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Impact of an Education in Indian Country
My life started like other kids growing up on an Indian Reservation. We were below the poverty line and my parents struggled with paying bills and keeping the lights on at home. We lived 20 miles outside the nearest town, on a small ranch on the Blackfeet Reservation. During the harsh Montana winter, our electric bill exceeded $120 a month, so our food and other necessities were stretched to extremes. Both my parents attended college, but only my mother obtained a degree in Nursing. She worked as a Licensed Practical Nurse with the Indian Health Service and part-time as a school nurse. My dad, a Vietnam Veteran, only found work during the spring and summer months, so during the time we needed income the most, our family struggled.
My parents somehow made life work with such a small income. My mother worked long hours on the hospital ward, sometimes doing the majority of the work, only to have a Registered Nurse approve her work. My grandmother and a few of my mother’s co-workers convinced my mom to return to school and get the education to become a Registered Nurse. My mom waited until my two younger sisters were in grade school before she started college at the age of 45. Rather than enroll in a state college, she elected to attend the Blackfeet Community College to stay close to home, raise her family, and continue to work. This did not come easy for her or our family, as she had to work every holiday and weekends. My mom went on to get a scholarship to Montana State University-Northern and obtained a degree and licensing as a Registered Nurse. The financial changes were immediate and the entire family benefited from her education. Proudly, my mother is now the Director of Community Health Nursing for the Blackfeet Community Hospital.
I tell this story because I never thought it would ever relate to me. Rather than go to college from high school, I knew I didn’t have the discipline or direction to make it in college; I enlisted in the military and served my country in The U.S. Army. Although my public reason was my lack of maturity, the real reason was I did not want my parents to absorb the cost of a higher education. I also knew that I would get a monthly paycheck, which I sent home to help my parents and my sisters. I knew what it would cost me, and after seeing my family struggle so much, I knew I should do something with my life, just as my father did during the Vietnam War. I knew I had to support my family, especially my sisters.
During my enlistment, I served in Bosnia during their civil war in Operation Joint Endeavor. In that deployment, I saw the destruction of what humankind could do to each other when the rest of the world looks the other away. After I left the military, I was fortunate to find a job with the federal government, where I worked for 13 years. In those years I found out that regardless of my work ethic or performance, I always was passed for promotions. I was like my mother, doing work and having someone approve, many times younger, because I did not have a formal education. After the last promotion I was passed over, I finally had enough. I felt that after all I did for this country, I should have gotten credit. What my stubborn attitude made me overlook was those same educated people passing me over also made a sacrifice—not the same as a military veteran, but they did leave their family and lifestyle. They sacrificed just like my mother, and so did their families. I realized that my military service alone did not give me the same qualifications that those college-educated people possessed.
As scared as I was, I decided to make a change. I looked at the dedication my mother made for our family, and used her as my inspiration and motivation. I talked to my Veteran Affairs representatives and found the Veterans Rehabilitation Program would pay 100% of my tuition to any college. I could go anywhere, but at 37 years-old, I decided to attend the Blackfeet Community College. People ask me all the time, “Mike, you could go to any college, why BCC?” My reason is so simple; BCC put food on our table in the dead of winter when I was a kid. They educated my mother, and gave my family a new beginning and changed our lives forever. Being an Indian is sometimes difficult, but it is also inspiring. Look to your history as an Indian, look to your stories and find your culture. Our people lived here in the dead of winter long before wood stoves and gas heat. Our people still survive to this day, regardless of the atrocities committed. Our Native people possess one word that defines our race: determination.
The Blackfeet Community College does much more than provide for a higher education. It integrates our being a Blackfeet member into every way of teaching. Our college teaches the Blackfeet way of life, the way our parents had to forget in the government boarding schools. I’m extremely proud that every one of my instructors is Blackfeet, born and raised on this reservation. They made it, and now they take the time to pass that on to those who choose to accept that knowledge. They motivate by merely being there in front of the classroom. The college teaches our culture and helps the younger generations learn the Blackfeet traditions and language. The college motivates and continues where the government Indian boarding school failed while seeking to remove the identity of an entire race. It fosters the young and old to reach that dream, that pivotal point when life changes for the better. It is that point in life when we know we will make it, like our old ones made it. We are Indian, we are educated, we are Blackfeet. We are determined.
Michael Kittson is a student at Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana. He is studying business and hopes to continue his education at the University of Montana. He is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe and a veteran of The United States Army. He was born and raised on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.