My first morning on the Cherokee reservation was spent being sardined between hundreds of ecstatic teens from all over of the country on groaning bleachers in a dimly lit auditorium in beautiful Ashland, Montana. A member of the Group Workcamps Foundation stood in the center of the auditorium with a microphone, ranting about the rules and regulations of the week. “One last thing, please be mindful of the residents. A lot of them might be reserved in interacting with us. Oh, and please don’t feed the dogs.” And with that we were dismissed and we flooded out the doors.
When my crew and I arrived on site, we had an audience of two dogs. One was small with light hay-colored fur with patches of brown on one eye, both ears, and at the base of his tail. The other one was taller, completely black, and had a longer snout. I tried to approach them, but they instinctively backed away with raised hairs on their necks. Despite their apprehension of us, they did not leave. Instead they watched as we worked. Later that day, one of the young girls confined the small dog’s name, Otis, but unfortunately the name of the second dog dissipated in the air between us as she hastened to her mother’s call. I just managed to ask her if the dogs were hers. She shook her head as she disappeared inside the house.
It was only when I was walking down the cracked driveway towards the van did I notice the dogs’ visible ribs. I had an unnerving gnawing in my stomach throughout lunch. I took the leftover slices of bread and meat and left them on the ground along with an abandoned Frisbee filled with water in full view of Otis and his friend, whom I named Sierra. Once I left, Otis and Sierra engulfed the food and water.
From then on, after lunch, I would feed Otis and Sierra our extra bread and meat slices. Otis, almost instantly, overcame his fear of us and allowed us to play and hold him as he licked our faces. Sierra, however, was more reluctant. It was only until the middle of week did she show her first sign of trust and friendship. I was sitting in the shade on the front doorstep when Sierra timidly walked up the steps and settled herself down besides me. Slowly, I raised my hand to pet her. Her eyes followed my hand until it made contact with her back. Only then did she lay her head back on her paws.
Towards the end of the week, I fell off a rope swing on top of a steep hill behind the property. Before my crew members could get to me, two forms were running towards me; Otis and Sierra. Two people had to assist me in walking back to the house. Meanwhile, Sierra stayed by my side while Otis would run ahead, wait, and then run again, leading us back to the house.
On the last night, all of us teens were surprised to know we were invited to a powwow. There we danced and socialized with the natives who grew comfortable in our presence throughout the week. At the end of the ceremony, we were made official members of their Cherokee tribe. That week taught me a life lesson I will always remember: in order to earn genuine trust and friendship, I had to give of myself through my actions and talents whether it is fixing a house or sharing what I am blessed with.
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