NORTHERN CHEYENNE INDIAN RESERVATION, MONTANA: Up a slight hill behind the pen for the horses, blankets and tarps were draped over curved branches. They were fashioned into a small sweat lodge, about the size and shape of a large, domed tent.
Inside the sweat lodge, rocks heated by a nearby fire hissed in the darkness, filling the enclosure with steam and ash.
Seventh- and eighth-graders from Akron’s Lippman School sat in silence, breathing in the steam. Hours earlier, they had left Akron by plane and now were taking part in a tradition of their hosts on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, 100 miles east of Billings in southeastern Montana.
The sweat lodge represents the church, the branches are the womb of a woman, water represents life, and prayers are carried out by the steam, Northern Cheyenne tribal member Pete Roundstone explained. Doing a “sweat,” Roundstone said, “helps me to remain humble, to remember not to go back to my mischievous ways.”
In the darkness, Roundstone shook a rattle and offered up prayers. The steam surrounded the students and sweat formed on every inch of bare skin. Most students sat through multiple rounds with only short water breaks in between.
The sweat set the tone for nine Lippman students and their teachers, who learned about Northern Cheyenne culture and history over an intense four days in late May and early June.
With the steam, singing, prayers and shared experience, Maison Cunningham, 13, found the sweat lodge “a powerful place.” The eighth-grader said he prayed for peace and enlightenment.
The steam “kind of just cleared you up to focus on what you wanted to focus on,” he said.
The journey to Montana was more than a class trip, said Sam Chestnut, head of the Lippman School, a K-8 private day school in Akron that teaches a multicultural curriculum with an emphasis on Jewish tradition and universal values.
Understanding each other
The trip’s purpose was to create a long-term cross-cultural exchange between the Ohio students and students on the reservation. In early October, Northern Cheyenne Tribal School students will visit the Lippman students in Akron, study Jewish rituals, take part in the Jewish harvest celebration of Sukkot and learn about life in Ohio.
The Jewish and Northern Cheyenne traditions might not appear to have much in common, but in the modern world, both groups struggle to preserve their traditions and pass them along. By studying another culture, students can better understand their own and feel more positive about it, Chestnut said.
Eventually, Chestnut hopes Northern Cheyenne input could help Akron reconsider its own Native American history, which includes the site of a one-time trading route, the Portage Path.
Chestnut is connected with the Northern Cheyenne through his father, Steve Chestnut, who has been general counsel to the Northern Cheyenne for nearly 40 years and is an honorary tribal member.
“We struggle with some of the same issues, but in different ways. We hope we can help the next generation feel good about themselves and keep their culture,” Sam Chestnut said.
Life on the reservation can be tough for the roughly 7,000 (5,000 are tribal members) who live there. Unemployment averages about 70 percent. Many go elsewhere looking for work, leaving children to be raised by one parent or a grandparent. Almost all students eat free or reduced-price lunches. Drugs and alcohol are never far away.
“The problems we face here are similar to what you might call inner-city problems,” said Yulberton Alec Sandcrane, a Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council member.
Today, there is a real concern over a disconnect with the youth, tribal member Otto Braided Hair said. The younger generation is not learning tribal history, which has always been passed down through oral tradition. Cultural assimilation, peer pressure and lack of positive interaction with adults all contribute, he said.
“A lot of the culture has been stomped out,” said Barbara Braided Hair, Otto’s wife, a tribal member and bank manager on the reservation.
She hopes the ongoing exchange will help tribal students “feel proud and realize they are blessed to live where they live. ... It’s beyond just bringing the kids together. It’s bringing healing, too, to two cultures.”
The yellow school bus rolled past the grassy hills and buttes that make up the countryside in this part of Montana. They had exchanged pen pal letters, but the Lippman students and the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School students seemed quiet and a bit uneasy in the presence of new faces. Some students stared out the window. A couple jammed earbuds into their ears.
Together, they were visiting two battlefields that witnessed fierce fighting between Native Americans and the U.S. military in June 1876: the Battle of the Rosebud (called Girl Who Saved Her Brother by the Cheyenne), and the more famous Little Bighorn.
Tribal School teacher’s aide Emmanuel Pine said most of the Cheyenne students’ ancestors fought in the battles, but most of the students did not know the history or visit the sites.
As they toured each site, the students remained largely silent, listening to the guides and covering their heads from the incessant wind.
“Where you are standing is where Crow scouts lined up long enough to hold off the Cheyenne,” said Michel Olson, a Billings man who worked to designate the first site a National Historical Landmark.
Despite treaties that ceded land to the tribes, Gen. George Armstrong Custer had found gold, and the fight for gold and land was on, he said.
“It wasn’t about people hating people. It was about taking resources,” Olson said.
Music brings kids together
Back in the bus, the ice broke little by little as seat mates asked about each other or someone began to clown around, drawing the ire of the teacher and giggles from students.
The driver put the radio on and nearly all the students sang along to hits such as Flo Rida’s Low and One Direction’s What Makes You Beautiful. No matter where they live, teens know pop music lyrics.
Initially, “I think they were nervous,” said Olivia Diamond, 12, a Lippman seventh-grader. “I think the music brought us together.”
Ariel Ohayon, another seventh-grader, agreed that the students eventually felt comfortable together. “I think I made a friend, maybe two of them,” he said.
Looking toward October, when the Cheyenne students visit, Ariel said he hopes they can see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the Great Lakes Science Center, which has many interactive science exhibits, both in Cleveland.
“The kids are just kids like us, not much different,” said Maison Cunningham, the Lippman eighth-grader. “From all you’ve read and watched, you’d think they’d be different, but they act the same, they’re interested in the same things.”