Montana’s American Indian Members Learn, Teach Their Traditions

Plenty Coups FFA chapter member Ronson LaRoque is a Native American member of the Crow tribe from Montana.
Plenty Coups FFA chapter members of the Crow tribe from Montana, teach other FFA members some traditional Crow dance steps.

Plenty Coups FFA chapter member Ronson LaRoque is a Native American member of the Crow tribe from Montana.

Plenty Coups FFA chapter member Ronson LaRoque is a Native American member of the Crow tribe from Montana.

Plenty Coups FFA chapter member Ronson LaRoque is a Native American member of the Crow tribe from Montana.

Plenty Coups FFA chapter members of the Crow tribe from Montana, teach other FFA members some traditional Crow dance steps.

Plenty Coups FFA chapter members of the Crow tribe from Montana, teach other FFA members some traditional Crow dance steps.

Plenty Coups FFA chapter members of the Crow tribe from Montana, teach other FFA members some traditional Crow dance steps.

As high schools go, there aren’t a lot of places like Plenty Coups in Pryor, Montana. With fewer than 100 students in grades 9 through 12, it’s exceptionally small. Set on the Crow Indian Reservation in the remote south central part of the state, the school is 100 percent American Indian. Many of the students speak Crow as their first language.

And the Plenty Coups FFA chapter? Well, maybe most remarkable is the fact that there is a chapter at all.

The Plenty Coups agriculture program has around 35 members, says advisor Laura Moore, who started the chapter herself in 2005.

Almost half the school, and sometimes even more, is in FFA, she says. They had a chapter here a long time ago, but not in many years. So we had to do everything from scratch – even our charter.

It wasn’t easy, she says, but it was definitely worth it.

“This is a very isolated place, and a lot of the students are really shy,” Moore explains. “Getting involved in FFA has really opened them up.”

The Same, Yet Different

For the students at Plenty Coups, Moore says, getting involved has meant doing a lot of the same things that kids in chapters anywhere else in the country might do – taking classes like horticulture, animal science, welding and woodworking, for example, or raising pigs, sheep, horses and chickens on the school’s new farm.

But it has also meant exposure to subjects that aren’t so ordinary.

“Each year we participate in the FFA American Indian Program,” Moore says. “It’s the perfect CDE (career development event) for them. Unlike with a lot of the other programs, they don’t feel so out of the loop with this one because it has to do with their culture.”

The objective of the American Indian CDE, for those who compete, is to educate the audience – be it at state or national competition – about agriculture in American Indian life.

The challenge? For most of the Plenty Coups members, it’s not a subject they know much about. Few live on farms, and most have little personal experience with traditional American Indian practices.

“So we study hard,” Moore says. “We’ve done 12 different topics over three years. Utilization of the buffalo, herbs and their uses, how to make Native paints, construction of the tepee, sweat lodge construction, and a bunch of others. It takes time – usually a month of solid research and interviews.”

As they prepare, the students also study traditional singing, American Indian dancing and, of course, public speaking. “By the time state competition rolls around, they’ve practiced enough that they’re ready for anything,” Moore says. “It’s just a matter of loosening up and they’re ready to go.”

While competing at state is honorable in its own right, for the students at Plenty Coups, it’s just one stop on their annual journey to nationals. They’ve made it to Indianapolis each of the last three years, and each year with stellar speeches; exceptional singing; and their colorful, crowd-pleasing dances they won.

“I always tell them I’m proud to be American Indian.”

Pride and Practice

Among those who have attended the national FFA convention are Eldawna Little Light and Roslyn Good Luck. Eldawna, a sophomore, has plans to run for state office one day. Roslyn, a senior, is headed to college and hopes to become a nurse.

Competing, says Eldawna, who especially enjoys the dancing, has been fun.

“We’ve had these traditional dances as part of our culture for a very long time,” she says. “I like showing them to people who know nothing about them, and then answering their questions. I always tell them I’m proud to be American Indian.”

Roslyn, for her part, says traveling to events like the national FFA convention has helped her develop self-confidence. At Indianapolis in 2008, she says, she delivered a speech on the traditional American Indian diet.

“The first time we performed here in Montana, I was really scared,” Roslyn describes. “My voice was shaking. But after a while I felt better, and eventually it was no big deal. And by the time we got to Indiana, it was a piece of cake.”

Moore says she has seen firsthand the difference FFA has made in her students’ lives.

“It’s amazing,” she describes. “Before we got this chapter started, some of these kids wouldn’t even talk to me. Now they’ve developed the self-esteem and the courage to go to nationals and perform on the main stage in front of thousands of people. They’re leaders now. They’ve been transformed.”

– Chris Hayhurst

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