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, 7th, 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.