Next year marks the 40th anniversary of my VISTA service. Looking back, I have many fond memories of that time. As one of the few African American volunteers assigned to a Native American reservation, I feel pretty safe in saying that many of my experiences were unique.
Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1960s I never dreamed that one day I would hang out at powwows and rodeos instead of house parties and rock shows. That changed during my sophomore year at Ohio State University. I was thinking about taking a one-year break from school, so I submitted an application to VISTA. Several weeks later, I was on my way to Salt Lake City, Utah, for VISTA’s Native American reservations training program. My friends thought I was crazy for volunteering in the first place. They were convinced of it when they found out I was going to a Native American reservation.
I had no idea what to expect because I had never met a Native American. Like many people, my impressions until then were formed by television and movies. Needless to say, a huge surprise awaited me.
My first real taste of life on the reservation was on a field training exercise on the Wind River Shoshone Reservation in Wyoming. I thought the Native Americans would welcome me as a Soul Brother since we were both members of minority groups that had suffered racial discrimination. My thinking changed the first day when I realized that all of the other trainees—except me—had been placed with local families. When I asked why, my training supervisor told me they were having trouble finding a family to accept the “Colored Trainee.”
I was finally placed with a White rancher married to a Shoshone woman. His name was Charlie and I'll never forget him. He and his wife helped me understand why Native Americans didn’t trust any non-Native Americans: broken treaties, the use of Black soldiers in the Indian wars of the 1800s, and, ironically, most Native Americans’ impressions of Blacks were formed from television and media coverage. It was a tough situation, but after a few weeks I began to make friends and was accepted by most of the locals.
Shortly thereafter I received one of the greatest honors of my life. They invited me to participate in the annual Sun Dance Ceremony, a sacred event not open to outsiders. The medicine man must bless participants before they erect the sacred lodge where the ceremony will be held. We first cut a sacred pole that would hold the buffalo skull, the focal point of the ceremony. During the four-day event, dancers are not allowed food since it is a purification ceremony designed to strengthen the spirit. It was a very spiritual event for me and helped prepare me for things to come.
After training, three of us were assigned to the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho as community development specialists. Our job was to help local residents develop programs to address problems on the reservation. There was no shortage of problems: high unemployment, high rates of alcoholism, high dropout rates for high school students, and chronic health problems like diabetes.
With only one year to make an impact, we agreed to focus on education and developing opportunities for the youth to pursue their dreams. We implemented remedial reading programs for the elementary school children and an Upward Bound program in cooperation with Washington State University for the secondary school children. Other projects included local participation in a Western Indian Art exhibit at the University of Utah and the publication of the official reservation newsletter, Coyote Tracks. We distributed 1,000 copies a month. I also became the assistant scoutmaster of the local Boy Scout troop. As luck would have it, the World Boy Scout Jamboree was held in Farragut, Idaho, in 1967, and our scout troop was able to attend. For many of the kids, the Jamboree marked the first time they had been off the reservation. It was very exciting for them to meet other scouts from around the world.
Over time, I developed many close personal relationships with locals and earned their trust. While there were times when I was referred to as “that Colored,” or worse, such labels were rare. Eventually, I was just called “the VISTA.”
Social life on the reservation consisted of powwows – gatherings to enjoy traditional activities of dancing, drumming, and playing stick game (a form of gambling) – and rodeos. At most powwows I was the only non-Native American, yet I always felt welcomed. I traveled to many rodeos, including the Pendelton Roundup, an annual rodeo in Oregon that boasts the largest gathering of Native Americans in the United States.
One of my most memorable moments was when Ida Blackeagle, granddaughter of the famous Nez Perce, Chief Joseph, invited me to her home. She shared her recollections of traditional Nez Perce lifestyle and gave me a pair of beaded moccasins. When that happened, I knew I had been accepted.
When my year was over, many people asked me to stay for another. But the sense of isolation had been especially acute for me since there were no Blacks within 100 miles. While I loved and respected their culture, I yearned to return to mine.
It would be hard to measure the impact of my time on the reservation, but I do know that at least five Native American students enrolled in Upward Bound. I hope they went on to pursue their college degrees. The Coyote Tracks newsletter was still circulating three years after I left. Most of all, I am grateful for the opportunities that VISTA provided, allowing me to spend time in a community that I never would have explored.
After leaving the reservation, I spent seven years in various positions with VISTA where I fought for the recruitment of more minorities and for better training and support for volunteers in the field. We succeeded in developing VISTA projects that were staffed by locally recruited volunteers from the communities they served.
During my later career as a heath education specialist, I created and managed a national program to educate minority populations about high blood pressure, which brought together health providers from previously underrepresented ethnic communities. These activities were documented and disseminated by the National Institutes of Health’s National High Blood Pressure Education Program, long considered an exemplary health promotion program. I also authored Guidelines for the Use of Volunteers in High Blood Pressure Detection and Control, published by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health.
My success in these and many other efforts was a direct result of my VISTA experience. For that I will always be grateful.