Greetings from Cut Bank, Montana—a small town of less than 3000 people about 40 miles away from the Canadian border. It's by far the smallest community I've ever lived in—the Blackfeet Indian Reservation is to the immediate west of Cut Bank and the next town, Shelby, is about 30-35 minutes away to the east.
The last time I wrote, I was in Kalispell, Montana—which frankly feels like a metropolis compared to Cut Bank. During the several hour drive, the farther I drove, the more sparsely populated it got. After a particularly busy stretch in Portland and Seattle, I was wondering (and admittedly a bit concerned) about how the next leg of my trip was going to go.
And there are several recurrent themes that keep transpiring throughout the course of my journey. One of which is: it always takes a village.
When my time in Seattle was wrapping up, I was making some calls out to Montana and frankly having a tough time figuring out my placement. The New York Times article, Put Lawyers Where They're Needed specifically cited Montana for its lack of legal accessibility. But I really wanted to spend some time here in one of America's most remote states. What is life like here? I wondered. What does the legal community look like here? I further inquired to myself.
I was spinning my wheels. Then, a close friend of mine from college (hi, Britt!) had a friend/former coworker who lived near Flathead Lake, Montana (several hours away from where I am in Cut Bank). She gave me her former coworker's contact information in hopes of knowing someone in the community who knew of a public interest-minded attorney whom I may able to connect with.
Long story short: my friend's friend's sister's friend is the attorney I am now working with in Cut Bank. WOAH! That is some serious Kevin Bacon degree of separation going on there. And I honestly think I needed that level of community connection in order to be able to access this opportunity. Not to mention, I found out that I have two other 3rd/4th degree connections in this small, remote town.
The attorney I am working with in Cut Bank is a solo practitioner—a different model than the legal nonprofits/clinics/orgs I've been working with since this project started. But I am doing this to experiment with different areas of the laws and different ways of practicing more radical public interest law. And I am so glad I did.
Terryl is the only attorney outside of the reservation within the vicinity—in fact, she actually CREATED the Blackfeet bar exam! (Many tribes have their own bar exam in order to practice on the reservation.) She is really the main attorney for this entire area—which I assume covers at least 100 miles. As a result, she is super busy—and I have in the super short time I've been here been able to help out with discovery and exhibits for a major case that is in process on the reservation.
And I am already very interested and intrigued by both the impact litigation and individual, mostly civil work that the office does on behalf of the tribal government as well as individual tribal members. I think I will be learning quite a bit here.
And I am still honestly processing my experience spending the entire day today at the Blackfeet Reservation. There are many thoughts going on in my head that I am sure I will further detail in my next blog post. But there is one that is percolating at this moment:
The world is only as small as our concentric circles of accessibility allow.
It was clear that as soon as I set foot on the reservation, I was exceptionally clear that this was my first time really spending any time on reservation land. Reading some of the pleadings in the office earlier, I recognized tribal names that I was not ordinarily very familiar with—and in my personal and professional work, I have been exposed to a fair amount of diversity. It was clear that I never had any substantial interaction with members of the reservation community. And this realization hit me repeatedly over and over again today—how the concepts of oppression and colonization are most certainly related but also distinct in nature.
Of course, hundreds of years ago when Europeans began to colonize the now United States, there were Native Americans who were indigenous to this continent. The present day Indian reservation is clearly a effect (to say the very least) of this sordid history of American colonization. And that is unique to any other community in the United States.
Every second of every minute while I was on the reservation today, I felt a different type of trauma-impacted community than one I had been in before.
For starters, the fact that there is still a federal agency called the Bureau of Indian Affairs (formed in 1824) nearly speaks for itself. The inhumane history of forced assimilation and mismanagement has been apparent during its existence.
Being on the reservation had me reflecting on how I feel complicit in this, somehow. That by being an American citizen born when I was, that I am accessing privilege that was the result of a domination of a people who used to live here. Even though historically the colonization was "complete" hundreds of years ago—its effects without a doubt still linger on today. The colonization is very much still going on. And property and human rights issues are still at stake.
When I originally set out to do this project, I had (and still have) this strong urge to get out of whatever societal silo (or concentric circle) I may be in. How many people do I know who live on Indian reservations? Prior to today, I believe none. How many people did I know who spent time in a federal immigration detention center? Prior to a month or so ago, none. And so on, and so on.
The more I intentionally try to collide with circles that may not be de facto or semi-de facto my own—the closer I think I am getting to this concept I stated above. What the hell is going out there in the world outside of whatever circle I am in? No person is an island.
Although it's been an intense period of time, it's also been a rewarding one. I am actually living and working out of the office (it used to be a house)—and I a really enjoying it (the commute = great). I spend the evenings by myself and I quite like it—it is an opportunity for me to introspect on going on month 5 (!!!) of this pro bono journey. And to continue to plan for the road ahead. I can see the appeal in living in a small town for this type of reason.
Thanks as always for reading—even though I may be a bit isolated here in northern Montana, close to Canada—you always make me feel like I'm not alone in this. Much love to you all.