The Greatest Gift I Could Have Received

Working with VISIONS Leaders & Kids in the Field, Again

By Katherine Dayton, Executive Director

Last spring when our Montana Blackfeet director had to cancel her VISIONS plans due to landing a year-round job, I reluctantly made plans to head back into the field to run a program. While site visits are common and I would be spending a few weeks on the Blackfeet for setup and training, it’s another thing to be 24/7 with a program from start to finish.

I made the leap, and just as our programs consistently transform the lives of teenagers and leaders, being back in the field full-time transformed me, too.

Twenty-seven years ago, after college graduation, I worked for VISIONS in the Dominican Republic and returned for five summers as a program leader. In 2000, I spent part of a season as a director on the Blackfeet program. I made natural connections with teens and their energy was my favorite part of the experience.

But now I’m 50.

And am now Executive Director of this fine organization—not a Program Director in the field. I connect more regularly with a keyboard and phone than bunk beds and communal breakfasts. I was excited, but a bit nervous—perhaps similar to how many of our teen volunteers feel before getting on a flight to their program.

Working Together

I admittedly didn’t always connect with the kids as much as I’d wished and was often more of a conductor than a band member. I rationalized it since my more youthful leader team was making meaningful connections and I was often tending to background logistics that are also necessary for a program to run well.

Nonetheless, we all worked together, took care of one another, and sat with each other on the grassy hill that overlooks the Yellow Bird Woman Sanctuary conservation ranch that we are so fortunate to caretake each summer. There are so many poignant moments from the group “Circle” meetings on that hill and kids’ reflections that remain indelible in my mind.

It’s as if the reflections were scripted to bring music to my ears for why we do this work, and continue to follow a model that we know goes beyond skin-deep. Kids reflected on the delight of being away from their phones, on making friends with people they wouldn’t normally get to know at school, and on being a part of the powerful culture of the Montana Blackfeet that was generously being offered up to learn from and share in.

There was often a breeze blowing the grasses while words and listening were shared. I would sometimes think about the past, when Blackfeet people’s land didn’t have these reservation boundaries— and the future, when these teens may be part of a generation more connected to indigenous knowledge, but also when the glaciers visible at neighboring Glacier National Park may be fully melted. I was impressed by their optimism. I embraced it.

Simple, Lovely Traditions

I was only slotted to direct one session, but I didn’t want to leave when it was over. So I pulled a few strings with the home office team and stayed for the next session. The participants were just as incredible, and moved by their time on the Blackfeet Nation. I continued to be given the gift of doing this type of work.

During the two sessions, we were invited to participate in Circle Camp with the Horn Society and Brave Dogs. We joined Joe Kipp, a Sundance Bundle Holder, to help set up the tipi lodge and then attend the ceremony. Our teens helped with the Child Nutrition Program, built wheelchair ramps for veterans, did huckleberry surveys in Glacier National Park, gave some needed attention to puppies at the shelter, and so much more.

We created a new tradition of having participants unload at the ranch gate from the minivans and truck that make up our unassuming fleet. From the gate, they’d walk the mile-long dirt driveway to the humble ranch homestead where we live. It was partly a logistical move to keep our minivans from getting damaged by the potholes, but it was also an opportunity to live a bit more like the old days, when young people’s leisure time included walking together with no real rush, no worries about resumes or college applications, and just taking in their surroundings, chatting along the way. Val and Arthur Westwolf’s horses often were grazing in the fields along the dirt road.

While watching the kids stroll along, I often wished I was a walker instead of a driver.

Once they headed home at the end of the summer and I remained at the ranch, I walked the driveway many times, often barefoot, which was taught to me by two of my beloved leaders who took me closer to the carefree days of childhood.

The Ranch

The ranch where we live is owned by the Blackfeet Indian Land Trust (BILT), an organization created by the mighty Elouise Cobell, who—if you haven’t heard of her—you may want to learn about. Due to technicalities over how the Montana Secretary of State defined a “Trust,” the word was changed to “Conservation Corporation,” which Elouise wouldn’t accept. Through her hallmark perseverance, Trust was returned and was infinitely symbolic of her 13-year long battle of a larger kind, against the U.S. Federal Government, for broken trust that totaled $176 billion in mismanaged Indian funds dating back to the 1800s.

Unlike the programs of years past when Elouise would talk with kids and blow their minds with alarming history lessons, we now watch the “100 Years” documentary film about her, since she passed away in 2011. We also have wonderful guests like Mark Magee (president of the BILT board), Andre Gussman, who teaches traditional crafts using tanned buffalo hides, and others who share their stories.

VISIONS teen volunteers decorate a buffalo hide

All of these simple things—group meetings on the hill, walks, meals together, service projects and cultural events—amounted to an experience that has sweetened the weeks and months since the summer ended. When I talk with our alumni and they share how they see or feel a bit differently after their program, I can relate again in firsthand ways. For this, I get to thank the participants, leader team, Blackfeet friends, and the land that supported us all.

Just Couldn’t Leave

And if that wasn’t enough, one of our leaders and I decided to stay on the reservation to spend time with local friends who we often don’t get enough time with while running a program. We were going to stay for a few days, then a week, and then we decided to help set up a triple lodge tipi for a Beaver Bundle ceremony, to which we were then invited to attend. We also joined our friend Leon Rattler for an encampment in Glacier National Park that was meant to bridge understanding between the tribe and the Park. We relished any time we had with Leon, a member of the Brave Dog Society, artist and educator, who helps indigenous groups bring back lost cultural traditions.

As long as we were there, we decided to continue one of the summer traditions of fostering puppies that didn’t have homes. These five little kiddos loved helping shoo cattle off the homestead each morning, taking hikes, and wrestling each other in a puppy-idyllic situation. 

Small projects, meals with community friends, scouting new hikes, and making plans for next summer suddenly had a week ticking by, then another and another, until summer had turned to fall and winter was knocking on the door of this mountainous high ground.

Graham, the leader with whom I spent this extra month, is a southerner who likes warm weather, and locals’ stories of 8’ snow banks and negative 30 to 40 winter temperatures were enough to make us consider that long driveway. The truck can only get through so much snow and the antiquated ranch heating system and small wood stove were only going to keep us so warm.

After what had turned into almost four months this year on the Blackfeet—between setup, two programs, and an additional month—it was time to button up the ranch for the season. I now get to look forward to a couple winter visits to see Blackfeet friends (just a four or five hour drive from our home office in Bozeman) along with this spring’s setup.

More to Come!

Being back in the field has also inspired me to help run upcoming group custom programs in the Dominican Republic and Peru this year, and to return for at least part of next summer to the Blackfeet Reservation.

For anyone who has the chance to step away from other life responsibilities in order to get outside and immerse themselves with community in some shape or form, I’d highly recommend taking the opportunity to do so! (You could even go with VISIONS through one of our Custom Programs if you’re past your teen years but still want to have experiences like this!) 

VISIONS executive director Katherine hiking in Montana 2

VISIONS in The New York Times