Christmas tradition in a basket
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - In the continuation of a Christmas tradition at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, community members came together this week to assemble and deliver Christmas baskets to every household on the reservation - about 800 in all.
On Monday morning, truckloads of food arrived at Rocky Boy Agency from grocery stores in Great Falls and Havre.
Boxes of 13-pound turkeys and 8-pound hams, and 50-pound paper sacks of potatoes were stacked outside a warehouse at the Fish and Game Department. Inside, volunteers unloaded hundreds of cans of corn and cranberry sauce, packets of gravy mix, tubs of whipped topping and cake frosting, sacks of mini-marshmallows and boxes of cake mix, and arranged them on several tables.
More volunteers grabbed plastic grocery bags and worked a circuit around the tables, putting one of each food item into each bag, tying the handles and adding it to a growing pile near the open door of the warehouse.
There, several other volunteers from the tribal departments took turns backing up pickup trucks to the door and loading up enough food into the bed of each truck for at least 20 families.
Robin RainingBird, 35, who spends most of her days as a receptionist at Rocky Boy Public Schools, on Monday was pacing in front of the piles of food with a clipboard, distributing one of 31 delivery routes to each of the drivers.
Meanwhile, Morris St. Pierre, one of the organizers in charge of the purchase and distribution of the baskets, was answering questions and coordinating about 50 people who had turned out to help.
"It takes a lot of time to organize one of these," said RainingBird, who said she has helped organize the Christmas basket project before, but not this year.
About 11 a.m., Tim Parker and Mark Collins, skilled maintenance workers for the Chippewa Cree Housing Authority, loaded up one of the department's trucks with food for the households on their route and headed north a mile or two from Rocky Boy Agency on Laredo Road.
At each house Parker or Collins knocked on the door with a ham under an arm or a turkey in hand, a 10-pound plastic bag of potatoes or a grocery bag full of other fixings in the other. They dropped off the food at each house on their route as long as a family member was home to sign for it.
"Merry Christmas from the tribe," Parker told Larry Meyers, 41, and his daughter Jina Marie, 3, before taking the food into Meyers' trailer.
Meyers said he expected family members from Missoula and Great Falls, as well as some friends, to come to Christmas dinner - hopefully no more than 10 people in all, he said.
That would be a large meal by most standards, but not at Rocky Boy, where close-knit extended families can mean feasts of as many as 50 people, with more than one household pooling their Christmas baskets.
Theda Morsette planned to eat dinner at her son's house along with her daughter-in-law, daughter and two grandchildren, and many others.
"We could have up to 50 people," Morsette said. "All their friends come, and all their relatives, and whoever doesn't have food to eat." That might include neighbors who don't have families of their own, she said.
Ursula Russette, 40, said her family usually has between 25 and 50 people for Christmas dinner.
"They're coming from all over," she said Monday, including a niece who will be coming home on leave from the Navy.
Ronni Jo LaMere, 17, said she expected between 16 and 20 extended family members to come to dinner on Christmas. Her grandmother usually gets up about 6 a.m. to cook, and LaMere would probably join in by 9, she said.
At 12:30 p.m., volunteers back at the Fish and Game office were still working their way around tables loading up bags of food to fill the trucks that were still coming and going.
Patty Morsette, 46, said the bags she filled since she started that morning must have numbered in the hundreds. She said she was there helping because her brother and his family, who usually help with the baskets every year, were in Billings on Monday with a family member who was undergoing surgery.
"At Christmastime, families really pull together around here," Morsette said.
Feeding 800 households isn't cheap. Morris St. Pierre, who is organizing the Christmas baskets this year, said the baskets cost a total of about $24,000. The tribe solicited bids from grocery stores in Havre and Great Falls for the basket components, he said.
Natalie Jackson, the tribe's director of finance, said the money for the baskets came from tribal revenue from a variety of sources, including tribal organizations like Stone Child College, the Housing Authority, the Rocky Boy Health Board, the Tribal Office, the tribe's casino, and donations from local merchants. Jackson said no state or federal funding was used for the baskets.
St. Pierre said casino revenues paid for about a third of the cost.
Without the baskets, some people wouldn't have a meal on Christmas, tribal members said.
"This is really good that the tribe does this ... because there's people that just live on food stamps, I suppose, and I don't think that's too much," Theda Morsette said.
"It's very important because some don't have jobs and they can't afford to buy anything," said Kermit Morsette, 48, who said about seven family members would be eating Christmas dinner at his house. Kermit Morsette lives down the road from Theda Morsette.
"It's really good for a lot of families because some of them don't have jobs, and it really helps them feed their families," volunteer Patty Morsette said.
RainingBird also said a lot of people wouldn't be able to afford a nice meal, because there are more bills to pay and things to buy at Christmastime.
"It's one of the nicest things here for tribal people is to get one of these baskets," she said.
"Everyone gets a good meal for Christmas anyway, that's the main thing," said volunteer Pete Sunchild, who works for the Housing Authority.