“With the wind chill factor, it was 70 degrees below zero, and we were putting up a tarp to stop the wind from blowing the fire out. How we got those rocks hot enough to go into the [sweat] lodge, I’ll never know,” Assiniboine elder Ron Jackson says, recalling a ceremony in the 1990s when he was given his Indian name.
Another Assiniboine leader was conducting the ritual. Jackson did not know that the man was going to name him, but the man said, “I know what you’re doing for our kids.” The name he chose for Jackson was Pte Mnonga Nadambi (Charging Bull). “Since that time, I’ve tried to model that, to do what I can for our students,” says Jackson, 55.
The ceremony took place at a sacred spot on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana – a place just north of the Missouri River the Assiniboine call the o I o wega (buffalo crossing). Jackson has been a school board member for over a decade and the board chairman for most of that time. Because of this service as a community leader, he was acknowledged in the Assiniboine way with a new name. Jackson has been likened to a bull as he quietly and continuously moves forward, fighting for the kids.
Today, Jackson works at Fort Peck Community College (FPCC, Poplar, MT) as a media specialist, but his real impact has been through his work on the Wolf Point School Board, an institution that has been dominated by non-Indians for decades in a community that is approximately 60% American Indian.
Jackson was quickly elected school board chairman; he feels this was because he considers himself “approachable.” Wolf Point High School Principal Joe Paine says, “Ron’s in a very difficult role – he’s dealing with two different communities – but he is willing to work with anybody to do the best for ALL kids.” Paine adds, “Ron is visible. He gets out and into the community where he listens to people and asks people about their thoughts and opinions.”
In recent years the school district has seen some remarkable successes. Most notably, the district increased the graduation rate from 40% to 75% in the past seven years, from 2001 to 2008, according to Paine and statistics from the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
When asked what his biggest challenge has been since becoming the chairman, Jackson replied, “My biggest hurdle is to not let others infringe on one person’s right to speak and listen on a certain issue. Some want to cut off others before the discussion is over.” Jackson pauses and then continues, “But, I think I’m doing the best for these kids by being on this board and making the right decisions.”
Jackson was born on the reservation but grew up in the tough industrial city of Gary, IN; the family moved under the contentious Indian Relocation Act of 1956. Jackson and his family were “the only Indians there,” but luckily for him, he soon found himself back home in 1969 to begin junior high school.
He was also mentored and raised by his grandfather, Joshua Wetsit, in what he describes as a tiny little house on the north side of Wolf Point. Wetsit, whose Indian name was Toga Giya, Chief First to Fly, was the son of a reputable Assiniboine, Ayaxba, He Wets His Arrow. It was because of mentors like his grandfather that Jackson soon began to “walk on this side of life” – an Assiniboine spiritual path that he has traveled for 32 years.
In the public schools, he found no appropriate American Indian curriculum. “I was never exposed to [Native American] teachings growing up as a child in public school.”
Jackson did well in both worlds, “playing with all kids” and even breaking school athletic records and playing in a state championship football game. “I enjoyed life as a kid. When it came to school, my mom always told me, ‘Be proud of who you are and do the best you can.’” Jackson did just that as he earned his Associate of Arts Degree at the Fort Peck Community College and later his Bachelor of Science Degree from the University of Great Falls.
“I’ve tried to walk the best way I can, to teach as many people as I can,” referring to his efforts to be the best mentor he can be – especially to the young Assiniboine men on the reservation. A traditional pipe maker, he often makes pipes and goes through traditional ceremonies with the young men of the tribe. He tells them, “Just guarantee to me that you will always walk this way. Take the pipe, and keep doing these things.” Jackson says, “It has taken a hundred years to lose our culture, and it will take that long to bring it back.”
A few years ago, Jackson came across some old warrior honor songs that were recorded in the 1920s, and he eventually took them to a local museum to be properly recorded and preserved. “These were seven or eight of my great-grandfathers. Right before they sing a song, they speak in both English and Assiniboine.”
Two of them were long forgotten Medicine Lodge songs that were supposedly “missing.” When Jackson revealed these findings to his elders, they said that he was now the keeper of the two songs.
Jackson says, “We all have a place in society.” He feels that his position is in the Medicine Lodge, practicing and teaching the traditions. His father once told him, “I want you to think about this. Someday we’re going to lose this culture because we don’t have kids beating down the door to learn it.”
“Now I have several who are following this way,” says Jackson. “A whole bunch of them.”
Ron Jackson’s great-grandfather, He Wets His Arrow, would give thanks three times a day – sunrise, noon, and sunset – by looking up to the sparkling sun, where the Great Spirit dwelled, regardless of what he was doing that day. Perhaps he’s looking down and smiling today, especially when he sees what Charging Bull is doing.
“I used to be the youngest in the sweat lodge. But now, I’m one of the older ones,” says a smiling Charging Bull.
Jerry Worley is an assistant professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He has authored one book, Perspectives on Building Rapport in Higher Education: A Qualitative Inquiry, and edited a second entitled Sometimes I Did All I Could Do: Authentic Remembrances of Teaching.