By Alan Sorensen
Driving through the Hays and Lodgepole area of the beautiful Little Rocky Mountains with Robe Walker is less like a sightseeing tour and more like a treasure hunt.
A road widening project through Hays and toward Mission Canyon this spring is a case in point. Walker, by his own admission, saw crews pulling willows and trimming trees along the side of the road as earth-moving equipment rumbled a few feet away.
"Pulling willows and trimming trees," Walker, the industrial arts teacher at Hays/Lodgepole High School, said. "Whoa, project."
A short time later, some of the trees and willows became part of the high school landscaping.
"Whoa, project" has been uttered by Walker frequently during his six years at the school isolated on the southern edge of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.
While most students look forward to the hiatus from school that summer vacation offers, Walker's students look forward to "projects." After all, the weather's better for outdoor jobs in the summer than it is during the blustery Montana winter.
Walker, who's an artist by nature and builder by trade, is above all unorthodox a nonconformist who believes strongly in his White Clay people (Gros Ventre) heritage.
When he started teaching at Hays/Lodgepole High, home of the Thunderbirds (T-birds, for short), one of Walker's first nonconformities was taking his first-period students for a walk each morning to get their blood flowing. "Five miles every morning; Kung Fu everyday," William Stiffarm, a junior in Walker's class, said tongue-in-cheek.
Walker earned his industrial arts degree and master's in counseling from Montana State University-Northern. His metal sculpture of Iron Man mounted on a rock stand that Walker and his sons built still stands between the college library and Pershing Hall which houses the music and art departments. The statue faces east with its head up and wings for arms swept wide.
The people of Hays (home to Hays/Lodgepole High School) and Lodgepole (home to Hays/Lodgepole Elementary School) are also known as the mountain people. Reservation residents who reside near U.S. Highway 2 and the Milk River at the northern end of the reservation (about 40 miles away) are known as the river people.
Another of Walker's quirks is looking for projects within the reservation communities for his students to tackle.
"The idea is I like to get the kids involved in real work, hands-on things they see in the community," Walker said. "We're so isolated. We set it up so we can do some stuff real jobs for real people."
Walker insists that the students use not only what they learn in the classroom, but what they've learned of their culture in their homes and from him.
"Industrial arts is like your general education woods, metals, drafting, coating, painting, automotive," Walker said. "I try to bring as much as I can here."
His students were in the process of putting a regulation outdoor basketball court at Bone Springs near the entrance from Mission Canyon to the Hays Powwow Grounds when the Environmental Protection Agency put a stop to it. The reason? The EPA is taking mine tailings from Pegasus Gold's Zortman Mine out of the site. Walker's so relieved that the cyanide-leach gold mine has shut down, that he didn't mind.
Walker also insists upon saying the unexpected in class, particularly when answering a student's question. It keeps them on their toes, he says. And, of course, he is a master of the good-natured teasing for which his culture is famous.
The day before a newspaper interview in mid May, Walker and his students were cementing rocks onto a sign at the Fort Belknap Indian Health Service Hospital. As Walker tried to pull the flatbed truck away from its parking spot just down the road, the engine froze up.
As Walker retold the story, one of his students responded with a witty rejoinder that Walker would have been proud to call his own.
"I told him to put oil in it, but no," said Coshaunn Snell, a sophomore in Walker's IA class spring semester.
Shawn Grant, another of Walker's sophomores, spent spring semester hanging wooden signs in the gym identifying the various teams that Hays/Lodgepole plays during the year.
He already had the signs up for Roy and Grass Range. "I've just got to sketch out Dodson and the Penguins, Whitewater," Grant said.
Grant also was among dozens of students who helped with the signs Walker arranged for his students to make for the health clinic at Hays and the hospital at Fort Belknap.
Students from several different classes helped on the long-term projects.
"It was a couple of year project, so it's been a plethora no, no, no, a gaggle, scads of T-birds," Walker said.
Grant, in the true spirit of a Walker student, admitted that he didn't help put the signs up. "Of course, I might get hurt and see some of it on the way to the hospital," he said.
Among the projects that Walker's students have tackled are:
Building sheds for community residents,
Shoring up sagging benches,
Repairing outdoor cement basketball courts behind the high school,
Constructing three horseshoe pits that meet all official measurements and criteria,
Planting rock gardens, trees, lawns, and put in a winding sidewalk behind their school,
Helping to lay the foundation and erect a large metal building.
Walker's attention is easily diverted by his constant search for jobs. "You just have to be on the lookout," he said.
Walker isn't shy about walking up to a cement truck driver and asking if he has some extra cement he wants to get rid of before heading back to the shop.
"The answer is always yes," he said, whether it's cement or other supplies.
Walker appears to have just one regret. "There's not enough time in the day," he said. "I know there's not enough time in my life to do all the things I want to do."
Over the years, Walker has acquired a wide assortment of tools for his students. Among the "pro-tools" for which they've worked are a portable cement mixer, portable generator welder, and plasma cutter.
All three are indispensable in the two long-term projects for the Indian Health Service.
"I was on this cultural arts committee when they were building this clinic," Walker said. "They were designing some elements and the idea was that they wanted to do the entryway and some other stuff.
"They said they needed some signs, but who's going to build them. I said, if we had a cement mixer we could get you into those signs in the next century.'"
After getting sidetracked on about four other topics, Walker returned to his discussion of the clinic and hospital signs.
"They fell for my scam, but we're going to produce; we're achieving closure. " Walker said. "We're doing this work not for a grant; it's for work after people see these signs that we do.
"We're the only thing for miles and miles around, so we do other things as well."
Walker has tried to keep the two sign projects and the entryway at the Eagle Child Clinic in Hays traditional. The students went into the fields, hills and mountains to collect large stones for the clinic entryway and to support the signs. Each stone was blessed as it was taken from its place.
The students also inscribed pictographs into the red rocks from Mission Canyon that they placed in the entryway. "The students did that," Walker said with a smile. "Let's put a little of our T-bird pride in here and there."
As for the signs, the students had to remain true to the designs provided by Shannon Fox Werk, the Hays sign, and Georgina Shields, the Fort Belknap Agency sign.
The sign at Eagle Child Health Center in Hays contains a representation of Eagle Child Butte, a fasting butte clearly visible from the clinic and the IA workshop at the school. Eagle Child was a tribal member, Walker said, who had a powerful vision on the butte about the future of the White Clay people.
Black and white metal shields representative of star quilts will be mounted on each exterior corner of the Hays building.
The signs outside each of the health care facilities bear the significant colors of red, brown, black, white, green, blue and yellow.
The yellow, green and brown represent the cycle of life, Walker said, and blue signifies water and the sky. Red leads into the medicine wheel and the healing quality of the Earth Mother, and white, red and black represent all the people of the world.
Walker's especially happy that all five of his sons were able to help with signs at one time or another Simon, James, Robert, Jeremy and Andrew.