to return to his Brown­ing home, the Black­feet Nation.

Monroe’s life has always been split between the reser­va­tion and Mon­tana cities.

A social bar­rier formed, like I wasn’t accepted in either world,” he said. “In the city I was a brown kid with a ‘rez’ accent but when we returned to the reser­va­tion I was a white kid just because I went to school in Great Falls.”

Now a Uni­ver­sity of Mon­tana grad­u­ate stu­dent pur­su­ing a degree in pub­lic admin­is­tra­tion, Mon­roe said he ini­tially felt like he had tRhonda Hogstad left the Blackfeet Indian Reservation at 17 years old and never looked back. She graduated from Montana State University and lives in Billings with her family. Hogstad has no interest in going back to the reservation; she does not want her kids to experience what it feels like to live in "survival mode."o pick a side — Native Amer­i­can or urban.

It comes down to this ten­sion. How Indian am I?” he said. “Many believe if they leave the reser­va­tion they are turn­ing their back on their people.”

Peo­ple are drawn off reser­va­tions because of insta­bil­ity, he said. Tribal gov­ern­ment has a high turn around rate, which can lead to eco­nomic uncer­tainty because the major­ity of jobs are tied to tribal government.

A first gen­er­a­tion col­lege grad­u­ate, Mon­roe said he now has an even stronger sense of respon­si­bil­ity to Native Amer­i­cans, col­lec­tively, not just those from his tribe.

While the major­ity of Native Amer­i­cans have moved to cities, fed­eral gov­ern­ment pol­icy has not fol­lowed suit, he said.

The rep­re­sen­ta­tion is not there yet,” Mon­roe said. “I felt like I had to do some­thing because I’m tired of wait­ing on my reser­va­tion, I’m tired of wait­ing on leaders.”

In response, Mon­roe founded Native Gen­er­a­tional Change, a Missoula-based non­profit that aims to form a com­mu­nity model of gov­er­nance. Instead of rely­ing on tribal pol­i­tics or fed­eral fund­ing, Mon­roe said he believes change needs to come from indi­vid­u­als work­ing together.

“In the city I was a brown kid with a ‘rez’ accent but when we returned to the reser­va­tion I was a white kid just because I went to school in Great Falls.”

He hopes to one day cre­ate pol­icy change at a state and fed­eral level to strengthen the voice of Native Americans.

For now, Monroe’s busi­ness meet­ings take place in cof­fee houses where he and vol­un­teers try to address modern-day con­cerns for Native Amer­i­cans, as opposed to think­ing of them as a prod­uct of his­tor­i­cal tragedy.

He is work­ing on the Play­ground Restora­tion Project, an effort to build vibrant, safe play­grounds on the poor­est parts of Mon­tana reservations.

The main ques­tion among Native Amer­i­cans shouldn’t be where they live but how they can main­tain their cul­tural iden­tity, he said. In fact, his work has helped Mon­roe come to terms with the con­flict that buf­feted him as a “white boy with a rez accent.”

I choose both,” he said. “I can help my peo­ple from any­where whether that is from within reser­va­tions or Missoula.”

IN THE LAST 20 years Major Robin­son rein­vented his career three times, moved to 10 dif­fer­ent cities and trav­eled across continents.

I grew up hear­ing from my par­ents and tribal lead­ers, ‘Go get a for­mal edu­ca­tion then come home to share your skills,’” Robin­son said. “No mat­ter where I went it was in my thoughts.”

Major Robinson and his daughter Jorian watch the horses in the field next to their house.  Their land and house, which Robinson renovated, is where he grew up. He says they spend their weekends hiking, fishing or riding horses.Robin­son placed his hand on the beam that had sup­ported the weight of the two story wooden tepee that stood on the North­ern Cheyenne reser­va­tion since 1931. It was one of the key parts of the land­mark he wanted to save. Light and wind fil­tered through the cracks of the structure.

I remem­ber as a kid, it was a meet­ing ground for my peo­ple to share our sto­ries and his­tory,” Robin­son said.

Robin­son tilted his head as he began to describe the blue­print in his mind. He moved his left hand to fol­low the curve of the teepee — they would build a stair­case to fol­low the wall up to the sec­ond story, which could be used as a gift shop. The first floor would be a story telling room again.

His eyes fol­lowed the paths left by his mem­o­ries. He pointed through a hole in the wall to a log cabin across the street. Many peo­ple believe the cabin was the first build­ing on the reser­va­tion. To Robin­son, it is where his par­ents and nine other sib­lings would stop by and get candy on spe­cial occa­sions — it would also need to be restored.

Though Robin­son had always been encour­aged to come home, when he finally did peo­ple treated him with hesitance.

When you come home, peo­ple look at you like, ‘You’re going to take my job’ and they were fear­ful that I was here to take away some­thing that they had — and I never looked at it that way, I wasn’t here to take anyone’s job, I was here to cre­ate another opportunity.”

A few miles down the road Robin­son parked his Hum­mer out­side the Lame Deer tribal cour­t­house. He hopes to unite the cour­t­house with the law enforce­ment offices and adult jail, each of which sit sep­a­rately, into one new building.

One of three wooden teepees built in 1931 still stands in Busby. Major Robinson was invited by the residents of Busby to help make a master plan to renovate the structure and make it part of a new campground that will be called Custer's Last Camp.To the right of the offices, a tree’s shadow falls on an empty lot. It’s where his child­hood home once stood. It was a two-room build­ing for 10 peo­ple. It had no run­ning water. Robin­son shared a bed with three siblings.

It is strange, work­ing where I can see my child­hood, my per­sonal his­tory every­where,” he said. “But it feels good to be con­tribut­ing to the place I grew up.”

Robin­son, 55, started Red­stone Con­sult­ing on the North­ern Cheyenne reser­va­tion in 2007 as a way to break back into the work­force on his reser­va­tion and cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties for other Native Amer­i­cans to find employment.

Robin­son has been on every Mon­tana reser­va­tion to work on projects such as water infra­struc­tures, tribal cen­ters, deten­tion cen­ters and com­mu­nity build­ings. His build­ings often reflect the desert-red of the land­scape and the light blue of his tribe’s color. He uses nat­ural wood to mir­ror the tribe’s spir­i­tual con­nec­tion to the outdoors.

Robin­son left the North­ern Cheyenne reser­va­tion at 18 for Mon­tana State Uni­ver­sity to major in the­atre arts. At first he couldn’t relate to the other stu­dents or his teach­ers and often made the five hour drive home just to feel what it was like to belong. But that anx­i­ety didn’t last. Robin­son began to crave the unknown and wanted to see what it was like, first out­side the reser­va­tion, then even­tu­ally out­side of Montana.

Major Robinson talks about his plan to renovate a wooden teepee in Busby. “Maybe we will build a staircase along that all up to the second floor, use the first floor as a story-telling room and the second as a shop,” he said. “We will paint it the colors of Northern Cheyenne: light blue for the people and burnt orange for the landscape.”He dropped out of col­lege his sopho­more year and joined a mul­ti­cul­tural act­ing troupe, with which he trav­elled through 20 coun­tries in one year. But at the same time he was filled with a sense of guilt, leav­ing school felt like he had given up on his tribe and family.

He returned to col­lege to study archi­tec­ture, a field that would allow him to phys­i­cally design and con­struct his ideas. He didn’t know where the job would lead him, but knew it could be applied anywhere.

After grad­u­a­tion he spent his days design­ing theme parks in Los Ange­les by day and try­ing to pur­sue his act­ing pas­sion in movie audi­tion rooms at night. How­ever his designs drew atten­tion from a Japan­ese theme park so he set out for Tokyo.

I went just about as far away from my reser­va­tion as pos­si­ble, not because I was escap­ing, but because I just wanted to see and do more,” he said. “But home was always the end goal.

He even­tu­ally ended up in Florida, work­ing for Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios, where he met his wife, Michelle.

After being away from the reser­va­tion for over a decade, Robinson’s tug to bring what he had learned back to his tribe grew too strong to ignore. It was time to go home.

In 2006, Robin­son moved to the same view he had as a 14-year-old, only this time he had a wife, three kids and no defined role to play on his reservation.

Robin­son started Red­stone Con­sult­ing in Billings, but focused on projects in the nearby Crow and North­ern Cheyenne reser­va­tions. He had lit­tle com­pe­ti­tion from other busi­nesses and a work­force that, for the most part, had no inten­tion of moving.

Major Robinson stands in front of the new Northern Cheyenne Utilities Center in Lame Deer. Robinson helped turn what was once a swimming pool changing room into a new facility for utilities workers. He also brought on many Northern Cheyenne tribal members in need of work to help remodel the building. Since return­ing home, Robin­son has co-founded the Mon­tana Indian Busi­ness Alliance, the Mon­tana Tribal Tourism Alliance and the People’s Part­ners for Com­mu­nity Devel­op­ment and helped form the Indian Non­profit Alliance. He has also been a mem­ber of the State-Tribal Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment Com­mis­sion and the Governor’s Amer­i­can Indian Nations Council.

Philip Belangie, the man­ager for the Indian Entre­pre­neur Pro­gram said many peo­ple attempt to explain the poverty of the reser­va­tions by point­ing to cor­rup­tion, alco­holism or school-dropout rates. How­ever, those are just symp­toms the gov­ern­ment has too much influ­ence over the econ­omy, he said.

If the pri­vate sec­tor is not cho­sen within Indian Coun­try, the only alter­na­tive is poverty,” Belangie said. “It’s just true.”

For a busi­ness to be suc­cess­ful two things are needed, start-up funds and prop­erty, nei­ther of which are com­mon on reservations.

Over 80 per­cent of start-up busi­nesses get their fund­ing from per­sonal sav­ings, fam­ily mem­bers or friends, accord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Com­merce. For most peo­ple liv­ing on reser­va­tions that form of fund­ing is just not exis­tent, Belangie said.

Even if they could afford it, leg­is­la­tion has made it hard for peo­ple to find places to put their businesses.

Under the 1887 Dawes Act, land could be allot­ted to indi­vid­ual Native Amer­i­cans. But by 1934 so much land had been pri­va­tized that Con­gress reversed course and com­mu­nal tribal prop­erty was back in favor.

Major Robinson's oldest daughter, Jorian, wanders to the neighbor’s field to watch the horses. The 13-year-old spent some of her early years in cities when her dad took jobs in faraway places, but now she is happily settled on the reservation.Today the vast major­ity of land on reser­va­tions is held com­mu­nally which leads to what econ­o­mists termed the tragedy of the com­mons: If every­one owns the land, no one does.

The chal­lenges of form­ing busi­nesses on reser­va­tions should not deter peo­ple from try­ing,” Robin­son said. “It’s impor­tant for those who come after us.”

The tribe’s future gen­er­a­tions wouldn’t have to leave to find work if job diver­sity and sta­bil­ity were to grow on reser­va­tions, Robin­son said. A busi­ness com­mu­nity is the first step to cre­at­ing the envi­ron­ment for progress in reservations.

There are plenty of oppor­tu­ni­ties to grow what we have here,” he said. “It is hard, but extremely pos­si­ble. That devel­op­ment means more tribal mem­bers can be employed, and those who have left can come home to work here again.”

THE SECOND time Carol Gilham left Fort Peck was 38 years ago, this time as an adult. She describes her­self as a prod­uct of urban relo­ca­tion, the fed­eral pro­gram that promised career train­ing, finan­cial aid and a one-way ticket to a major urban loca­tion to Native Amer­i­cans, includ­ing Gilham’s parents.

While she doesn’t remem­ber her family’s expe­ri­ence in San Jose, it instilled in her a pull toward adventure.

When I left, it was never a ques­tion of choos­ing between a reser­va­tion and a city, or because of the poverty on my reser­va­tion, it was all about where to go next — every­thing felt possible.”

Gilham said when her par­ents left, they were prob­a­bly also look­ing for an adven­ture and a job other than work­ing as a teacher, bar­tender or farmer.

Katelyn Barcus moved off the Blackfeet Indian Reservation her junior year of high school. Her parents, Don and Johnel Barcus, didn't want her to be alone the first time she experienced being a minority, so they moved with her to Billings. Barcus is a communications major at the University of Montana. She loves living in Missoula and hopes to correct stereotypes people have about Native American people.The Bureau of Indian Affairs-sponsored Vol­un­tary Relo­ca­tion Pro­gram lasted from 1952–1973 and suc­cess­fully drew over 100,000 Native Amer­i­cans to about five pri­mary urban loca­tions, accord­ing to a 2013 doc­u­men­tary, “Urban Rez.”

Mon­tana Native Amer­i­cans greatly ignored the pro­gram and stayed home, at first.

In 1957, the Billings Gazette reported 544 Mon­tana Native Amer­i­cans par­tic­i­pated in the pro­gram that year alone, an increase from the pre­vi­ous year by more than 300 people.

The pro­gram was masked as a tool to help Native Amer­i­cans flee from poverty, but in actu­al­ity it was tied to an effort known as the period of ter­mi­na­tion, said David Beck, a Uni­ver­sity of Mon­tana Native Amer­i­can Stud­ies professor.

The Urban Relo­ca­tion Pro­gram was designed to reduce the Fed­eral Government’s legal oblig­a­tions to tribes, as well as assim­i­late Native Amer­i­cans into the blur of the “ideal Amer­i­can cul­ture,” he said.

Beck said the relo­ca­tion pro­gram was intro­duced to the great-grandchildren of those who had been forced off their land. How­ever, it was still appeal­ing to Native Amer­i­cans because of scarcity on reservations.

They were look­ing for an escape, for a chance to deter­mine their own careers and lives,” Beck said.
The prod­uct was suc­cess and the mar­ket was young fam­i­lies. But, accord­ing to her mother, Gilham’s fam­ily found dif­fer­ent results.

After two harsh years of poverty and sep­a­ra­tion from their fam­ily, Gilham’s par­ents were drained of their sense of adven­ture and they longed for their reser­va­tion. Her father bor­rowed money from his par­ents to move back to Fort Peck and decided to become a farmer so he could still cre­ate his own destiny.

As an adult, Gilham felt a sim­i­lar pull to the reser­va­tion. She felt a gap between her fam­ily and her tribe.

I do feel bad about the fact my kids, and now grand­kids, are some­what sep­a­rate from their cul­ture,” she said. “They, and younger gen­er­a­tions like them, don’t know that his­tory unless they make the point of seek­ing it out in this busy world.”

Nema Harrison plays with her daughter at a park across the street from their house in Billings. Harrison moved from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation when she was 18. She has gone back periodically, but always ends up leaving. All four of her siblings also left the reservation and are living in cities.After meet­ing her hus­band, the cou­ple moved to Fort Peck where Gilham taught high school for four years. She even­tu­ally moved to Billings and secured a job as an account­ing offi­cer with the BIA, to the sur­prise of her parents.

I knew I was work­ing for this orga­ni­za­tion that wasn’t friendly to my par­ents and it felt like I was a trai­tor,” she said. “But I had all these ideas that I could at least do my part to really help Indian peo­ple, how­ever naive it seemed at the time.”

The BIA is also a place for Native Amer­i­cans to use their edu­ca­tions to work from cities for their peo­ple, she said.

Help­ing Native Amer­i­cans from her Billings home is how Gilham stays con­nected to her cul­ture. The mem­o­ries of her life grow­ing up with a ranch­ing father, a small home filled with fam­ily mem­bers and a love for Mon­tana will always be a part of who she is.

When­ever I hear an Indian drum it takes me back to my child­hood,” she said. “When I smell the mix of sweet­ness and earth, I am brought back to the reser­va­tion. I know where I am from – I know I am a Native American.”