Day 1: Saturday June 8th, 2019
After a long day of travel, we arrived at Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation
on the Pine Ridge Reservation and met with Andrew Iron Shell, who gave us a tour of the community and explained their history and philosophy. The organization started in 2007, and since then, they have hosted open community meetings to build upon their ideas for building a sustainable, healthy community. The peoples’ needs are put first, and they put an emphasis on the reversing the societal structure. In other words, the community makes the decisions rather than having decisions dictated by non-Native organizations.
We arrived on a day when the community was hosting a home ownership fair. We learned about how the houses in the development were constructed with solar panels and small windows for protection during storms. We visited the greenhouse, which has a constant year-round temperature. They have a new flock of 500 laying hens that will be the start of a new worker-owned business. The chickens are allowed to roam in the garden, eating insects and fertilizing the soil. The community calls them “buffalo chickens” because, just as every part of the buffalo was used, they plan to use all parts of the chickens. We toured through one of the finished living spaces and learned about how the corporation teaches financial literacy and encourages home ownership.
The three guiding principles of Thunder Valley are People, Planet, Prosperity. The long-term vision of the community after completion of the development is to focus on healing and community wellness on the reservation.
Day 2: Sunday June 8th, 2019
We woke up at 7 am and dressed in our best clothes for Mass at Our Lady of the Sioux in Oglala. Sydney delivered the Eucharist. At the Mass, they intertwined Lakota traditional practices into a traditional Catholic Mass. There were spoken intentions that were open to the community. Additionally, during peace, the community was very friendly and walked over to greet our group. During the Mass, a Lakota drum added drama. We participated in the smudging practice, which is a Lakota tradition of burning sage to drive away bad spirits.
After Mass, we changed at our hotel for the Wind Cave National Park
. After about an hour drive, we walked a mile hiking trail above the Wind Caves. On our drive, we saw a lot of bison and prairie dogs and stopped to take many pictures. During our Wind Cave tour, we went down the equivalent of a 20 story building in a 151 mile long cave system. During the tour, we learned about different geological features such as cave popcorn, frost work and box work. We could not touch the caves because the oils on our hands would disrupt the natural beauty.
We then drove to the Crazy Horse memorial
museum. We first watched a film about the family involved with the construction of the Crazy Horse mountain carving. It was very interesting to watch the progression between generations and how the community all contributed to one project to preserve Lakota culture. After a quick dinner at the museum restaurant, we attended a presentation by a husband and wife team. The husband Whitney (a musician and teacher) and wife Jessie Taken Alive-Rencountre
(a guidance counselor and published author) first spoke about the history of the Lakota, the significance of the Black Hills and the Supreme Court ruling against the U.S. government due to broken treaties. We learned about the power of the jingle dance being a healing method and how it can benefit those witnessing the dance. Jessie explained the composition of her dress and the long process involved in getting the jingles for the dress. She also spoke about the creation story of the Lakota people at the Wind Cave with four couples emerging from within the earth. She performed a traditional and then a contemporary jingle dance. To conclude the presentation, the audience formed a circle around the room and the wife and husband led us in a circle dance. Next, we explored the museum and saw the artifacts and contemporary artwork.
Day 3: Monday June 10th, 2019
We packed up our things from the hotel and drove to the Red Cloud Indian School
. We began the day by introducing ourselves to the staff and the students and helping in the classrooms. Lara and Mia were assigned to 6th
, and 8th
graders. At first, the students were pretty shy and took a bit of time to open up. We (Lara and Mia) sat down at different tables and engaged with the students. We assisted with their posters about writing terms and then with their math worksheets. We played basketball with few of the students during the break. We began to develop relationships with most of the students, who told us all about their families, where they live and their favorite songs. The kids are so funny, kind and intelligent! The classroom style is similar to what we remember from middle school and is equipped with simple materials that allow the students to complete their worksheets. There is a schedule written on the board that outlines the day which includes prayer, reading, math, writing and then activities. The students asked us to sit with them during lunch and at their table while they were doing worksheets.
Sydney and Maddie were assigned to 3rd and 4th graders, helping during lessons on sequencing and math. We also read with the children in the library. We joined the students at lunch, making new friends. Michala and Caroline were assigned to the first and second grade students. We helped students with an outdoor word game and then went with them to the library to pick out books. The students read their books to us back in the classroom. We all joined the students at lunch, making new friends. After lunch, we led two groups teaching the children arts and crafts activities.
In the afternoon Jolene New Holy, a Lakota woman, visited with us and we enjoyed two hours of learning about the Lakota culture and traditions. We learned about the spiritual and healing uses of sage, the significance of the Lakota colors in the medicine wheel, the history of the Black Hills and the Lakota emergence or creation story.
In the evening we shared our first home-cooked meal in Drexel Hall, the visitor quarters where we are staying while we are at the RCIS. During dinner, we discussed our experiences in the classrooms during the day. Quiet time and journaling closed out our very busy day.
Day 4: Tuesday June 11, 2019
We were happy to wake up later than usual this morning, eat breakfast and get down to the classrooms without a long drive. Sydney and Maddie worked with the third and fourth grade again, working on the plot pyramid, timelines and math problems featuring candy for the fourth grade and animal weight loss for the third grade. Caroline and Michala worked in the Lakota Immersion classroom. They start the day every day with azilya (the Lakota term for smudging), followed by praying to the four cardinal directions.
After that, the older students set up a teepee while the younger students learned about the seven directions (the four cardinal directions, up for the Creator, down for the Earth and yourself). This was followed by a nature walk, where the students took pictures of the trees and learned the names of the parts of the trees in Lakota. Mia and Lara worked in the middle school, helping students with reading and math worksheets and making the answer keys for the teacher.
For the afternoon activities, we taught the first and second graders to make whirly-gigs, and then enjoyed watercolor painting with the third and fourth grade students.
After a very short break, we went to the Heritage Center
where there was a contemporary Native American Art Show
and also historical pieces. Audrey Jacobs taught us about parfleche boxes made out of rawhide, Ledger art and quill work. She then helped us examine a painting which was a social criticism of the pipelines running through Native American lands and the danger to their sources of water.
We returned to the visitors quarters just as our speaker, Russ Cournoyer, arrived. He spoke to us about the Sundance Ritual which was once outlawed. He described how it used to be practiced in secret to maintain the traditions. Russ also spoke to us about the spiritual figure White Buffalo Woman, sweat lodges and a coming of age ceremony. His daughter, Rarity, showed us pictures of the dress her mother made her that she will wear to dance in their upcoming Sundance Ritual.
We feasted on fabulous food, provided by Mia and Michala, who made breakfast for dinner. Over dinner we discussed the day’s activities. Caroline presented her research about spiritual Lakota ceremonies, including giving more details of a young woman’s coming of age ceremony. Maddie shared her research on the Indian Health Care system, giving details that we all found shocking and disturbing. We discussed the desirability of having more Lakota doctors but realize the cost of medical school would make that hard for most people. Michala enlightened us about the value of the Lakota Language Immersion programs, which reduce suicide, depression and alcoholism rates. We spent a little time planning activities for tomorrow and journaling to end our day together.
Day 5: Wednesday June 12, 2019
We woke up at around 7:15, ate breakfast and greeted the students in the cafeteria as they enjoyed their breakfast. We split up into groups and joined the students in their classes for the morning. Michala and Mia went with the middle schoolers and worked on a grammar packet, math worksheets and played a game involving guessing which student wrote a paragraph about their favorite TV show or movie.
Maddie and Lara were with the Lakota language immersion group. At first we introduced ourselves in Lakota and all the students shook our hands. Then we watched as Matt taught the students the verbs involved in building a tipi. After this the students went outside and built a tipi. It was amazing to watch the students carry the long poles and use a hammer. We enjoyed playing in the tipi before going back inside to play Go Fish in Lakota and Sunka, Sunka, Igmu (Dog, Dog, Cat - the Lakota equivalent of Duck, Duck, Goose).
Caroline and Sydney played soccer with the first and second grade students and then joined them in the art classroom. The students had collected bugs the previous day and examined them under a magnifying glass, naming them in English and Lakota. After that the students heard a traditional story about why coyotes are grey and black. This was followed by helping the students with math and reading packets. After lunch with the students we made whirly-gigs and watercolor paintings with the middle schoolers, followed by scratch art with the first and second graders.
Our work at the school finished, we took a drive through Pine Ridge Village and White Clay, Nebraska. We saw the few fast food places, including Taco John’s and Pizza Hut, the pow-wow grounds, the hospital and the skate park. We then went to the supermarket and picked out snacks and two flavors of ice cream to bring back to the Visitor’s Quarters. The supermarket was recently refurbished, large, had high prices and a lot of boxed and freezer foods. The signs were all in Lakota and English. We met one of the students walking in as we were leaving and she was very excited to see us when we said hello.
After a short nap at the Visitor’s Quarters, we were joined by Randi Gibbons, who taught us how to play Lakota Hand Games. It used to be called moccasin as it was once played with moccasins. Now it uses sticks and bones, with the objective being to win all the sticks. We played two competitive games in which Michala showed a great ability to spot her opponents’ tells and led her team to victory both times.
For dinner, Sydney and Lara made delicious pasta with vegetables and three different sauces. During dinner we discussed our day. Mia presented information about alcoholism on the reservation and the results of curbing alcohol sales at White Clay. Lara gave us statistical information about poverty and its consequences on the reservation. Sydney then followed up with information about education on the reservation, which has a 70% drop out rate, and the benefits of Lakota language education.
Before the sun set we took a short walk to the cemetery where Chief Red Cloud is buried and read information about his life. We saw a black cat, which followed us back to the Visitor’s Quarters. We enjoyed our ice cream before bed.
Day 6: Thursday, June 13, 2019
We woke up at our usual time, ate breakfast with kids in the cafeteria and were greeted by big hallos and high fives. We split up into new groups today: Sydney and Mia were in the immersion classroom with Matt. We spent time before class on the playground playing hide and seek with the girls and boys, pushing them on the swings and doing jump rope. Once in the classroom, the students began the day as they do each day with the aziiya ceremony and a morning prayer in all four directions and to the sky and to mother earth below. A group of older students went outside to set up the tipi again, this time on their own.
After reading time (we learned to read and pronounce some Lakota words) we also observed their drumming prayer. The boys sit in a circle around a large drum and each hold a drumstick. Two teachers and an elder lead the children in the sung prayer and the drumming. The girls stand outside the circle and join in the song. The class are practicing this prayer for a sun dance in which they will be participating in next week. The whole group went outside to photograph plants. The girls were so affectionate holding our hands when walked outside!
Caroline and Maddie spent another day in the middle school. They had fun playing basketball with the students during break. We now have nice connections with the students; they are beginning to trust us more and ask for help during their work time. Michala and Lara were in the first and second grade class with John. They had a session in the art room and painted pictures of the grasshoppers they had caught and identified in the previous days. Some of the girls followed us around all day and wanted to be our best friends. In class the students are learning about Native legends and learning to describe the animal characters.
After our art activities in the afternoon - scratch art, salt dough and watercolor painting - we went to the playground for afternoon dismissal of the elementary school students to say good-bye to our new-found friends.
We learned so many things from even the younger children. They made us see our lives in different ways. Not only did we learn about their family situations, but we saw how strong they are emotionally and how resilient they are. They seem more mature than their age because they live with real struggles in their families and yet they come to school happy, support each other and are ready to learn. We also stopped by Maka’s office to say hello and talk about what we have learned during our brief time here at Red Cloud Indian School.
We went to visit the Holy Rosary church on the campus and admired how it integrates Lakota and Christian imagery and architecture. The church was designed by a Native architect after the original church burned down in 1990.
We delivered gifts of sage and sweetgrass to Rilda and Marcus who organized our stay here. Rilda asked us not forget the students and people we met this week and to take what we learned to educate others and share it with people at home and at school. Rilda reminded us to remember the struggles the Lakota have been through as a people and how they persevere and have hope in spite of it. When we face challenges, we need to remember this and to know that if the Lakota can get through it, we can get through our troubles as well.
We had one last shared meal (leftovers this time!), reflected about our experience here, and wrote thank you letters to everyone whom we met this week. Father George, the former president of the school, paid a surprise visit just as we were finishing our meal. He told us about the history of the Jesuits in this country and the history of Red Cloud Indian School. We learned about how the school is funded by donations and the role of volunteer teachers.
We are looking forward to a visit to Wounded Knee Memorial tomorrow morning to learn about the 1890 massacre of Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to go on this trip - it has opened our eyes, deepened our souls and greatly changed our perspectives on our lives and those of others.