Harlem community members reflect on their hometown: ‘It’s its own special place’
Harlem is a small town located just north of the Fort Belknap Reservation on the tribal homelands of the Aaniiih and Nakoda people. It’s home to less than 1000 people according to the 2020 census.
The city boundary juts out just enough to include a gas station along a busy highway. Most people enter the town here, but only for enough time as it takes to fill up their tank.
Valoree Black Crow is the store manager at that gas station.
“We see people from Canada, we see people from Washington, Michigan, all over,” Black Crow said.
For them, it’s just a quick stop on the way to somewhere else.
But to the few who live inside the city lines, it’s home. “The Heartbeat of the Milk River Valley” has a diverse community. Darrius Longknife graduated from Harlem High School in May.
“I would just have to say that there is nothing else like Harlem," Longknift said. "Harlem — it’s its own special place."
Tracy "Ching" King is a Nakoda Tribe representative on the Fort Belknap Tribal Council. His Assiniboine name is Holy White Horse.
King moved to the reservation as a child more than 50 years ago. He said the dynamics between Indigenous and non-Native people in the town of Harlem have changed.
“It seems to be getting better as our students become more aware of racism and all that,” he said. “It’s [important] just to educate them to see people as people, no matter what color we are.”
Other longtime residents of Harlem have watched the community change, too. Dale Meyerland has lived in Harlem for more than five decades. His white stucco home sits a hundred yards from the train tracks that run through the north end of town.
“At present I'm probably the local gunsmith and I've been here since 1967,” Meyerland said.
Meyerland has worked as a teacher, a gunsmith and an all-around repairman in Harlem.
“People bring me things that should probably not be repaired, and I fix them,” he said.
When asked why he chose to stay in Harlem, Meyerland replied, “I don't know. Probably because I've accumulated so much junk that I hate to think about moving it or getting rid of it.”
A couple of blocks from Meyerland’s house is the city pool. In the summer the pool is packed with kids. Harlem Mayor Kim Hanson parked his side-by-side right outside.
“Harlem is my hometown. I was born and raised here. I love this little community,” Hanson said. “I think we have a lot going on for us here in Harlem.”
Hanson said he wishes the town could provide more opportunities for the town’s residents. It can be hard to find jobs or pursue interests in the small town. Many move away to find opportunities elsewhere.
Ben Carrywater is one of those people. He was born in Harlem but left to play college basketball in Kansas for four years. After college he returned to his hometown. Now he’s supporting the next generation of young people in Harlem.
“I just got hired as the boys basketball coach, so that’s one of my main focuses right now,” Carrywater said.
Carrywater and his wife are raising their children in Harlem. Carrywater said the family doesn’t plan to leave. He said deciding to move back to Harlem was easy.
“It's home. I mean, I love it here. I love this community,” he said. “I want my kids to experience everything that I got to experience growing up.”
At the basketball court near the high school Devin Doney practiced shooting baskets. Doney said there’s not a lot going on in Harlem for young people like him. That’s why he spends time at the fenced-in basketball court, which kids call “the cage.”
“When I come to the cage I really don’t have to worry about too much,” he said.
Tova Anderson, another high school student in Harlem, wrote a poem about the way it feels to walk through Harlem.
“Bands of dogs like the kids barking create a symphony as my feet lead me home. The sun fades into a Charlie Russell sky,” she wrote.
18-year-old Darrius Longknife has lived in Harlem his whole life. He said he’s grateful to have grown up here.
“Our community’s really close. Everyone knows each other,” he said. “I could see someone on the street and we'll say hi and talk for half an hour. And I won't even really know him that well, but after that — it’s just Harlem's like a family almost.”
Longknife is about to move away from Harlem for the first time, to start school at the University of Montana. He said his hometown will guide his next steps.
“I want to take what I have here, and just kind of spread it, bring it around everywhere else and just show people the kind of community I was in,” he said.
This story was reported by Harlem High School students in a Montana Media Lab workshop. The Montana Media Lab is located at the University of Montana School of Journalism. This story was reported by Mitchrena Begay, Savea Hogan, Mia Wing, Aniya Longknife, Jon Mount, Beau Rider, Izzy Baker, Darrius Longknife, Hawken Haakanson, and Tova Anderson.