The small college that changed my life


Crow Country is home for Luella Brien, and for her, the best part of the reservation is the campus of Little Big Horn College.

LAY OF THE LAND: An occasional series on the spirit of Montana

Things change, and whether we like it or not, people change. I’ve changed. I’ve moved from a scared college student to a confident mother. From a budding journalist to a genuine teacher. From a mere thinker to a published author. The journey has been long and difficult, and it all started in Crow Agency.

Crow Agency is at the heart of our vast 2.2 million-acre reservation. The reservation, nestled snuggly between Billings and the Wyoming state line, boasts many natural wonders, including the castle rocks of the Pryor Mountains, the Big Horn Valley, the Big Horn and Little Big Horn rivers.

Our annual Crow Fair Celebration is world-renowned. Our beadwork is studied in museums. As Apsaalooke people, we are connected to our culture, even when we don’t realize it.

As Crows, we are notoriously famous for our part in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, where we served as scouts for the U.S. Cavalry. It was a different time, and as Sioux and Cheyenne began encroaching on the already established Crow reservation, we did what we thought was right. Many tribal nations still hold grudges against us. All I have to say is my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

But this is not a story of military victory or geology or western American history. This is about my favorite place on the reservation. This is about a small college that changed my life.

After high school, I was accepted to a lot of out-of-state universities and I felt honored that my hard work had paid off. Even as acceptance letters started showing up, though, I had already chosen my own tribal school, Little Big Horn College.

A recruiter from the University of Montana School of Journalism came to see me while I was at work during the summer of 1999. He told me I was talented. I refused to believe him. He came equipped with wild tales about how great the J-school was and how its focus on recruiting American Indians was not just lip service. I still refused to believe him, but I kept UM in the back of my mind. In my heart I knew I was scared.

I was scared of the outside world, of the unknown, of people that didn’t understand me as a Crow woman. I needed the bridge LBHC offered. Even though I wanted to leave my home, I knew I wasn’t ready. I didn’t come from a family of college graduates. I didn’t know how to be a college student. I’ve never ventured out on a new adventure without being prepared.

What I learned at LBHC went beyond the classroom. I learned about who I was and who I would become. I realized that playing it safe can be a good idea. It doesn’t have to be the only way, but it’s an option.

My favorite instructor at Little Big Horn was Cindy Bell. When I showed up in her class for the first time I thought she was a little crazy. She loved laughing and storytelling, but it didn’t get in the way of creativity or critical analysis. We learned that writing was not a burden. It was a release. The ideas and opinions in our heads needed to be free and we were free to express them. Cindy took care of us.

She was always up for great conversation. She let us share our writing in a safe place. She gave us honest yet gentle critiques. Her door was always open and she cared about us. She gave us respite from the world.

No matter what profession I chose, I wanted to be like her. I wanted to be a person that others could come to when they needed help or guidance.

Since I left LBHC as a sophomore, I’ve uprooted myself a few times. I’ve lived in Missoula, worked in Seattle, visited D.C. and Phoenix. I’ve been to many other places and a part of me will always need to travel, but my roots are firmly planted in Crow Country.

This is my home. This is who I am. I know that now.

I know who I am and what I want out of this life. I want to wake up each morning hearing the gurgle of Little Big Horn River. I want to be where I can hear cows mooing. I want to feel the cold wind blowing. There were times throughout the years when it was hard to admit how much I love this place, but at this point in my life I refuse to subject myself to things I don’t truly love.

I’ve come full circle from that frightened student who couldn’t leave the rez. Today I choose to stay. I even teach at Little Big Horn College.

At LBHC, there are about 300 students majoring in, among other subjects, pre-nursing, mathematics, business and addictions counseling. We are home to the Rams men’s and women’s basketball teams, both of which made it to NJCAA playoff tournaments last year. On campus we have a daycare, cafe, bookstore and one of the finest libraries on any tribal college campus. And many people have no clue it exists.

Every day, I have the honor of giving my students a broader perspective of the world. I encourage critical thinking. They are expected to question the status quo, sometimes for the first time in their lives. I strive to pull opinions and ideas from their heads. I want to give them the same experience I had as a student.

I want my students to leave my class excited about what they learned. I want the excitement that I feel for them to be tangible. I really do love my job. I love my students. I love the community we have on campus.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. According to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, only 65.4 percent of American Indians in the statewide high school class of 2013 graduated. American Indian students make up 10 percent of Montana’s student enrollment, yet they account for 27 percent of the junior high and high school dropouts.

These are my students. They are not numbers. These are the people who see me in me office every day. The students who need a second chance. The students who aren’t ready to leave home. The students who do not want to uproot their families. The students who waited longer to decide to start college. I know their struggles. I’ve been through them myself.

Every morning I wake up exhausted, not from being a mother of three, but from being a mother of 93. My students turn from scared faces on syllabus day to people I want to protect and nurture. They are young parents or caretakers of their own parents. Many of them have seen the effects of the meth crisis on the reservation. Some students drive 75 miles from Pryor every single day to make it to class.

How can I not love them? How can I not care about their experience at LBHC?

These students are already at-risk and many people believe they will never make it, assigning the drunken Indian image to all of us. They have been talked down to by people who hold stereotypes about American Indians. They have seen poverty many people wouldn’t believe. They may come from one of the 700 families in need of permanent housing on the reservation. But every day I see them show up. Through rain and snow they show up. And so I show up.

To some extent I believe I still am scared to stray too far from home. But as my students graduate and move on, I pray they will take a little piece of me with them.

Luella Brien teaches communication arts at Little Big Horn College. Born and raised on the Crow Reservation, the mother of three is working on her first novel. She is the founder of Four Points Media, a multipurpose media network that will focus on hyperlocal news, publishing and commentary. Four Points is scheduled to launch this summer. A former journalist, Brien has worked for the Billings Gazette, the Great Falls Tribune, the Missoulian and the Seattle Times.

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