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Building bridges: Kevin Kickingwoman fosters healing, understanding
Missoulian - 9/13/2017
Bridges are the sinew that holds Missoula together. They cross the Clark Fork River throughout town, but are so commonly used that they are almost invisible because they’re so important.
Kevin Kickingwoman is kind of like a bridge.
“Teaching Native studies at the University (of Montana) and Loyola helps build a bridge through humanity of different races and make an impact,” he said. “It builds a bridge of understanding.”
It’s a Missoula metaphor for the 50-year-old Blackfeet-Cree man born in Browning, who lived in seven different foster homes, joined the Navy, became a Hotshot, has taught at collegiate and high school levels, earned his master’s degree, worked corrections and now goes back to guide prisoners, wrote a play that could turn into a book, is raising six children, is deeply invested in Native American rights and still plays a mean post-heavy game of basketball at the YMCA.
Violence, displacement, destruction of culture and genocide were carried out against Native people for hundreds of years in the U.S., which left deep psychic wounds. And even though the wars against Natives might have stopped in a conventional sense, Natives still are suffering from the trauma of those experiences today.
That’s where Kickingwoman's bridging presence comes in.
Kickingwoman works five days a week at Loyola Sacred Heart High School and UM, where he teaches the Blackfeet language. On Saturdays, he goes to the Missoula County Jail and helps facilitate classes for Native inmates. And depending on the Sunday, he will run “sweats,” a Blackfeet religious ceremony that Kickingwoman describes as a “process of renewal and healing,” at Fort Missoula. He’s almost always doing something that is aimed at healing the painful American past.
“Historical trauma? People say just get over it. No. That’s not how it works. Historical trauma and ceremony go hand in hand. Both are from the past. You need ceremony to heal from it,” Kickingwoman said.
Kickingwoman worked as a corrections officer in Missoula County for a few years. And then, he remembers, he thought to himself “Why am I trying to keep these inmates in when I should keep them out?” He decided to join forces with Kathy Little Leaf and work at the Missoula County Jail.
Little Leaf is a researcher working with the Urban Institute on a project trying to reduce Native American recidivism.
“It’s culturally centered programming,” Little Leaf said, and is split into two programs. Kickingwoman runs “Regaining the Warrior,” a program that he describes as “helping Native inmates share in order to gain their warriorship back.” It goes hand-in-hand with Little Leaf’s “Mending Broken Hearts” grief and loss group, also aimed at healing old wounds and traumas.
Little Leaf’s research is aimed at “trying to gain an understanding of Natives in detention centers, while implementing cultural programs” that will then reduce the recidivism rates for those groups. It’s a lofty goal, but one that Kickingwoman and Little Leaf are determined to reach.
That kind of work is why the Dakota Access Pipeline protests were so important to Kickingwoman.
“What they’re doing to Natives, treating them so unfairly,” is a major, enduring problem. “Look at Cliven Bundy and how (the Federal government) didn’t do nothing to them. The white supremacists in Charleston, they had guns, and look how they treated them,” Kickingwoman said.
“It makes you know how resilient Natives are and were,” that they still fought.
Kickingwoman didn’t make it to North Dakota, but his family did. “I helped through prayer, doing a lot of ministrations,” he said.
But he remembers the pain of seeing the violence inflicted on Natives.
“Dogs biting them, elders thrown to the ground, water cannons turned on them,” was all terrible to see. But it mattered that people still came together to make their stand for indigenous rights.
Historical trauma is not just an academic term for Kickingwoman.
He wrote a play called “The Sun is My Witness” that was inspired by his time growing up in Browning, where he was shuffled through seven different foster homes.
Kickingwoman said it was originally going to be a book, but was convinced by a Native playwright to convert it into a play.
“It’s about what you can do to get through the hardest times,” he said.
After a moment of abuse when he was 9 years old, Kickingwoman remembers getting down on his knees, crying and thinking “Creator, if I can’t kill (my abuser), then I’ll kill myself.”
But then a feeling of deep warmth came into his chest, and he heard the words, “Don’t give up, there’s fire in your heart, don’t give up.”
“No matter what happened, I didn’t cry anymore,” Kickingwoman said. “I’ve never gave up since.”
There are seven Indian reservations in Montana, plus the state-recognized Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Four percent of Missoula’s population is Native American. Six percent of the entire state is Native American or Alaska Native, which is the biggest minority population in the state. It’s why Kickingwoman is in his second year teaching a Native studies class at Loyola that is now a required course for all seniors.
“They’re like deer in the headlights because it’s all so new to them,” Kickingwoman said with a deep chuckle.
Kathy Schneider is Loyola’s principal.
“We started the Native studies class last year,” Schneider said. “A year and a half ago, Kevin said ‘if you’re interested in a course on teaching Native studies, I’d be happy to do it.’ ”
After one full year of the course, Schneider and other administrators decided that it should become a required senior class.
“We don’t know enough about our neighbors and indigenous people,” Schneider said, which is why Kickingwoman’s course “deepens and enriches the curriculum, because there is a bigger world out there.”
“He’s committed to making our world a better place, with a deeper and richer perspective in the world we live in,” she said.