Nearly 30 years ago Kristina “Kris” Simons arrived in Poplar, Montana, as an altruistic travel nurse looking to address the alarming health needs of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
“I had just left Alaska . . . and I wanted to go somewhere with [warm winters], like Hawaii, somewhere nice,” said Simons.
“Oh, here’s one in Poplar, Montana,” said a representative of her agency.
“I didn’t know anything about Montana except where it was,” recalled Simons.
The rep said,“Yeah. Let me see: 60 [degrees Fahrenheit] below [zero] . . . lots of fetal alcohol syndrome problems, alcoholism, drug addiction.”
“She’s rattling off all of these negatives about it. And the more she talked, the more I wanted to go there. I thought, I could make a difference there,” said Simons.
Poplar, with a population of fewer than 900 people, is located on the reservation. Fort Peck is among the largest reservations in the United States, with more than 2 million acres of land and a population of approximately 10,000 people. It is home to the Assiniboine and Sioux, who occupied the land long before there was a “Montana” or a “United States of America.”
After living on the reservation, or “res,” for three months, Simons met her now late husband Edward. They married two months to the day after their introduction.
“It’s not the easiest place in the world to live, for sure, but it can be one of the most satisfying and gratifying places,” she said.
Life on the “Res”
The climate, in every sense of the word, is difficult on the res. The winter weather is extreme. The location is remote and barren. The issues related to health and upward socioeconomic mobility are discouraging. The attitudes toward those who are not native are described to be as cold as the weather itself, understandably so.
“Have you watched the movie The Dakota 38?” asked Simons.
The documentary film follows a group of people honoring the 38 Sioux leaders who were hanged on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota. The leaders fought against broken treaty promises by settlers who were encroaching on their land, leaving thousands of natives with little food. It was the largest one-day mass execution in the history of the U.S., and it was endorsed by the nation’s president, Abraham Lincoln.*
“When I went to college here, they showed that [documentary] at every single class,” said Simons.
In addition, many can share memories of relatives who were forced to go to “Indian School,” where natives were forced to become Christians and adopt the colonialized lifestyle.
“The history for them is so recent. The horrors of the past and everything that happened to them is like it just happened. The fact that they’re still very guarded and untrusting of most White people when you first come around is not a big surprise,” said Simons, who is Caucasian.
“There’s a lot of prejudice around. You just show them something stronger and better than prejudice,” said Simons.
Stronger and Better Than Prejudice
What’s stronger and better than prejudice? The spirit of an elderly White congregation of an Adventist church 70 miles away in Glasgow, Montana, embracing Kris’s husband as one of their own. Glasgow held the closest Adventist church to Poplar. There are no Adventist churches on the Fort Peck reservation.
“They were so good to Ed,” said Simons. “There was one family that quit coming immediately because they did not want any part of being in an Adventist church where there was a native.” But that one family did not influence how the remaining members doted on Ed and supported him when he decided to get baptized. Simons says Ed was the first Sioux to get baptized in the area.
“It’s like you go visit your favorite auntie,”Simons recalls Ed telling his friends when asked why he went to a “White church.” “That’s what it feels like when we go over to church.”
What’s stronger and better than prejudice? Ed and Kris starting a local ministry when the congregants at the Glasgow church passed away, forcing the church to close. Hosting scores of children of various ages; teaching them about God through nature and inspired messages; launching small camp meetings for the reservation; and giving children a chance to pair their talents with lessons from the Bible.
“The children on the reservation are worth saving. The people on this res are worth saving,” said Simons.
What’s stronger and better than prejudice? Simons volunteering to accompanying elderly natives during their doctor visits.
“This is my home. These are my people. I love them. I take care of them every way I possibly can. . . . There are always people like older women who need to go to the doctor. They’re scared to talk because they don’t know what the doctor is saying anyway and [they feel walked over]. The doctors don’t tend to be very nice to natives. That’s where I come in. I’m the regulator.”
What’s stronger than prejudice? Simons adopting the spirit of widowed Ruth when she told her mother-in-law, Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16, NIV).
Ed died in 2010 after battling diabetes and a severe heart condition that led him to have eight major heart attacks. “After my husband died, everyone kept wondering why I didn’t go back to Oregon, where my family [lives]. The Lord didn’t ever ask me to. There’s always been more to do here, a lot.”
“Work in Progress”
Simons cannot speak about the church lifelong missionaries Gary and Marla Marsh are helping to construct on the reservation without crying. Her faith has sustained her while she has longed for an Adventist church community. But she does not believe the years without a church have been in vain. Simons said if she never moved to Poplar she would’ve missed out on a fulfilling life.
“This little place allowed me to be able to be who the Lord wanted me to be; what He had in mind. At least it’s a work in progress.”
— Mylon Medley is an assistant director for the NAD Office of Communication; Gary and Marla Marsh’s story about mission work and life on the reservation coming soon.
*Jon Wiener, “Largest Mass Execution in U.S. History: 150 Years Ago Today,” Dec. 26, 2012, www.thenation.com/article/largest-mass-execution-us-history-150-years-ago-today/, accessed on Feb. 11, 2019.