THE BLOG
10/22/2014 01:03 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

Something Must Change, or Blackfeet Indians Will Freeze to Death

There are lots of poor people in the United States. But no one community in the U.S. is as poor as the nation's Native Americans.

This week in Browning, Montana, a group of concerned citizens gathered in the Tribal Council Chambers to discuss homeless children on the Blackfeet Reservation. Browning Public Schools Homeless Liaison, Carrie Hirst, invited community leaders to come together so that she could explain what she does for homeless kids and to ask for their help in tackling the problems at hand.

An impressive group of people responded.

Few would be surprised to see the local homeless shelter director, Marcedes Oldperson, there or her counterpart George Kipp IV, who heads up Manpower. After all, caring for the poor is their job. The folks you don't usually see taking a day out of their busy schedules to discuss homelessness are state legislators, college presidents and superintendents of schools. But the Blackfeet Nation is no ordinary community. Their poverty is extreme -- 69 percent of the men on the reservation are unemployed; their resources are limited. The local shelter and jail buildings were recently condemned leaving no option for homeless people seeking refuge, and the rapidly approaching winter weather is unforgiving, often lethal.

Blackfeet Community College President Billie Kipp, Ph.D., explained that unemployment isn't the only challenge facing this community that once inhabited some of the most valuable land in the northwest. The breathtaking real estate now known as Glacier National Park was Blackfoot territory. Kipp says that the folks with good jobs don't make much, "We have employees at the college that qualify for food stamps."

And that makes it harder for the Blackfeet people to do what they've done for centuries: take care of their own. Kipp put that in relative terms, "The average Blackfeet person lives on a third less than they (Americans overall) did during the great depression."

Consequently, while Blackfeet families raise the children of extended family members who can't or won't, they have less with which to do so. Medicine Bear Shelter Director, Oldperson, concurs, "We don't have a shelter anymore, now it's just a soup kitchen. They tore it down because of environmental concerns... but still we serve as many as 160 people in a single day."

The homeless on the Blackfeet Reservation need showers, rehab, counseling, warm clothes, a few decent meals and a place to sleep. Thanks to Browning Public Schools implementing the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act -- with the only reservation in the nation that does so -- the school children get all those things: except a place to sleep. And that's what brought John Rouse, Browning Superintendent of Schools, to the meeting. Rouse said that he wanted to open the department's school buildings as warming shelters, "but we'd have to hire security to do so." And in a town that just lost its jail, there's no money for luxuries like safety. Unlike most school superintendents, Rouse does home visits. He has immersed himself in the challenges facing his students, and he wants to help.

Seated three seats over from her superintendent, high school senior Millie Bearleggins wants to help too. Bearleggins and five of her friends have formed a committee to combat the homeless problem. "A stunning reality we have to face in our community is now that the jail is closed, people will freeze to death." Native American law enforcement used to bring street people in for "protective custody" but now there is nowhere to put these folks. That's why Bearleggins got active and that's why she's so frustrated that there's not enough concern outside the reservation -- where the resources are -- to help her make this happen.

Halfway through the conversation Calvin Hill offered to help. Hill is the new Methodist Minister on the reservation. Emphasizing President Kipp's earlier comment that even the good jobs pay poorly on the reservation, Hill took a $20,000 pay cut to come work with the Blackfeet. But as a Navajo, he explained, "It was about the work, not the money." Hill offered to help Bearleggins. He explained that he could get the Methodist Missions to come build a shelter if they could find the money or materials they'd need. Shelter director, Oldperson added, "And the land."

State Represenative Lea Whitford says that there may be buildings in need of renovation that they can use.

The problems facing native populations are similar to those facing poor people all across the United States, except that there is even less money to help them than there is elsewhere. And those assembled agreed that there's one more problem that the native populations face. President Kipp articulated that problem. No, she didn't mention that native lands, wealth, independence and means of self-reliance were stolen from them. It was what that theft did to her people that's the lingering problem. "We are dealing with generation after generation of hurt and pain. We are dealing with historical trauma. We have been for over 500 years."