Peggy White Wellknown Buffalo
Peggy White Wellknown Buffalo’s land, in the middle of what is now the Crow Reservation, was allotted to her grandmother by the federal government. It is the very land where Arapaho, Lakota and Cheyenne women and children took refuge as the Battle of Little Bighorn raged nearby in 1876.
Still suffering from misdeeds by the U.S. government and years of jurisdictional disputes, the Crow on the 2.3 million acre reservation in southeastern Montana are plagued by inequities, deep poverty and harsh economic and social conditions that pose huge challenges to indigenous communitarian beliefs and to the well-being and future of Crow children.
It is precisely those challenges that Wellknown Buffalo works to remedy at The Center Pole, which she founded in 1999. Sent with four of her siblings to out-of-state Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools, she attended Native American colleges in Kansas and New Mexico and worked in Vermont an au pair. Wellknown Buffalo returned to the reservation convinced that if the Crow were to survive, they needed to bridge traditional and mainstream values and skills.
She began work back on the reservation as a health provider, taking diabetics for treatment, rescuing alcoholics from freezing to death on the road home from towns that bordered the dry reservation, and comforting the terminally ill, often paying for medications out of her own pocket. When University of Washington architecture students built a straw bale home for her to live in, Wellknown Buffalo turned it into a youth center which became The Center Pole Foundation.
Like the focal point of the Sundance, the most important religious ceremony among Plains Indians (whose celebration was prohibited by the US Interior Department in 1883), The Center Pole embodies a communal effort to connect with and honor traditional, spiritual values in order to insure the health and prosperity of the tribe.
Today Wellknown Buffalo’s straw bale structure functions as a learning center—“a place where children’s tears are wiped”—where youngsters receive food, shelter and warm clothing and participate in cross-cultural academic enrichment activities, leadership training and community service. With 85% of the housing on the reservation substandard, the center itself is a prototype for 1,200 square-foot passive solar housing.
A community building—“a place to go to get help to help yourself”—provides resources on college access, business opportunities, global perspectives and social justice issues. A student-run coffee shop and roastery is near completion, as is a radio station that will give the community a voice.
In the past, many young people did not leave the reservation or go to college because placing personal goals above the needs of family and clan clashed with the cooperative community culture. But by building on Crow culture, language, identity and pride to broaden horizons, enrich education and expand opportunities, Wellknown Buffalo’s programs now enable Crow young people not only to leave the reservation but to bring culturally appropriate leadership, entrepreneurial and professional skills back to the reservation to improve the quality of life and strengthen the social fabric.
“We need to reassert our rights as a sovereign state,” she says, “our right to choose our own form of government. I believe traditional ways can be interwoven with modern ways to make our children strong and help them reclaim the history we carry in our veins. That way, we will secure a just future for the Crow people.”