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Life on the reservation much different from my own

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 04/15/2013 10:24 AM

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I wasn't prepared for the cultural shock I experienced during the MARL Class VII visit to the Red Lake Reservation in northwest Minnesota.

I don't know if there was any way to prepare for the stories shared by Father Jerry Rogers at St. Mary's Mission.

Father Jerry was ordained a priest in 1976 in the Diocese of Crookston. He spent three years of his priesthood serving in Zambia, Africa.

"Africa didn't even prepare me for this," Father Jerry told our group, speaking in the 75-year-old mission church on the reservation.

Where he served in Zambia,people were happy and they lived for the present. The Bemba people he served had 18 tenses for the present in their language and used the same word, "mailo" for yesterday and tomorrow.

"Here, they don't let go of the past," Father Jerry said.

When he arrived on the reservation, he was told of an old priest who had gotten drunk and knocked over stones in the cemetery. He thought it had happened that morning by the way the tale was told. Instead, it had happened 50 years earlier.

Father Jerry arrived on the reservation on Sept. 2, 2009. He admitted to being "scared shitless." He lived in fear until having an epiphany that he couldn't let fear run his life because fear comes from the devil.

Now, he centers his life around "his kids." The mission school for elementary students has 103 students.

The school has a budget of $536,000 and $10,000 is raised through tuition. He begs to make up the difference.

He told us that he never thought he'd be begging for money. Yet, he does for his kids.

He hopes to educate the children so they can change life on the reservation. Many of the children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of what they see at home.

The unemployment rate is 61 percent on the reservation and the graduation rate is 8 percent. Most children are raised by their grandparents. A crisis looms because the next generation of grandparents isn't capable of parenting.

Alcoholism, autism and diabetes are epidemic. Revenge killing is common. Child abuse is rampant.

The tribal council is working hard to turn the tide.

"Thank God the lights are coming on," he said.

Some blame whites for troubles on the reservation.

"We own some of it, not all of it," Father Jerry said.

The bishop feels pressure to close the school, Father Jerry said. The parish has 75 households, but it's not like a normal parish.

The cost to run the entire mission, which includes the church, school, outreach programs and adult education is $818,240. Outreach programs include a mobile food shelf. The church also gives out gasoline vouchers and meets other personal care needs of people on the reservation.

"Thank God the diapers are donated," Father Jerry said.

This parish and the needs of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa are unlike any I've experienced before. I was blessed to grow up in a safe home, in a safe township with plenty to eat and plenty to do (gardening, rock picking, milking cows).

Life on the reservation is quite different, to put it mildly. Land can't be owned. Time isn't told by a clock, rather by when people arrive. Poverty continues generation to generation.

It's easy to question why the Ojibwe tribal members do this or that, but much harder to view their lives through their eyes. In our closing conversation, a class member said we must view economic development on the reservation through the eyes of tribal members, not through our own. For what we view as economic development is not what they view as economic development. We have different goals.

What useful insight to apply not only to life on the reservation, but to other areas foreign to me. Look through their eyes, not my own.