Montana JROTC Program Prepares Kids For Future
by Sarah Windmueller, U.S. Army Cadet Command
December 7, 2021
In the grassy hills of southeastern Montana
where mountains and sky paint the horizon, sits the small town of
Lodge Grass. A lazy creek twists and drifts through surrounding
farmland where the openness of earth and sky expose a history that
entwines the Apsáalooke people to their land.
Located on the
eastern part of the Crow Indian Reservation, this ranching town is
host to the Lodge Grass High School Indians and its Junior Reserve
Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) program. The long-standing “Indian
Battalion” has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and is
struggling to rebuild and re-establish its foothold within the
Members of the Lodge Grass JROTC prepare to march in at the funeral for Joe Medicine Crow in Crow Agency on April 6, 2016.
(Courtesy photo from the Billings Gazette with use permission.)
Lt. Col. (Ret.) Michael Rubi has been a
fixture at the school and the JROTC program for seven years. Every
student in his JROTC program at Lodge Grass belongs to the Crow
tribe, a federally recognized Native American tribe with their own
Established in 1995, the “Indian
Battalion” is one of only three operating JROTC programs in Montana.
“It opened up because the community has a lot of
Veterans—Montana has the highest number of Native American veterans.
There were discipline problems among the younger generation and [the
Veterans] wanted to do something about fixing that,” Rubi said.
The Veterans—fighters from World War II, Vietnam, and
Korea—found out about JROTC and brought the idea to the tribe who
then moved forward with petitioning for the program.
first opened up, it opened up in the old bus barn at the school—no
heat, no nothing,” Rubi said. “That lasted for a couple years before
they could get inside and get classroom space.”
winters in the bus barn to honorary marching presentations at the
funeral of the tribe’s last war chief, the program has experienced
highs and lows. For Rubi, the “Indian Battalion” offers the chance
for students to step aside and look beyond the “pull of the
“The pull of peer pressure on the reservation
is big …t he families have a huge pull” Rubi said, adding this isn’t
necessarily negative, but more of a cultural acceptance. “It’s
almost looked down on to go off the reservation. The family expects
you to live on the reservation and provide for them or work for
them. And, unfortunately, I’ll say easily 70 percent of the students
here are being raised by the grandparents because their parents are
out of the picture for whatever reasons, and it’s sad.”
According to the Montana Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs, about
75 percent of the Crow tribe’s 10,000 members live on or near the
reservation. This is the largest reservation in Montana with more
than 2.2 million acres of land.
“On the reservation, the
students don’t have a lot to look forward to,” Rubi said. “There’s
no industry, no jobs on the reservation that’s not family oriented,
[working] on the family ranch or working for the tribe.”
Basketball season and the Crow Fair and Rodeo are two big community
highlights of his student population.
“The kids here, they
live and die for basketball season. Nothing else,” he said.
Crow Fair and Rodeo is one of the largest gatherings of American
Indians in the Unites States. Late in the summer, the landscape
surrounding the Little Big Horn River is transformed into the
“teepee capital of the world” with a celebration focused on
heritage, family, and native pride.
“The whole tribe gets together and they set
up teepees and do all kinds of events every day. There’s rodeos and
there are different dancing competitions,” Rubi said. “They’ll do
that for a whole week and then they crown the stars…and that’s it
for the summer. Other than that it’s hunting, fishing, and riding
Rubi said it’s very common for students to
get involved with JROTC early on, but the difficulty lies in keeping
them motivated to continue with the program.
“Some of the
students that go into it are dependable, especially if you get them
while they’re freshman. They’ll do the Color Guard, they’ll do the
competitions. They don’t have problems doing everything they’re
supposed to and be reliable, but then they turn seniors and the
majority of them disappear—I lose like 80 percent,” Rubi said.
With an already limited infrastructure of community activities,
the onset of COVID was near-devastating to the Apsáalooke youth
community. It also put further social strain on a community where
the majority of students are being raised by someone other than
“It hit the senior citizens the hardest. It
seemed like every other day someone’s grandmother or grandfather was
dying. If they’re living with that relative and that person is gone,
who picks up that flack? Who do they go live with now? Who’s going
to enforce discipline on them? Who’s going to make sure they’re
doing the right thing? Who’s going to look out for them?” Rubi said.
“We had [students] that were literally living out under a bridge or
in abandoned cars because, for whatever reason, other family members
wouldn’t take them in…We lost a lot of elders who would do the
disciplining or raising the kids,” he added.
It’s been a
tough two years on the school district, the JROTC program, and the
students. Building interest and finding ways to encourage their
curiosity has become increasingly difficult with the constant
closures and community upheaval due to illness.
off this year with about 79 kids and I think I’m down to 54 active
students,” Rubi said. “Some of them aren’t all that active. Six of
them actually dropped from coming to school all together and two of
them are transferring to another school.”
struggles encountered by the program, Rubi says there is some light
at the end of the tunnel and the hope his program offers to the
community is slowly starting to return.
“We’re a visible presence that the youth
aren’t all messed up, because you see too many of them drop out of
high school and they’re out at the local IGA begging for money or
they’re roaming about,” Rubi said. “The community appreciates what
we do for the kids, and what we’re trying to do for the kids.”
Ben Cloud is the Journalism and Photography teacher at Lodge
Grass High School. He’s always impressed with the “Indian Battalion”
and the honor they bring to the Crow community.
called on for Color Guard duty every year. They’re always involved
in the community and doing things the tribe calls on them for as
well. I’ve seen them working at the [tribe’s] Inauguration Balls.
They’re very well-known throughout the reservation.”
first time in the history of JROTC, 8th graders are allowed to
participate in the program. The National Defense Authorization Act
of December of 2020 opened the JROTC program up to 8th graders under
certain guidelines that just so happened to align with the Lodge
Grass High School JROTC program.
Rubi sees this factor
playing a big role in the rebuilding of the program over the next
“I see my mission as basically trying to get
these kids to graduate legitimately…and just give them a chance,” he
said. “I see my job as trying to prepare them as best I can for an
He also tries to incorporate and connect
different aspects of their culture and history into his instruction.
“I try to bring back the heroes of the tribe and the tribal
stories that I know when I’m teaching about leadership and
responsibility,” Rubi said, adding that he also tries to use
examples of their own customs.
“Every once in a while, I
will bring in a guest speaker to talk to them about education and
why learning is important,” he said. “I can preach to them all day,
but if a guy who is 70 or 80 years old comes in and says [education]
means something to them, they’d better damn well pay attention. It’s
a great insult if they don’t when an elder is speaking to them.”
Another big draw to JROTC is the addition of an archery program
to go along with the already popular marching, uniform regalia, and
Color Guard presentations at different community and tribal events.
“The marching is always popular, and one reason why archery
is so popular—especially among the girls—is because, traditionally
the girls in the Crow culture don’t shoot arrows. They are not
allowed to shoot bows and arrows and they are not allowed to touch
their male relative’s weapons. They are all eating up archery,” Rubi
Cloud and his Journalism class recently joined the
JROTC students during an archery session to photograph students
shooting the bows and arrows. The experience left an impact on Cloud
and the students in his class.
“Right now I am so impressed
with the archery program they’ve developed here. They’ve got a lot
of interest from the students because a lot of kids aren’t exposed
to that kind of thing,” he said. “Having the ability to use good
equipment afforded to them by this program I think that this gives
them a lot of insight into what archery is.”
The students who
make up the Lodge Grass JROTC program this year consists of mainly
8th graders, freshman, and sophomores. They are quiet, most of them
prefer to speak Crow, and they are not particularly keen on talking
to strangers. The students do open up a little bit when talking
about their experiences within the program.
Students from Lodge Grass High School JROTC in Lodge Grass, Montana wearing their uniforms and Native American regalia
on November 23, 2021. The program at Lodge Grass is one of only three JROTC programs in Montana.
(Courtesy photo by Ret. U.S Army Lt. Col. Michael Rubi)
Silas Cummins, an 8th grader at Lodge
Grass, is in his first year of JROTC. He started off not too sure
about the program and what his overall experience would be.
“To tell you the truth, I like it in JROTC,” Cummins said. “I like
the writing, the bell ringers and work, and learning of all the
things about the Army.”
He adds that getting to wear the
JROTC uniform and the encouragement he’s been receiving from his
instructors has been inspiring.
“As long as you’re wearing
the uniforms, you’re basically showing your honor,” he said. “People
believe in us, and they are basically saying that we can be
Jaden Broken Rope, a freshman, appreciates the
realistic approach and educational opportunities offered by the
“They are providing kids with some opportunities,
like with what they might want to do with their future” Broken Rope
said. “Like, if they finish school, they see if they maybe want to
join the military when they graduate.”
He, along with nearly
every other student participating in the program loves the added
perk of getting to do archery.
‘We go out into the field on
Thursdays and we shoot at those targets and that’s what I like,” he
Jazmine Half, a sophomore and one of only a handful of
women active in JROTC, said she wanted to join the program after her
two older brothers participated.
“It helps me with my
leadership and my people skills,” Half said. “It gets me out of my
comfort zone doing stuff that I usually don’t do, like archery and
dressing up in uniform.”
Lance Little Nest also feels like
the Lodge Grass JROTC helps him learn about leadership.
about being a better leader to push people that need to be pushed,
helping others out, and being the bigger person,” Little Nest said.
Lance’s younger brother, Alonzo Little Nest, echoes his
“We all need leaders in the world,” the
younger Little Nest said. “We have a great leader here⸻ he’s our
As the “Indian Battalion” continues to
maintain engagement within the school and community, Rubi says the
most important factor the program emphasizes in regards to the
students is hope. Hope that there are opportunities out there beyond
“Every once in a while we’ll take them on a
field trip to local colleges and hope that if they do get a better
education, life will be better for them--if they go to college or a
trade school,” he said. “There’s hope in that the military is a way
out, we don’t push that, but it is a way out. You have benefits, you
have medical and dental, you have housing and a regular paycheck and
learn some skills.”
“There’s also hope in that other people
believe in you. It’s not just your family member or favorite teacher
saying, ‘Here do this, we expect you to go forth and do great
things,’” Rubi adds. “It’s other people who are not members of your
family or your community saying ‘You can do this. You do have a
future if you want it, but you have to want it, you have to work at
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