Middle School Service Program
Opening Eyes and Minds to Life on the Reservation
“The community service part of the trip was outstanding. Each day I felt really good about what I was doing.”
Embracing Projects That Matter
Montana reservations are among VISIONS oldest program sites and truly special places. We have relationships with Blackfeet organizations spanning three decades and the collaboration has meant deep connections, mutual understanding and project accomplishments. This partnership between the Nature Conservancy and Blackfeet Nation is a model for other tribes seeking to preserve their lands. As the sanctuary ranch summer caretakers, VISIONS teens help renovate buildings, repair fences, remove invasive plant species and more.
We do age-appropriate building projects that are led by our staff carpenter and include everything from picnic tables that are used in public spaces to wheelchair ramps for elders, community garden infrastructure and playground improvements. Work also encompasses environmental and social initiatives. VISIONS kids and leaders have become the honorary caretakers of the Yellow Bird Woman Sanctuary, the conservation ranch where we live and that serves as important habitat for the Glacier ecosystem. We maintain fences, remove invasive weed species and also assist with a culture camp for Blackfeet kids that now functions at the ranch.
“The kids in the program were all awesome and they added so much to the experience. I think some of the friendships I made during this program were the best I’ve ever made.”
Making Meaningful Connections
The ranch where we live is a few miles outside the main reservation town of Browning. We receive wonderful Blackfeet guests at the ranch and also make connections in town, where many of our projects take place. You’ll chat with dinner guests and learn more about their lives, get to know people whose homes we help to improve, spend time with local kids and elders at community events, take a reservation tour with a tribal friend, and become a part of this place that holds such power and history for the Blackfeet Nation.
“We got to go out and explore a lot. The camping trip was the most fun for me and a good bonding moment for the campers. I had a great time on this trip and I am looking forward to next year.”
Setting Out To Go Beyond
Middle schoolers who are taking the next step from summer sleep-away camp won’t be disappointed by the plethora of activities and adventures ahead. We will reside and recreate in one of the most breathtaking areas of the country. We hike, go horseback riding, swim in mountain streams and see some of the wildlife of the Rocky Mountains. We also learn Native crafts, get to know Browning and the local Trading Post, visit the tribe’s buffalo herd, tour the Museum of the Plains Indian, and attend one of the summer street dances.
Activities and Excursions
- Ride horses along the border of Glacier National Park
- Play games and sports at the ranch
- Do a fun cultural scavenger hunt in town
- Hike and swim; learn about local plants and animals
- Get to know our guest speakers and craft teachers
- Pack picnic lunches that are enjoyed next to a mountain stream
- Bolster your learning at the Museum of the Plain Indian
Yellow Bird Woman
Elouise Pepion Cobell, also known by the Blackfeet name Yellow Bird Woman, left an indelible impact on communities far and wide. A tribal elder, rancher and accountant, her story stands out in history as that of what President Obama called “A Champion of Native American rights.” For VISIONS, she represents the model of an engaged citizen, and she connected us to the land, history and community of the Blackfeet Nation in a profound way.
Elouise’s legacy as a tribal activist developed from her career in banking. She served as the Treasurer of the Blackfeet Tribe for more than a decade, founded the first national bank located on a reservation and owned by a Native American tribe, and won a MacArthur Genius Award for her work on Native financial literacy. Her credentials do not end there, and most notably Elouise was the lead plaintiff in a landmark class-action suit against the U.S. Department of the Interior and Department of the Treasury for mismanagement of Indian funds.
While Treasurer, Elouise discovered irregularities in accounting that showed the Federal Government had been short-changing tribes across the country since the 1800s. She spent more than a decade seeking reform in Washington D.C. before she and other Native American representatives filed the suit in 1996. We now know this case as Cobell v. Salazar, which was ultimately settled in 2009 for $3.4 billion. By then it had spanned three presidencies, engendered seven trials and gone before a federal appeals court ten times. The settlement was allocated to paying personal damages, repurchasing land for reservations and communal tribal ownership, and a scholarship fund for Native students named the Cobell Educational Scholarship Fund in honor of Elouise. In the aftermath of the settlement, the Secretary of the Interior created a new commission to evaluate the Indian Trust system and in 2016 President Obama awarded Elouise with a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Elouise was an inspired communicator. And every summer she took time out of her rigorous schedule to meet with VISIONS students, who were riveted by hearing her account of Blackfeet struggles and the throughline relationship of those struggles to the injustices that had been propped up by the case . We were also honored to hear about the Cobell case directly from Elouise, who always brought clarity to complex and century-old issues.
In the early 2000s, Elouise invited our program to be the summer caretakers of a beautiful conservation ranch on the reservation, a responsibility and homebase that we continue to honor today. After Elouise passed in 2011, the ranch was renamed the Yellow Bird Woman Sanctuary. Although she is no longer with us in body, Elouise is part of our program through spirit and family. Her brother, Dale Pepion, managed the ranch and was a beloved friend until his passing in January 2019, and her niece Joan Cobell is our dinner cook.
To learn more about Elouise’s impact on VISIONS, read here what our Executive Director, Katherine Dayton, shared after Elouise passed. And to learn more about Elouise’s work, check out the documentary, 100 Years.
Middle School Program Blog Posts
Read what others have said about their experience in this location. You also are welcome to contact the VISIONS office to request student and parent references.
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Feel free to contact us with any questions! We are happy to help find the best program to meet your goals for the summer.