When Braudie Blais-Billie refers to home it begs the question “which one?”
Blais-Billie, 22, can call “home” a few miles from the Hollywood Reservation, a flat in New York City where she attends Columbia University and an apartment in Paris where seven recent months of academic immersion added up to an experience of a lifetime.
“Paris was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life,” said the senior scholar. “The place was incredible.”
A published writer, artist and photographer, Blais-Billie spent fall, spring and half a summer in the light of such Parisian spots as Notre Dame Cathedral, Le Jardin du Luxembourg and other landmarks most people see only in movies.
Living with a host family during the semester abroad and later in her own place while fulfilling a fellowship award, she was immersed in French language, food and culture. Visits to world-renowned art destinations such as the Louvre, Pompidou Centre and Picasso Museum were bicycle rides away. Four-hour train trips led to London, Madrid, Amsterdam and other cosmopolitan cities.
The semester abroad, through Columbia University’s Summer French Studies at Reid Hall program, was paid for by the Seminole Tribe. From early January to late May, Blais-Billie studied varied and intense topics that ranged from French migration and globalization to the economy of sex during the French Revolution.
Scheduled to end in May, Blais-Billie’s stay in Paris was extended to mid-July after a chance encounter with two long-haired men wearing Plains Indian buckskin. She and her mother, France Blais-Billie, and sisters Tia and Brianna, had just come from visiting Disneyland Paris when they spied the pair.
“A train station café in Paris, France was the last place I’d expect to see another real Indian,” Braudie Blais-Billie said. “I had to ask them, ‘What are you doing here?’”
The two men – brothers Timothy and Juddson Reevis from Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana – perform in “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” at Disneyland Paris. The show is derived from popular traveling acts from the late 1880s that starred American scout William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Lakota leader Sitting Bull. The brothers ride bareback in the spectacle as young warriors. All auditioned via professional casting calls in the Midwest and Canada.
Blais-Billie swiftly applied for and won a summer fellowship through Columbia via the European Institute’s Initiative on Cultural Power in International Relations program. The fellowship allowed Blais-Billie to turn her curiosity about the Reevis brothers into a research study on transcontinental identities.
“I wanted to know how two Native men, who are so close to their own culture spiritually and otherwise, adjust from being isolated in Montana one day to being dropped in Paris the next,” Blais-Billie said.
Her report was to be turned in by the end of the summer, but Blais-Billie will likely continue gathering and analyzing data on the same topic for her senior thesis. She hopes to graduate in May 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in ethnicity and race studies with a focus on Native American studies.
France Blais-Billie, who speaks fluent French, said she worried for her daughter while she adventured through Europe, but she was proud of her just the same.
“Braudie is so fortunate to be able to do this,” France Blais-Billie said during an interview in June. “She gets to explore her French ancestry, be immersed in the language and work on a project about Native Americans in France. It’s perfect.”
Instead of heading “home” to spend the rest of summer in Hollywood, Braudie Blais-Billie detoured to New Mexico where she and eight Columbia undergraduates presented the alterNATIVE Education program to teens on five reservations. The program is geared to motivate young Natives to aim high when it comes to education and career plans.
Blais-Billie has already begun to move toward her goals. She writes and submits photographs for several online publications, including Thought Catalog and SoGutsy. So far, she has been published in Rubina Design magazine, The Seminole Tribune and Complex Media.
For now, Blais-Billie encourages others to follow their dreams, travel to foreign countries and be courageous in the face of hard tasks on the way to the future.
“No matter how scary and horrible it can seem at times – when there is a language barrier and a different culture and it’s hard to be away from home – do it anyway because if you want something you have to do it yourself,” she said. “You will be alone, but you will be independent. And the travel is amazing. You learn more and discover things that you weren’t even looking for.”