It was early May and it was one of the first warm days of a late Madison spring. I was sitting in my third class of the day, in a windowless lecture hall, dreaming about class ending and heading outside to get even an hour in the sun. My friend Claire and I started whispering over the professor.
“What do you have planned this summer?” she asked.
“I am taking a summer school class and staying in Madison, what are you doing?”
“I am heading to Montana where I am getting a semester worth of credits and living in a tent”
“No way,” I said.
Claire then proceeded to tell me to look up Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI).
As soon as the bell rang, I hopped on my bike and headed home and immediately sat down and typed WRFI into the search bar. “Real adventure, real learning” the front page of the website stated. Sign me up!
I quickly traded a summer class in Madison, Wisconsin, for a summer semester of a lifetime in the Crown of the Continent.
“Higher education in America is one of the most conservative Western culture institutions in America,” wrote Wildcat in his essay “Indigenizing Education: Playing to our Strengths.” I have been told my whole life how important going to school and learning is, but for as long as I can remember, I have dreaded sitting quietly in a classroom, being lectured at, and then tested on what I have retained. I could hardly fathom that there was an alternative to this way of learning, this routine that I have been a part of since kindergarten.
WRFI was the opposite of all the things I dreaded about school. My semester spent in the Crown of the Continent reminded me that I enjoy learning and that not all learning needs to take place in a classroom, but rather most of it takes place outside of a classroom. My classroom this summer was in the mountains of Montana, the Castle Crown of Canada, and the Flathead River. I never once looked at my watch wondering when class was going to be over; class could not last long enough. Discussions were continued over days; lessons were learned on trail in the midst of hard hot hikes. I was learning about the very land I was standing on, contemplating the change and pain that has taken place right under my feet. We would learn about bears in the morning and at night we would have a bear running through our camp. We would read about problems ranchers were having regarding wolves or buffalo, as we walked and talked to the ranchers themselves and later to the people who were working hard to solve this ongoing problem.
We read V. Deloria and Wildcat as we floated down the Flathead River, with the outline of the Mission Mountains following behind us and the full moon illuminating the sky at night and early morning. Deloria put into words the frustration I’d been feeling with my Western science focused education. We read about American Indian Metaphysics and the importance of learning what cannot be tested in a classroom. Indian Metaphysics focuses on the importance of spirit, the spirit within the river, the flowers, the bear in our campsite. In Western science, you are not taught that everything has a spirit, you group things based on a whole species and fail to recognize the importance of individualism. “Most of what we know is not a result of explicit pedagogy or teaching; it is learned through living. Many human beings seem so caught up in their machines and technology that they have forgotten or lost the very sense of what it means to live: to make choices that enrich life as opposed to making existence more comfortable…Making humans act more and more like machines- this may be the most modern of reductionisms.”
My summer semester with WRFI taught me the importance of learning beyond what can be tested. Talking to people, listening to people, viewing all sides of a conflict, thinking outside of the box, the importance of asking questions, really trying to understand people, the land, the species, the wild flower on the trail, the frog in the stream, who and where we are in relationship to our place.
Deloria describes Indian knowledge as consisting of power and place. Power is the living energy that inhabits and/or composes the universe, and place is the relationship of things to each other. He tells us that power and place produce personality, which simply means that the universe is alive and personal and, therefore, must be approached in a personal manner. This summer, I was privileged to meet the Crown of the Continent. I experienced the living energy as it exists in that particular place. No need to talk generally about “mountains” or “rivers.” I now know the Rocky Mountains and the Flathead River. When I encounter new environments, I will tune into the particular energy of the place and approach it respectfully as one might approach a new friend.
I will forever look at the world differently after this summer. I will forever recognize the importance of a more realistic knowledge.
This summer, I relearned how to love learning.