The word that I use most frequently when people ask me about my experience at Pine Ridge is ‘complicated’. I fumble trying to think of where to begin the discussion. Usually I start with generalities of the trip: We spent most of our time with an upcoming medicine man and his family, learning about Lakota traditions and religious practices. We visited sacred sites, participated in ceremonies, engaged in conversation with locals, among other activities. The advice that Bruce gave us before we left on the trip guides my narration. I don’t want to romanticize the religious practices that we participated in. And on the other hand, I don’t want to focus on the poverty and the grim reality of life on the reservation.
Discussing the experience is complicated because dynamics on the reservation are complicated. People are in poverty. A lot have seen suicide, substance abuse, or domestic violence within their extended family. Both inter-family and intra-family relations can be rocky and even hostile. This is not to say that family problems don’t exist elsewhere, but in this community where family and religion are inextricably linked, any sort of disruption to their traditional lifestyle has a large impact. We saw this in our discussions with Rose in which she expressed her frustration with certain family members’ alcohol abuse.
I also have to mention that our white presence caused tension. When Justin got back in the van after a trip to the gas station convenience store, he said that everyone was giving them shit for being with us. They thought the Little Boy family was selling out. He laughed it off, like he often does with things, but I felt a twinge of discomfort as he said these words. It brings up the question again: Should we even be here? #complicated
I definitely think we should. Gaining knowledge of this spiritual practice helps us to genuinely respect the Lakota culture. In Mike Jr.’s words, “It’s all in the name of education.” It also gives us the impetus to explore our own spirituality which is a positive learning opportunity in a religion course.
The time I spent with the Little Boy family showed that in order to thoughtfully discuss modern practices of Lakota religion you must understand the context in which the people live. I have only begun to discuss the context of Pine Ridge here but I’ll stop for now.
Quick side note. My connection with Nevaeh was not complicated. The tainted racial dynamics were not at play. We interacted authentically, human to human. We danced, played hand clap games, and taught each other a lot. She’s a shining star.