Point Your Tepee East

With sincere thanks to Colonel Berris “Bear” Samples

Tepees are the historic dwelling places of Plains Indians like the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes of Montana. The tepee itself is regarded as a second mother, a sacred place of protection and renewal. Every morning when a Native American would emerge from the tepee, it was as though he was being reborn with the possibility to start life anew. Plains Indians always pointed the tepee entrance east to face the rising sun; east where all new things come from.

Last summer Berris “Bear” Samples brought a new thing to Indian cadets from the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes. Samples is a former Young Life area director and retired 35-year Army colonel who teaches Junior ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) at Lodge Grass High School on Montana’s Crow Indian Reservation. With fellow instructor Joe Chargualaf (Sergeant C) and Young Life’s Montana Region, Samples piloted the first-ever JROTC summer training week at Crooked Creek Ranch in Colorado.

Typically, JROTC cadets attend Cadet Leadership Challenge camps to test themselves on ropes and obstacle courses, and to practice teamwork during land and water activities. That sounds familiar. Volleyball tournament, anyone? In fact, Young Life camp offers many challenges and adventures like JROTC camp; just add fabulous food, crazy fun and a welcoming acceptance that can’t be forgotten.

All this for me?

Stina Wallace, a JROTC cadet, remembered arriving at Crooked Creek to the cheers of the work crew and summer staff. “I was scared to get off the bus,” she said. “Why were they doing this? Now I know it was to make it fun for me. I felt accepted there.” Elaine Stone, a Cadet Lieutenant Colonel, said the welcome struck her right away. “When we first got there, everyone was excited to see us. I was surprised by that.”

Sergeant C explained that this was the first trip off the reservation for most of the cadets, and none expected such a warm welcome. “It was an eye-opener for me and the kids. The reception they received everywhere in camp was new to them.”

Different and that’s OK

And if Young Life camp surprised the cadets, they surprised some people at camp too. Frank Ivey, camp speaker for the week, remembered the JROTC leaders asking when the cadets could wear their camouflage fatigues. “How about day two, for the volleyball tournament?” we suggested. On day two, Ivey awoke early for the camp staff “chalk talk” and saw groups of cadets strolling around camp in full fatigue uniform. For a while that morning Crooked Creek looked like a military base. “They were up earlier than any other kids in camp,” Ivey said. “Their shirts were tucked neatly into their trousers, their trousers tucked into their boots. It was quite a sight.”

He also recalled that when the other campers appeared on the scene in their customary uniform — shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops — they accepted the Indian cadets all the same. “There is a lot of grace given to all kids at Young Life camp. It’s as though kids regard each other and say, ‘Well, this is different, and that’s OK.’”

Obstacles and other courses

One evening, cadets from the Lame Deer and Crow reservations experienced the obstacle course, an activity designed to foster cabin unity. For several of the cadets, it was a camp highlight, and a chance to exercise their considerable teamwork skills in a shared objective to protect their leader. And, it was an easier course to navigate than what many of the cadets encounter on the reservation. Poverty, heavy alcohol and drug use, child and sexual abuse, are prevalent on the reservation. More devastating is the sense of hopelessness and fatalism of young people in the tribes. According to Samples, a number of cadets said they didn’t expect to live past the age of 30 because none of their family members had, and “every one of the boys at camp had considered suicide.”

Getting the Indian cadets to lower their barriers and begin to trust is one important step toward healing. Camp provided many opportunities to grow in both trust and faith. For Tanisha Redfield and her friend, Kelly Blackfoot, that happened on the ropes course. That was Tanisha’s favorite spot because, she said, “we had to trust in other people and in ourselves.” The girls were paired as buddies on the ropes course on an especially rainy day. “We were 30 feet up in the clouds and it was rainy and slippery. I lost my buddy at one point. She froze up. I went back to get her and we finished together,” said Tanisha. “We still have a special bond.”

Don’t give up on me

Ivey appreciates that many Native American kids may feel left behind on a slippery and treacherous course. During his four weeks as camp speaker he met a number of Native American kids and remembered trying to get one such girl from the smokers’ pit to join her group for cabin time. Her attitude was negative. She wasn’t buying into camp. But Ivey told her, “This is going to be a great week. I’m not giving up on you.” She replied, “If you don’t, you’ll be the first adult who hasn’t.”

Samples and Sergeant C spent a lot of the week helping the kids drop their defenses to trust in leaders who love them and a God who will never give up on them. They participated shoulder to shoulder with the cadets, encouraging them along the way; cadets like Teton, a Northern Cheyenne, who said to them, “You mean, you would stand by me? You have hope for me?”

Untold stories

Samples has plenty of hope for them, but he knows these are hurting kids. Most don’t even have the vocabulary for expressing their pain because so few discuss grief and loss on the reservation. When Josh, a fellow Crow student, died in an auto accident in spring 2009 (soon after making a faith profession at his church), Samples tried to model a way to talk about their grief. He told them that life is a story and we shared that story with Josh. He shared his own hurt over Josh’s death and what he remembered most about him. He modeled the same kind of conversations at camp.

After a few days the cadets in Samples’ cabin began to share their own stories during cabin time; kids like Zac Cummins who said cabin time “was a relief to talk about what was going on at home and what we left.” According to Samples every single kid has a devastating story to tell. “Even the guys were crying, weeping because their stories had been untold. It was a catharsis for them as though they could say ‘now I am known.’” Samples said that, like other teenage kids, these Indian cadets just “want to be known, to love and be loved.”

Dawn of a new day

As the week continued it became clear that something was happening among the Crow and Northern Cheyenne cadets. Elaine said she understood God’s love for the first time at camp. “The things Frank was talking about; it was all new to me,” she said. And Ivey noticed how the cadets, like Elaine, responded to these new things. At the beginning of the week the kids seemed wary, withdrawn and they rarely smiled. By week’s end the same kids were talking, laughing and leaning forward during club talks hanging on his every word. One of the cadets stood up at Say-So about to profess her faith, but quickly sat, aware that she’d been the only one in her group to stand.

That was fine by Ivey. “I knew that their starting point was so different than most kids. But I saw God begin to thaw their hearts during that week. Our perspective is that we are going to love these kids where they’re at and allow God to do what He’s going to do.”

God’s continuing to warm the hearts of the JROTC cadets. Samples and Sergeant C see tremendous changes. Kids who were usually quiet are more open since camp. Many are eager to return. More are eager for their friends to travel with them and experience something completely new: to reorient their lives and get their tepees pointed east where new life isn’t just a possibility, but the promise of God.