Vielle never felt connected to his Blackfeet heritage and was headed
nowhere fast until he realized the camera placed in his hands during
his freshman year of high school was a gift his gift.
Born in Browning and raised in poverty
in Great Falls, Vielle already had a criminal record at age 15,
including minor in possession of alcohol as well as theft. He was
on probation and was barely holding onto a 2.0 GPA.
"I kept on messing up and messing
up," Vielle said.
But that camera, an encouraging journalism
teacher, a supportive grandfather and a reconnection with his heritage
will carry him across the stage at C.M. Russell High School on Monday
night to receive his high school diploma.
He is one of 60 graduating Native American
students in Great Falls Public Schools who will receive an Eagle
feather at a ceremony honoring their academic success tonight.
"There are a lot of students that
have risen to incredible challenges," said Sandra Boham, director
of Indian Education for the school district. "They've seen
the value in (a high school diploma)."
In the fall, Vielle will head to Western
Kentucky University in Bowling Green to study photography.
"It allowed me to tell stories, and
that's all I've ever wanted to do," Vielle said of his camera.
But what he didn't realize until this
year was that his camera would tell his story. And what a story
Born in Browning, Vielle and his family
spent a lot of time in Great Falls in his younger years because
one of his two older brothers was sick with pneumonia. His family
moved into low income housing and then when he was about 6, his
older brother DJ died.
When Vielle was 10, his mother died suddenly
from unknown health-related problems.
"Our family just started to fall
apart," Vielle said.
By the time he was 12, his dad had been
in and out of jail, and Vielle and his remaining older brother Will
were living on the streets of Great Falls for a few months. Then
his maternal grandfather Joe Raya took them in.
Vielle was enrolled as a seventh-grader
at North Middle School, but he could have cared less about where
he was and what he was studying.
"I was lost and in and out of trouble,"
he said. "I didn't really try for anything. Our grandpa was
just trying to show us the way. We were just so upset with the world."
He continued to fight, even as he entered
high school at CMR. As a freshman, he took Beth Britton's journalism
class and started taking some photos. He liked it, but he didn't
really give it much thought.
"He was really lost and he didn't
know what he wanted to do," Britton said. "From the minute
he had that camera in his hands he was just a different kid."
Toward the end of his sophomore year,
Vielle realized through the help of his probation and parole
officer that if he didn't start to make changes, he would
end up in the juvenile detention center in Miles City, and probably
jail later on.
"It gave me no choice," he said.
At the beginning of his junior year, Vielle
said he didn't quite have a 2.0 GPA and counselors told him it was
likely he wouldn't graduate on time. Going to college wasn't even
in the realm of possibility. But he was ready to try. He started
listening to his family and close relatives as they tried to reconnect
him with his Blackfeet heritage.
He kept shooting photos for the yearbook
and newspaper and Britton said she never gave up on Vielle, even
though he continued to struggle academically. She knew his family
and some of their story, she said, because Vielle's older brother
Will had been in her class once.
"I was a little concerned. I was
a little worried," Britton said. "I feel so protective
of him because of his less-than-stellar upbringing. He's had to
jump through a lot of hoops."
She was the only teacher over the years
that Vielle said he never wanted to disappoint
"I decided I was part of something
bigger. I realized I had a chance," he said. "(My family)
made me understand I was pushing everyone away and pushing my culture
Britton knew photography was Vielle's
gift and she'd heard about a Nikon-sponsored camp for minority high
school photographers in Bowling Green, Ky. At the end of the last
school year, she submitted his name for the all-expenses paid trip.
Vielle doubted her, she said. Days before school was out, Britton
said she found out Vielle had been selected.
He was one of only 10 high school photographers
from across the country to attend the camp. He got to meet with
Pulitzer-prize winning photographers, shoot photos with cutting-edge
new Nikon camera equipment, and meet with senior photography students
at Western Kentucky working on unique projects.
"When he got back we met for lunch
and he was so excited he talked for three hours," Britton said.
He also came home with an idea.
"I wasn't blinded anymore. I wanted
to do something with my life," Vielle said. "It was life-changing.
Nothing else opened up my eyes more."
Vielle decided he would participate in
English teacher Jamie McGraw's senior research project and he would
make a photo documentary of the Blackfeet tribe.
"I wanted to use my photography as
something bigger," he said.
He wanted people to see the culture and
traditions of Native Americans and not the stereotypes. He made
his first trip to Browning last summer for North American Indian
Days. It was his first trip to Browning since the fifth grade.
"I was introducing myself to my family,
which was odd," he said.
But as he started shooting images of fancy
headdresses, drummers and ornate bead work, Vielle realized he was
uncovering more of his story.
"I am Native American," he said.
"There was a whole other history and culture behind me."
Since starting on his senior research
project, Vielle has made several trips to Browning. He now tries
to visit once a month.
Not only did he meet family and take pictures,
Vielle started taking part in cultural events. He learned his Blackfeet
name and as part of his senior research project he spent time volunteering
there by picking up trash along the streets in Browning.
He also joined the Indian Club at CMR
and was quickly elected president of the club.
Throughout the year they've held fundraisers
and held showcases on drumming, dancing, beading and other aspects
of his heritage. They cut teepee poles and sold them to other organizations.
"I didn't want to be known for being
a Native American," he said.
Now, he's proud of it. His camera helped
him see that.
"I saw the beauty of it," Vielle
said. "I neglected it for so long, and that was who I was."
Britton is still concerned about Vielle.
She hopes that the people and things that once influenced her prize
student in a negative way continue to stay at bay.
"My hope for him now is he truly takes
what he's learned and runs with it," she said. "I'm glad he wandered
into this room three years ago."