Agriculture is arguably the most complex industry in the world. Farmers and ranchers must have an intimate knowledge of weather patterns, soil types, government regulations, animal behaviors, consumer preferences, biotechnology, and the list goes on and on. Not only do they need knowledge, but farmers and ranchers also need a deep understanding of the world around them. This trait has long been recognized as valuable.
A proverb from the Blackfeet Tribe states, “There are plenty of different paths to a deep understanding of the universe.”
The Blackfeet Tribe has a rich culture and tradition rooted in agriculture. This can be clearly observed on the Blackfeet reservation. Nearly 7,000 Blackfeet live on or near the 1.5-million acre reservation in northwest Montana. While children usually have access to 4-H, the largest out-of-school youth development program, American Indian youth who live on the reservation often miss out on these opportunities for premier leadership due to proximity and logistics.
Change on the Horizon
“Our community is located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation,” says Verna Billedeaux, Blackfeet Reservation extension agent for the Montana State University Extension Service.
“Our 4-H program used to participate in a tri-county 4-H Fair, but for some families that was more than an hour and a half away. Family members couldn’t attend the fair shows to support youth or see their final 4-H project displays.
“Unfortunately, 4-H enrollment slowly decreased. However, the Blackfeet tribe and 4-H Council recognized the value of the 4-H program and voted to host a local 4-H fair in an effort to rebuild the youth development program on the reservation.”
It Takes a Tribe
Today, the Charging Home Stampede 4-H Fair, the first reservation-based 4-H fair, is held every July during the North American Indian Days Celebration.
The nearly 80 youth who participate in the fair spend three days competing in areas ranging from traditional livestock shows to cat and dog demonstrations. The 4-H members who participate have the opportunity to interview for their project and sell their products at a community auction.
“The entire fair has been embraced locally, and it has been totally supported locally,” Billedeaux says. “And when I say locally, I don’t mean just on the Blackfeet Reservation. We have local sponsors from within the tribe and a tri-county area. We have received a number of state grants to improve the program. And, volunteers come from near and far to help us pull off the event. It has been an amazing experience.”
Community support has gone a long way in rebuilding the area’s 4-H program.
“It is amazing to see how the fair has grown and changed over the years,” says Jamie Evans, a local community member from Browning. “The excitement from the 4-H members is contagious. I look forward to coming back year after year.”
This exceptional program growth is a stark contrast to today’s agricultural landscape. With the average age of a farmer or rancher reaching 58 years old, there is a great need for younger generations to fill the void. Billedeaux believes that programs like the Charging Home Stampede 4-H Fair will help youth make these decisions.
“Our agriculturalists are starting younger because of the 4-H program,” Billedeaux says. “It is programs like our fair that offer youth the opportunity to belong to a community of future agriculturalists; to discover the different paths they can take in the future; and develop a better understanding of the world around us all and how they will be a part of it.”