Jesse DesRosier did not begin to learn his native language until he was 8 years old. Like most contemporary Blackfeet children, he learned English first. Then in third grade, he switched from public school to the Niitsipuhwahsin (“real speak”) language school co-founded by Darrell Kipp on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning.
It changed DesRosier’s life.
“Without a language, there’s really no culture or history,” said DesRosier. “Without our language, we’re no different from any other tribe or any other people. That’s what makes us, us.”
DesRosier attended the language school through eighth grade, and continues to study Blackfoot. He loves how descriptive it is, and how learning the name of a place, often also teaches its history. Take for example, the Blackfoot name for Lower Saint Mary Lake in Glacier National Park.
“In our language, we call it ‘pahtoom’matsikkimi,’ which means ‘hole at the bottom of the lake,’ ” DesRosier said. “Early translation of this was never understood, until scientists realized there’s a natural spring at the end of the lake, and it almost seems like a bottomless lake.”
DesRosier joined the Marines when he graduated from high school, following a Blackfeet tradition of military service.
“My father was a Vietnam-era vet, my grandfather was a World War II veteran, his father was in the military, as well as my grandfather on my mother’s side,” DesRosier said. He also has numerous uncles and cousins who have served, as well as his younger brother.
Native Americans have the highest percent per capita of any minority in the U.S. armed forces. The long warrior tradition is part of the reason; another is the high unemployment on many reservations. The military offers work and travel.
DesRosier served four years, mostly in the Pacific, and is a member of the Portland, Ore.-based Vet Voice Foundation, a national veterans group that advocates, among other things, for the protection of public land and conservation. According to a foundation news release, they want to “ensure that future generations of veterans will return to a country that provides space for the hunting, camping, hiking and exploring that has helped heal the physical and emotional wounds of war for this generation.”
“I think nature really soothes your soul, you know, calms you down, so it’s a really important thing to keep,” DesRosier said.
For DesRosier, Chief Mountain on the border of Glacier and the reservation is one of the places he goes for healing.
“Chief Mountain is a sacred mountain for my people and I go there for solace a lot,” DesRosier said.
DesRosier was in Washington, D.C., recently to lobby for land protection, where he met – and was impressed by – the three members of Montana’s congressional delegation. He also has just wrapped up his first semester as a student at the University of Montana, where he’s thinking of majoring in environmental studies.
“After I got out (of the service), I bounced around a lot of different jobs, working a lot as a laborer,” said DesRosier. “I realized I could do better; I wanted to be a boss. ... I noticed that all that separates that from a laborer is a piece of paper – a degree.”
DesRosier loved his first semester in college, and has found some favorite Missoula-area spots to hike and explore.
But his heart belongs to the reservation, where he learned there’s a hole at the bottom of a lake – and a mountain to soothe the soul.
Sally Mauk is news director of KUFM, Montana Public Radio, in Missoula. She writes a twice-monthly column for the Missoulian.