Vision of Service

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Photo by Luella Brien

Ty Backbone, radio DJ and driver at Center Pole, inspects cauliflower that was recovered from a Billings-area grocery store. Backbone started as a DJ at the radio station, but started working with recovered food a month ago. Backbone said the produce that isn’t usable for meals or food boxes is added the compost heap.

Photo by Luella Brien

Peggy White Well Known Buffalo, executive director of the Center Pole Foundation, poses for a photo in her home at her Garryowen ranch, which she has opened up to serve hot meals to the community. “Once you have your house, your cycle is complete, you have your foundation,” said White Well Known Buffalo. “Since my house was free, I wanted to do something to give back.” She started the foundation in 1999, shortly after her home was built.

Photo by Luella Brien

The staff at the Center Pole recover food from Billings-area grocery stores, sort the food, cook and distribute free meals, and distribute free food boxes to the community. Staff includes (left to right) Mila Big Hair, development associate; Laura White Clay, cook; Valencia Crooked Arm, cook; Kassie Birdinground, meal delivery; Jennifer Lovato, meal delivery; Ty Backbone, radio DJ and food recovery; Ramon White, food recovery; not pictured are Loreen Crooked Arm, cook; Nathan Pretty Weasel, food recovery; Auston Hehman, food recovery; Bernard Bad Bear, food bank; and Myron Crooked Arm, all-around hand.

Over the last two decades, Peggy White Well Known Buffalo has worked to manifest her vision of service in the heart of Crow Country.

White Well Known Buffalo’s Center Pole Foundation, based at Garryowen, is a grassroots non-profit organization promoting cultural knowledge, social justice and sovereignty in Native communities. The foundation, formed in 1999, is located on the Well Known Buffalo ranch at the original allotment assigned to her greatgrandmother, which happens to be on the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

“My brother died in a car accident and three months later my mother died,” she said. “I went into the sundance to find healing, this center is named for that, the center is the heart, in everything we do there is a center.”

White Well Known Buffalo said she hopes the healing she found in the sundance can be accessed by other who come to the ranch.

“Growing up, I remember times when I was hungry,” White Well Known Buffalo said, “so we started with food.”

Named for the center pole of the sundance lodge, the organization seeks to serve multiple needs in the community and White Well Known Buffalo said the need right now is food.

The food bank has been up and running since 2000, along with private donations, the thrift store and coffee shop sustain it, she said.

Since the beginning of the year, White Well Known Buffalo said the organization has been serving hot meals to community members.

“No one is turned away,” she said.

Childhood trauma

White Well Known Buffalo grew up on the Crow Reservation, but as a child she was sent to a government-run Indian boarding school in Pierre, South Dakota.

“The government colonized me. They put fear into me, and told me that my language and my culture were not good,” White Well Known Buffalo said. “They said education was the only way, but what makes us rich is when we combine these things.”

She said the fear and trauma instilled in the children at the boarding school was real and lasting.

“We were whipped if we spoke our language. If we cried, we got another one,” she said. “I had to hold my breath and the pain shot through me.”

The trauma of the boarding school era, White Well Known Buffalo said, can still be felt throughout Indian Country.

“Reservations are in ICU,” she said. “To heal we need to bring in ‘doctors.’ We need to connect again in order to heal our community.”

That’s were the food comes in.

Healing through food

“Our community comes together with food,” Mila Big Hair said. “We find healing over food.”

Big Hair, White Well Known Buffalo’s daughter, works at Center Pole as a development associate. She primarily works with the food sovereignty program recovering food from area grocery stores seven days a week for distribution in the food bank at Center Pole.

“Healthy eating is important to healing,” she said.

Some of her work includes collecting food not common in the Crow community like jackfruit and jicama.

Cooks at Center Pole will use these new kinds of food and produce in the hot meals specifically to teach people how to prepare them, White Well Known Buffalo said, so nothing goes to waste.

“When I was young, the older people would be given commodities,” she said. “They didn’t know what some of those foods were, like cornmeal or chopped meat.”

She recalled a time when her grandmother pulled out a can of meat with what looked like a caution symbol on the back. Her grandmother threw it in the trash. Her aunt took it out of the trash and asked White Well Known Buffalo what the can said.

“I think it was bacon, but the caution symbol is what scared my grandma,” she said with a laugh. “Language was such a barrier they threw away a lot of stuff.”

The food recovery program staff sorts and inspects food and produce. Some goes to the kitchen for hot lunch, some goes to the food bank for distribution and what’s not fit to serve or distribute goes into the compost pile, White Well Known Buffalo said.

Meal delivery

Food delivery is an important aspect of the food program, because a lot of the elder programs have been shut down, White Well Know Buffalo said.

“Our community needs this,” delivery driver Jennifer Lovato said. “I like to see the faces on our elders, because they are grateful to receive something.”

Lovato, another of White Well Known Buffalo’s daughters, lives 63 miles away in Ashland, but comes to Garryowen daily to help deliver meals with Kassie Birdinground. Lovato has been working with Center Pole off and on since 2003, first in the food bank and then in the library.

“It’s about the elders,” Lovato said.

The delivery team can provide anywhere from 30 to 50 meals a day.

Growing with intention

The four-acre ranch includes a straw bale constructed cultural center with meeting space, a bunk house, a straw bale-constructed coffee shop and radio station, and a large warehouse that houses the food bank and the volunteer quarters. There also is a horse barn and a sweat lodge.

Each component of the ranch contributes to the overall mission of the foundation.

“We are all human beings,” White Well Known Buffalo said. “This place is not a women’s center, or a men’s center, or a children’s center – it is a place for human beings. All human beings have a heart and they all need to feel welcomed.”

The radio station serves the local area, and broadcasts local news and music on 91.1 FM in both English and Crow, according to the Center Pole website.

White Well Known Buffalo said the coffee shop and café will reopen soon and will serve as a training ground in food service, customer service and culinary arts, as well as fund the food bank.

The foundation also is in the midst of a large building project that will bring an indigenous media and education center. The Ashkapkawia Center, White Well Known Buffalo said, built from reclaimed train cars, will serve as a center for media training and trauma treatment, as well as housing indoor gardens.

The media center is named for the Bad War Deeds clan, one of the 10 clans in the Apsaalooké clan system, who are said to take chances, and are brave, creative and very clumsy, White Well Known Buffalo said. She added that it suits the organization well, because no matter what their failures are over the course of the last 20 years, they always have been able to adapt.

“The great thing about Center Pole is that we don’t see things that don’t work out as failures,” she said. “We are able to change our plan to meet the mission.”

The Center Pole serves a free hot lunch from noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. They also deliver to area elders and homebound people. The food bank is open from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday through Saturday. For more information, call 406-638-2820.


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