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    The Benefits of Volunteering on Native American Reservations

    Posted March 18, 2024, 10:38 am by Owen Clarke

    Teen travel programs and volunteer experiences don’t have to leave the United States to connect with foreign cultures and ways of living. Here’s why.

    There’s a lot to consider when searching for volunteer opportunities for high schoolers, from the volunteer project focus to the program destination, duration, group sizes and ratios, and program policies.

    Making these decisions can be overwhelming. But it’s important, because it’s the little things that make or break the volunteer experience. 

    Sometimes policies governing something as seemingly minor as cell phone usage mean the difference between a life-changing week of volunteering—where a participant builds connections and experiences meaningful personal growth—and a shallow “voluntourism” trip, one mainly focused on box-checking accomplishments (i.e. We built a school!) and Instagrammable snapshots.

    Program destination is another key consideration, and for obvious reasons. It’s front and center for many folks as they look for volunteering organizations for teenagers. But often parents (and teens) make the search needlessly complicated, exclusively searching for volunteer experiences abroad in exotic destinations and foreign locales. 

    It’s understandable, because volunteering in foreign countries does offer a unique perspective on a new culture. What many fail to realize, however, is that you don’t have to leave the United States to experience a foreign culture and immerse yourself in a new way of living.  

    Familiar Land, Foreign Culture

    Choosing to volunteer on Native American reservations (as opposed to volunteering abroad) allows teens to engage deeply with the cultural, historical, environmental, and political realities of Native American communities.

    It offers a chance to contribute to the resilience and vitality of these communities in authentic ways, and develop an understanding of their strengths and the challenges they face. There are many reasons why volunteering on Native American land is beneficial for teens. We’ll discuss a few in this article. 

    Cross-Culture Exchange at Home

    Volunteering on Native American reservations—such as the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana—provides a unique opportunity to experience and connect with an entirely new culture, all without leaving the borders of the United States. As a result, working on a reservation offers a rare form of cultural immersion that does not require international travel. 

    This isn’t just a benefit from an accessibility standpoint (No passport required!). It also deepens volunteers' understanding of the diversity within their own country, and the rich history of the peoples who inhabited this land long before it was known as the “United States of America.”

    Learning from Indigenous Wisdom on Land and Environment

    Volunteer projects on reservations are often deeply informed by indigenous philosophies of land stewardship and sustainability. Volunteers routinely work on projects rooted in traditional ecological knowledge, such as habitat restoration, sustainable agriculture, and water rights advocacy. 

    These experiences offer a different perspective on environmentalism than those typically encountered in other parts of the world. If you’re passionate about environmental causes and keen to learn more about sustainable land use, volunteering on a Native American reservation is a must!

    Aiding Cultural Preservation & Food Sovereignty

    Many Native American communities are actively engaged in efforts to preserve and revitalize their languages, traditions, and cultural practices. Volunteers often have the opportunity to support these initiatives. This can include assisting with language preservation programs, cultural workshops, or traditional ceremonies unique to a particular tribe.

    Food sovereignty (the right to healthy food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods) is also a critical issue for many Native American communities. Volunteers can engage in projects related to traditional agriculture, seed saving, and the revival of indigenous food systems, which offer a special perspective on the connections between food, culture, land and health.

    Connecting with Traditional Healing, Ceremony and Celebration

    When volunteering on Native American reservations, teens often have the chance to participate in (or observe) traditional practices distinct to the tribe or tribes of the reservation. This could include powwows, sweat lodge ceremonies, traditional hunting and gathering practices, and other events rooted in the cultural and spiritual life of the community.

    On Native American reservations traditional healing practices are also often used hand-in-hand with Western medicine. Volunteers interested in health and wellness will find many opportunities to learn about herbal medicine, spiritual healing, and similar practices. This offers an exclusive perspective on holistic health and wellness, distinct from what one will find in other parts of the world.

    Art and Craftsmanship Opportunities

    Art plays a significant role in both the cultural identity and modern economy of many Native American communities. Volunteering in these communities routinely involves supporting artists and craftspeople, offering a multitude of opportunities to learn more about traditional arts such as beadwork, pottery, and weaving. 

    This exposure supports the local economy, but also provides an understanding of the importance of art in cultural identity and resilience. 

    Diversity In Your Backyard 

    Many fail to recognize the vast diversity among Native American tribes. The U.S. state of Montana alone, for example, is home to a dozen federally recognized tribes (Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Sioux, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Chippewa, Cree, Blackfeet, Salish, Kootenai, Pend d'Oreille, and Little Shell Chippewa). 

    Each of these tribes has their own distinct culture, language, and traditions. This staggering array of diversity within a relatively compact geographical area is arguably unique to Native American tribes, and not easily experienced in other volunteer settings.


    Special Angles: Tribal Governance, Education, Legal Advocacy, and More


    As we’ve explained thus far, the benefits of volunteering on Native American reservations are numerous. Others we haven’t yet mentioned include engagement with tribal governance (offering insights into the complexities of tribal sovereignty), connection with Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and firsthand looks at legal advocacy work specific to Indigenous rights. 

    By volunteering with Native Americans, teens also glean deeper understanding of many Indigenous-specific issues, such as federal policies affecting land use, healthcare disparities, and the preservation of treaty rights.

    So if you or your teenager are looking for a volunteering experience that can offer rich immersion into a foreign culture and traditions, as well as insight into a new way of living, recognize that you don’t have to sign up for a teen travel program to a far-flung country!

    Diverse learning and engagement opportunities for teenage volunteers exist right here in the United States, with Native American tribes like the Montana Blackfeet Nation. 

    These volunteer experiences offer a lens to understand broader themes of cultural preservation, environmental stewardship, community resilience, and social justice, all grounded in the specific context of Native American communities.

    Learn More About Volunteering on the Montana Blackfeet Reservation

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    Owen Clarke

    Owen Clarke

    Owen Clarke is an adventure travel journalist working as a writer for VISIONS.