Dispatch from Montana

A group of Penn State students, faculty and alumni traveled to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, where they are working with a group from the University of Washington to construct a straw-bale literacy center at Dull Knife Memorial College. Schreyer Honors Scholar Corinne Thatcher, a junior majoring in Latin American studies, along with Christa Scott, a senior majoring in integrative arts, have agreed to give Newswire readers a glimpse into their experiences in Montana.

For information about the American Indian Housing Initiative, check the Web at http://www.engr.psu.edu/greenbuild/intro.html.
For the full story, visit http://www.psu.edu/ur/2002/straw-balecenter.html.

Installment 1: All smiles as construction begins
Installment 2: Rethinking the model
Installment 3: Building more than a literacy center
Installment 4: Covering up and opening up

Installment 1: All smiles
as construction begins

Lame Deer, Mont., July 15 -- Well, we're finally on site. A group of 60 students, faculty and alumni representing the span of the continent from Penn State to the University of Washington descended upon the small town of Lame Deer, Mont. It's wonderful and amazing to see so many people from so many different academic backgrounds -- from art history to architecture to anthropology -- excited to work together for a common cause. 

Already this first day, progress is being made, as the group cooperates to prepare the foundation for strawbales, assembles the window boxes, cuts and bends rebars and slices the strawbales to size. The sun beats down at more than 100 degrees. Few of us have formally met and few of us have showered, yet no one has uttered a word of complaint since we strapped our toolbelts on at 8 a.m.

It's thrilling to be here in Big Sky country. It's a new world to me; one I have been anxious to experience since I signed up for this course last fall, with hopes of learning about the strawbale trend in sustainable development and of raising my awareness of American Indian life and culture. I have learned quite a bit already from my class work, and I am sure to learn a lot more in the ensuing two weeks as the others and I have the opportunity to work with members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, travel the western landscape...and help construct the strawbale literacy center!

Installment 2: Rethinking the model

LAME DEER, Mont., July 16 -- Things certainly operate a bit differently out here on site in Montana than they do on a typical construction site back east. Improvisation became the word of the day when we discovered this morning that our bales weren't quite the length we expected them to be, forcing us to rethink the model several students and faculty had carefully laid out yesterday. As Sergio Palleroni, a faculty member from the University of Washington, joked during our lunch break, this is really "build-design" rather than design-build!

Have no fear, though -- we worked out the kinks and the straw-bale walls are quickly going up on schedule. That is, of course, if we don't get struck by the windstorm predicted to hit sometime this afternoon. Keep your fingers crossed that it skips over Lame Deer; but just in case it doesn't, we have an emergency response team prepared to dispatch to designated corners of the site in order to secure the perimeter.

Last night -- our first together as a group -- we had the fortunate opportunity to listen to Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox speak about their 14 years of experience building with straw-bale. These straw-bale gurus stressed the need for humans to include more "ecocentric" building, energy and transportation alternatives in our currently "egocentric" lifestyles in order to reduce the unnecessarily high level of consumption that characterizes the First World.

The choice to reduce, reuse and recycle is not about constricting growth, Myhrman and Knox encouraged, rather about opening the floodgates to the reservoir of creative potential that distinguishes the human race, a perspective they supported with a slide show depicting the myriad forms -- from moderate ranches to sprawling mansions -- that straw-bale construction can take on, as well as its variety of applications. From housing to fencing to re-insulating to renovating, straw-bale technology offers an ecologically friendly, aesthetically pleasing building alternative that makes positive use of what some would consider waste -- but what we, and a growing number of others, consider a resource.

Installment 3: Building
more than a literacy center

LAME DEER, Mont., July 19 -- We are coming to the end of our first week and much progress has been made. The walls were completed by Wednesday evening and Thursday the trusses were placed. It is amazing to see how all these hands can contribute and make such fast progress.
Our days are full and hot but it has been nice at the end of each day to get to hear words and music from some of our friends in the tribe. They are sharing so much of their culture and we are all honored. Tuesday evening Jay Old Mouse explained the purpose and tradition of flutes in the Northern Cheyenne culture and allowed us to hear some of his amazing music. Made most often of cedar, each of these hand-crafted flutes has its own unique sound; they are not tuned to any chord.

Eugene Little Coyote and Darold Foote, two respected young men in the tribe and close to many of us on the project, told of Northern Cheyenne history and current challenges that face the tribe. As the straw-bale building is constructed, we too are building relationships and expanding our own knowledge.

Installment 4: Covering up
and opening up

LAME DEER, Mont., July 24 -- It's now been over a week since we -- the students, faculty and alumni from UW and PSU -- arrived in Lame Deer, Mont., to work on the Dull Knife Memorial College literacy center. Getting up every morning at 7 a.m. and putting in a full day's work under the hot sun has been a challenge, but it's also been a lot of fun. Everyone in the group has worked and played hard and well together, teaming up to put together one heck of a straw-bale building. Right now we are working on the most labor-intensive of all the steps of the construction process: applying the three layers of stucco needed to seal the walls of the literacy center and to provide a smooth, natural facade.

The Northern Cheyenne community has been wonderfully receptive to the project, lending to a large turnout at Monday's open house/cookout, where student-guided tours of the building were given to anyone interested. Everyone we speak to here wants to know our names, where we're from, what brings us out to the rez, and, of course, always reciprocates with a story or two about his or her own life. On Sunday, another student and I stopped at a spring where a Cheyenne family was enjoying the day off. Rather than act protective of their space along the shoreline, they immediately began to chat with us, encouraging us to jump in for a swim, sharing with us the secrets of the landscape.

It's refreshing to be in such wide open country with such open, honest people. It's important to visit someplace you've never been, to really get to know the people, not through books but interactions and friendships, and to pay close attention as the beauty and wonderment of our world replace the misnomers and stereotypes that keep so many of us from experiencing the true diversity of life.