In the grassy hills of southeastern Montana where mountains and sky paint the horizon, sits the small town of Lodge Grass. A lazy creek twists and drifts through surrounding farmland where the openness of earth and sky expose a history that entwines the Apsáalooke people to their land.
Located on the eastern part of the Crow Indian Reservation, this ranching town is host to the Lodge Grass High School Indians and its Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) program. The long-standing “Indian Battalion” has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and is struggling to rebuild and re-establish its foothold within the community.
Lt. Col. (Ret.) Michael Rubi has been a fixture at the school and the JROTC program for seven years. Every student in his JROTC program at Lodge Grass belongs to the Crow tribe, a federally recognized Native American tribe with their own established government.
Established in 1995, the “Indian Battalion” is one of only three operating JROTC programs in Montana.
“It opened up because the community has a lot of Veterans—Montana has the highest number of Native American veterans. There were discipline problems among the younger generation and [the Veterans] wanted to do something about fixing that,” Rubi said.
The Veterans—fighters from World War II, Vietnam, and Korea—found out about JROTC and brought the idea to the tribe who then moved forward with petitioning for the program.
“When it first opened up, it opened up in the old bus barn at the school—no heat, no nothing,” Rubi said. “That lasted for a couple years before they could get inside and get classroom space.”
From chilly winters in the bus barn to honorary marching presentations at the funeral of the tribe’s last war chief, the program has experienced highs and lows. For Rubi, the “Indian Battalion” offers the chance for students to step aside and look beyond the “pull of the reservation.”
“The pull of peer pressure on the reservation is big…the families have a huge pull” Rubi said, adding this isn’t necessarily negative, but more of a cultural acceptance. “It’s almost looked down on to go off the reservation. The family expects you to live on the reservation and provide for them or work for them. And, unfortunately, I’ll say easily 70 percent of the students here are being raised by the grandparents because their parents are out of the picture for whatever reasons, and it’s sad.”
According to the Montana Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs, about 75 percent of the Crow tribe’s 10,000 members live on or near the reservation. This is the largest reservation in Montana with more than 2.2 million acres of land.
“On the reservation, the students don’t have a lot to look forward to,” Rubi said. “There’s no industry, no jobs on the reservation that’s not family oriented, [working] on the family ranch or working for the tribe.”
Basketball season and the Crow Fair and Rodeo are two big community highlights of his student population.
“The kids here, they live and die for basketball season. Nothing else,” he said.
Crow Fair and Rodeo is one of the largest gatherings of American Indians in the United States. Late in the summer, the landscape surrounding the Little Big Horn River is transformed into the “teepee capital of the world” with a celebration focused on heritage, family, and native pride.
“The whole tribe gets together and they set up teepees and do all kinds of events every day. There’s rodeos and there are different dancing competitions,” Rubi said. “They’ll do that for a whole week and then they crown the stars…and that’s it for the summer. Other than that it’s hunting, fishing, and riding their horses.”
Rubi said it’s very common for students to get involved with JROTC early on, but the difficulty lies in keeping them motivated to continue with the program.
“Some of the students that go into it are dependable, especially if you get them while they’re freshman. They’ll do the Color Guard, they’ll do the competitions. They don’t have problems doing everything they’re supposed to and be reliable, but then they turn seniors and the majority of them disappear—I lose like 80 percent,” Rubi said.
With an already limited infrastructure of community activities, the onset of COVID was near-devastating to the Apsáalooke youth community. It also put further social strain on a community where the majority of students are being raised by someone other than their parents.
“It hit the senior citizens the hardest. It seemed like every other day someone’s grandmother or grandfather was dying. If they’re living with that relative and that person is gone, who picks up that flack? Who do they go live with now? Who’s going to enforce discipline on them? Who’s going to make sure they’re doing the right thing? Who’s going to look out for them?” Rubi said.
“We had [students] that were literally living out under a bridge or in abandoned cars because, for whatever reason, other family members wouldn’t take them in…We lost a lot of elders who would do the disciplining or raising the kids,” he added.
It’s been a tough two years on the school district, the JROTC program, and the students. Building interest and finding ways to encourage their curiosity has become increasingly difficult with the constant closures and community upheaval due to illness.
“I started off this year with about 79 kids and I think I’m down to 54 active students,” Rubi said. “Some of them aren’t all that active. Six of them actually dropped from coming to school all together and two of them are transferring to another school.”
Despite the struggles encountered by the program, Rubi says there is some light at the end of the tunnel and the hope his program offers to the community is slowly starting to return.
“We’re a visible presence that the youth aren’t all messed up, because you see too many of them drop out of high school and they’re out at the local IGA begging for money or they’re roaming about,” Rubi said. “The community appreciates what we do for the kids, and what we’re trying to do for the kids.”
Ben Cloud is the Journalism and Photography teacher at Lodge Grass High School. He’s always impressed with the “Indian Battalion” and the honor they bring to the Crow community.
“They get called on for Color Guard duty every year. They’re always involved in the community and doing things the tribe calls on them for as well. I’ve seen them working at the [tribe’s] Inauguration Balls. They’re very well-known throughout the reservation.”
For the first time in the history of JROTC, 8th graders are allowed to participate in the program. The National Defense Authorization Act of December of 2020 opened the JROTC program up to 8th graders under certain guidelines that just so happened to align with the Lodge Grass High School JROTC program.
Rubi sees this factor playing a big role in the rebuilding of the program over the next few years.
“I see my mission as basically trying to get these kids to graduate legitimately…and just give them a chance,” he said. “I see my job as trying to prepare them as best I can for an even break.”
He also tries to incorporate and connect different aspects of their culture and history into his instruction.
“I try to bring back the heroes of the tribe and the tribal stories that I know when I’m teaching about leadership and responsibility,” Rubi said, adding that he also tries to use examples of their own customs.
“Every once in a while, I will bring in a guest speaker to talk to them about education and why learning is important,” he said. “I can preach to them all day, but if a guy who is 70 or 80 years old comes in and says [education] means something to them, they’d better damn well pay attention. It’s a great insult if they don’t when an elder is speaking to them.”
Another big draw to JROTC is the addition of an archery program to go along with the already popular marching, uniform regalia, and Color Guard presentations at different community and tribal events.
“The marching is always popular, and one reason why archery is so popular—especially among the girls—is because, traditionally the girls in the Crow culture don’t shoot arrows. They are not allowed to shoot bows and arrows and they are not allowed to touch their male relative’s weapons. They are all eating up archery,” Rubi said.
Cloud and his Journalism class recently joined the JROTC students during an archery session to photograph students shooting the bows and arrows. The experience left an impact on Cloud and the students in his class.
“Right now I am so impressed with the archery program they’ve developed here. They’ve got a lot of interest from the students because a lot of kids aren’t exposed to that kind of thing,” he said. “Having the ability to use good equipment afforded to them by this program I think that this gives them a lot of insight into what archery is.”
The students who make up the Lodge Grass JROTC program this year consists of mainly 8th graders, freshman, and sophomores. They are quiet, most of them prefer to speak Crow, and they are not particularly keen on talking to strangers. The students do open up a little bit when talking about their experiences within the program.
Silas Cummins, an 8th grader at Lodge Grass, is in his first year of JROTC. He started off not too sure about the program and what his overall experience would be.
“To tell you the truth, I like it in JROTC,” Cummins said. “I like the writing, the bell ringers and work, and learning of all the things about the Army.”
He adds that getting to wear the JROTC uniform and the encouragement he’s been receiving from his instructors has been inspiring.
“As long as you’re wearing the uniforms, you’re basically showing your honor,” he said. “People believe in us, and they are basically saying that we can be successful.”
Jaden Broken Rope, a freshman, appreciates the realistic approach and educational opportunities offered by the program.
“They are providing kids with some opportunities, like with what they might want to do with their future” Broken Rope said. “Like, if they finish school, they see if they maybe want to join the military when they graduate.”
He, along with nearly every other student participating in the program loves the added perk of getting to do archery.
‘We go out into the field on Thursdays and we shoot at those targets and that’s what I like,” he said.
Jazmine Half, a sophomore and one of only a handful of women active in JROTC, said she wanted to join the program after her two older brothers participated.
“It helps me with my leadership and my people skills,” Half said. “It gets me out of my comfort zone doing stuff that I usually don’t do, like archery and dressing up in uniform.”
Lance Little Nest also feels like the Lodge Grass JROTC helps him learn about leadership.
“It’s about being a better leader to push people that need to be pushed, helping others out, and being the bigger person,” Little Nest said.
Lance’s younger brother, Alonzo Little Nest, echoes his brother’s views.
“We all need leaders in the world,” the younger Little Nest said. “We have a great leader here—he’s our teacher, Rubi!”
As the “Indian Battalion” continues to maintain engagement within the school and community, Rubi says the most important factor the program emphasizes in regards to the students is hope. Hope that there are opportunities out there beyond the reservation.
“Every once in a while we’ll take them on a field trip to local colleges and hope that if they do get a better education, life will be better for them--if they go to college or a trade school,” he said. “There’s hope in that the military is a way out, we don’t push that, but it is a way out. You have benefits, you have medical and dental, you have housing and a regular paycheck and learn some skills.”
“There’s also hope in that other people believe in you. It’s not just your family member or favorite teacher saying, ‘Here do this, we expect you to go forth and do great things,’” Rubi adds. “It’s other people who are not members of your family or your community saying ‘You can do this. You do have a future if you want it, but you have to want it, you have to work at it.”
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