Things we did at Pine Ridge
Well, we’re back from Pine Ridge and wow. I’m afraid the only words I have are pointless descriptors like “awesome, dude!” and profanity, and since I posted an intensely personal blog earlier I’ll leave most of the synthesis to one of the other bloggers. Also, I promised the buffalo dissection.
On Tuesday, we went to the place that runs the Lakota Tribe’s buffalo herd. They have 8 or 900 head of buffalo that are meticulously—and manually—tagged. Some are given or sold to people in the tribe for ceremonial or eating purposes, others are used for trophy hunts and revenue, and some are sent to the market to pay the leases of the land. The buffalo have tens of thousands of acres. We spoke to one of the ranchers, a vet, and a park ranger about the buffalo, and about the spiritual practices of the tribe and how they interweave their spiritual practices with the practical ones. The buffalo is a sacred animal, one that, in the past, provided meat, clothing, thread and rope, tools, blankets—in short, almost everything the Lakota traditionally used in their daily lives came from the buffalo, and because of that, the Lakota honor them.
One of the most interesting aspects of this was talking about breeding the buffalo. Someone asked about artificial insemination, which is often used in cattle to conceive, as opposed to actual copulation. But the vet (who was an interesting man himself—he was a white guy, who had originally started studying a disease in cattle herds and eventually moved to bison. He’s the vet for several bison herds in the Midwest and is also continuing his and the park ranger shook their heads. “Nope,” the park ranger said. “We leave it up to the spirits.”
Clearly, it works. The herd is growing.
One of the things that’s been very cool about going to pine ridge is how integrated spirituality is in the daily lives of the people on the rez. Yes, reservations (and particularly Pine Ridge) are very poor, but they have running water and electricity and internet and drink Coke and wear hoodies and smoke Marlboros just like us. They live modern lifestyles, but the spiritual aspect of their lives has remained prevalent in a way that is very different than most Americans, even the ones raised in a Jewish or Christian household.
So we talked to the buffalo guys, and then we watched them herd some buffalo into a trailer to take to market. It was hard; apparently bison don’t like small, confined spaces. Who knew?
And then we noticed a big pile of something sort of gross looking in the distance. And since the truth is that no one at CC has actually grown up past the stage of “Oh, that looks weird! Let’s poke it with a stick!”, of course we had to go take a look.
Some gross pictures follow, if you’re squeamish.
The buffalo had died of natural causes, and they had taken the hide and the meat, but left the innards that aren’t used now. Two hundred years ago, almost every part of the buffalo would have been used.
Eventually, we got around to poking it. It didn’t smell, and some of the casing had hardened in the sun. It was a lot less gooey than I thought it was going to be. The conversation turned to field dressing, which I have done a couple of times with my dad, while hunting deer—though not enough to be competent in any way. This turned to dissection, guided by a biology major in the class on the pre-vet track. At this point I got sidetracked by a puddle of blood and went to go check that out.
When I stopped examining the slowly congealing blood, I looked up to find that my classmates Kristin (bio major), Sam, and Rob were returning from talking to some of the ranchers with a field dressing kit. The remains didn’t have any use, they said, and we were welcome to cut it open! We were all pretty shocked, but we definitely weren’t going to turn down this opportunity.
We got right to work on seeing what was inside. We cut open what we thought was a bloated area, but turned out to be a stomach full of grass. We found another stomach later.
And then we gave up and got our hands real dirty. Rob and I went to cut out the liver (the big brown wrinkly part). It was harder than it looked, but we were in fact successful:
Kristin and Sam got to work on the truly enormous heart, which we proceeded to find all the chambers and stick our fingers in them, and then cut it open.
It was actually amazing. This was kind of a spectacular gift to us, as a class, and not just because we got to get totally nasty. It was in many ways a really great bonding experience, it was fun, plain and simple, but it was also in many ways a perfect example of why the block plan is a system that really works as a teaching device. If I had been at a semester school taking a course on indigenous religious traditions, I would have never gotten the opportunity to go to Pine Ridge and speak with these people who protect the bison, a sacred animal. I would never have gotten to see how these people so effortlessly weave the sacred and the profane together in their daily lives. And, obviously, I would never have gotten to cut up a buffalo. I don’t mean for this to be an advertisement for the block plan or anything, but in this case, it allowed to me to dig deeply into the material and get my hands dirty (literally) in a way a semester system would not.
It sounds stupid now, but doing that, in the sun, with the wind blowing, the land and sky stretching out for miles and miles around us, Rob holding the liver up while I cut it away from the membrane below it—that was a spiritual experience for me, a truly powerful one. Like my classmates before me have said, I don’t think I have the words to describe how much it meant to me. Furthermore, it was a joyful experience, one I’ll cherish for a long time. Perhaps this is too simple a reflection for my first blog after returning from an experience that I think blew most of us away. But I’m a senior this year, surrounded by stresses and work and class and sports and the real world looming six months away, a world too full of sorrow and despair. This moment—this whole week—reminded me that I have to take joy in the little moments, like getting to the top of a mountain or cutting open a dead buffalo just to see what was inside.