The Way Home

Gifts to the Dartmouth College Fund help make great things happen for our students. Here is one of their stories.
Joree Lafrance standing by waterfall

Joree LaFrance ’17,  a double major in Native American studies and environmental earth sciences, grew up on a ranch in the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana. Proud of her Native heritage— JoRee makes her own traditional dresses, leggings, and moccasins—she was Miss Crow Nation during her senior year of high school.

Having a Native community at Dartmouth is important to me. For Natives who come from a reservation, where your mom, dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents all live nearby, being away can be hard. I hear students say that going home is boring. I don’t know how people cannot want to go home.

I’ve learned so much about the complexity, intricacy, and diversity of Native cultures, literature, and law at Dartmouth. I’ve gained a different perspective on the positive and negative atmospheres on the reservation. And when I took Federal Indian Law with Professor Bruce Duthu, I discovered how so many laws affecting Natives are incredibly restrictive. I’ve learned a lot that I can use when I return home, including ways  to address environmental concerns on reservations.

I’ve always been interested in the environment,  especially geology and mineralogy. I’ve also developed an interest in hydrology and marine geology. My faculty advisor is Nicholas Reo, a professor in Native American studies and environmental studies. He guided me toward a project focusing on river restoration, and we conducted research on water issues with three indigenous communities. I traveled to New Zealand to work with the Maoris, which was awesome.

Another way I want to help my people is by raising awareness about mental health. The Obama Administration sponsored a program called the Generation Indigenous Native Youth Challenge, a program for young Natives to create projects that will help our communities. A friend and I accepted the challenge, and we collaborated with It Gets Brighter, a website where people share their stories about mental health issues. It’s important because problems such as depression are connected to suicide—and suicide rates are high across Indian country, on almost all reservations. Suicide has affected my friends and family.

We collected videos of Natives talking about living with mental health problems and how they’ve coped. Kids growing up on reservations have to deal with issues like alcoholism, drug addiction, and poverty. Many are born into it, and it takes a toll. We wanted Native youth to know they’re not alone, that mental health challenges do not define them. The provost’s office helped fund the project, and students from the film department volunteered their time. That led to several days in Washington during July, where I learned more about Native youth networking—and I met Michelle Obama.

At about the same time, I was named a Dartmouth Stamps Scholar, which emphasizes experiential learning. It’s a great honor, and it will fund my research into traditional Crow understanding of landscape. Over a year and a half, I’ll collect data through workshops, group discussions, and field visits, and learn about sacred sites from tribal elders. My goal is to help revitalize the Crow understanding of landscape, and to create a GIS map that will preserve this knowledge for generations to come.

I’m thinking about grad school and traveling after I graduate from Dartmouth, but I know I’ll eventually return home. I really want a better world for future generations. I’m gaining the knowledge, experience, and skills I need to help communities and people. My confidence is building as I grow personally and intellectually at Dartmouth.