This is heaven, This is my land, This is Crow land, This is home. -Icezada Little Light, National Geographic Photo Camp Student
“I can be on a plane to Montana tomorrow” I said confidently. “Book the ticket,” Stacy Gold replied. My stomach fell through the trapdoor of anxiety as I tapped the red circular end call button on my phone. I didn’t know if the trip would produce the miracle I had just promised, but like a rock climber on a difficult ascent who is past the point of no return – my only option was up.
On my first trip to Montana twenty one years before I had felt this same knot of anxiety as I pulled off Highway 90 past the hot pink colored Ammaaiisshuuwuua laundry mat that sits on Makawasha Ave across the street from the white and red Teepee gas station in the reservation town of Crow Agency. I was a tall and lanky 18 year old filled with wanderlust. As I watched my friends enroll in various universities around the country, I packed my small gold colored Nissan Sentra and drove from Virginia to Montana to volunteer at an after-school youth center filled with ping pong and foosball tables on the Apsáalooke (Crow Indian) reservation. The rain washed streets and dense green canopy I knew from Virginia couldn’t look more different than eastern Montana’s alfalfa covered hills that looked like massive green ocean swells under an endless sky. I had discovered photography two years earlier in high school and had the crazy dream that someday I would be a professional photographer. To that end I had packed my Minolta Maxxum 8000i and a few rolls of black and white film in the back of my hatchback and this new, strange, big sky landscape captivated me.
Within weeks of my residency in a room a hundred yards from the Northern Pacific Railway tracks in Crow Agency, I realized it was much more than the landscape that had taken me captive. There was something different, something hard to place a finger on, something the Apsáalooke people shared that was incredibly powerful. I noticed when a man tripped and fell on the uneven sidewalk of Makawasha Ave, a complete stranger, handed him a couple dollars. I noticed every time I visited a home, no matter the time of day or night, food was pushed into my hands – even when many of the homes seemed to be living meal-to-meal. At first, this baffled me. It went against the law of the jungle. The law of conserving limited recourses. As the bitter winds of winter raced onto the planes of Montana, I began to understand. I moved from my house by the tracks into the home of Kenneth and Hannah Pretty On Top where I witnessed this kindness and generosity every day. I realized the intangible I had failed to grasp could be summed up in the Apsáalooke word Ashammaliaxxiia. Ashammaliaxxiia is the word for the Apsáalooke clan system and it translates to “Driftwood Lodges.” As the name metaphorically implies, the purpose of the clan system is to provide spiritual and material support to one another. Just as driftwood bands together in turbulent waters, so do the Apsáalooke people. As spring turned to summer, Kenneth and Hannah adopted me into the Pretty On Top family. I had fallen in love with this place, I had fallen in love with the Apsáalooke people, and now I too was a branch in this driftwood lodge.
Now, 21 years later, I found myself braced against the wind on the black tarmac parking lot of the Billings airport in search of my rental car with a knot of stress in my stomach. Against all odds, I had managed fulfill the crazy dream of my younger self, and become a professional photographer. Thanks to a chance encounter the year before with Apsáalooke tribal member and anthropologist Aaron Brien, we had hatched a plan to bring the National Geographic Photo Camp to the Crow Reservation. Aaron had been one of the 12 year old kids playing ping-pong and foosball in the after-school youth center I ran in Crow Agency in the 90’s – and now was a rising star in the world of anthropology with a recent masters degree and TEDx talk under his belt. It quickly became a new dream to share the vocation that I was passionate about with a group of high school students that were the same age I was when I discovered photography. Over the course of many conversations about what the camp might look like, Aaron said “You know JK, the clan system was given to us to keep us socially and spiritually alive – and the idea of it is dying. It is the one thing that makes Crows unique and it needs to be an everyday thing. But we don’t teach that anymore. What if we used photography as the tool to talk about the clan system?” I was sold, and much to our delight, National Geographic was sold as well. There was only one problem. It was early May, the camp was scheduled to begin in a month and we only had 1 student enrolled.
A lot has changed on the reservation since I lived there in the 90’s. The small community college has blossomed into an incredible campus of modern geometric patterned brick structures complete with fiber optic internet connections. The trash that lined the streets of Crow Agency has largely disappeared thanks to residential pickup that was implemented 8 years ago. But even in the age of cell phones and Facebook – the only way to get work done in Crow country is still face-to-face. Aaron and I had budgeted a week to visit the schools on the reservation to recruit students, but thanks to some incredible help from guidance councilors and staff at St. Labre and Hardin High schools the photo camp was full after the first day of visits. By the time I boarded the airplane in Billings at the end of the week, the knot of stress had turned into a knot of joyful anticipation for the camp.