Spending a week on the Lakota Reservation is something I never thought I would do. In each class I’ve taken at Colorado College, I’ve read about different cultures, religions, and practices, but I have never been able to experience them beyond a film screening or a discussion. A few days before heading to the reservation a small part of me didn’t know if what we were doing was okay. Were we being intrusive? Were we taking things one step too far by participating in rituals that were not ours? After watching the short clips which gave an overview of the contested sacred spaces and the ways outsiders utilize these spaces I was worried our participation would be unappreciated. Our visit to Pine Ridge opened my eyes to something different.
Upon arriving at the Pine Ridge gas station, we were greeted by Lakota people trying to sell our group dream catchers, earrings and more. I immediately felt like an outsider, a tourist in a place we did not belong. However, when Mike Jr. and Philip pulled up in Mike’s truck, the two men greeted us with the biggest smiles, shaking each of our hands and personally introducing themselves. It was one of the warmest introductions I have experienced. When meeting the Little Boy family: Mike Jr., Jamie, Neveah, Mike Sr., and all of the brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles my perspective changed entirely. Though my doubts surrounding our place at Pine Ridge, and the doubts of other classmates, always found a place in my thoughts, they slowly lessened. The hospitality and kindness of the Little Boy family, as well as the interest in us was evident from the start and especially showed on Thursday, our final sweat and meal.
Throughout the week, the family opened up their home and their traditions to our class. We sweated together each night, one night experiencing something slightly different from the next, and hiked to Bear Butte, a sacred mountain to the Lakota. When visiting Wounded Knee, among other instances, there were times when community members outside of the Little Boy family seemed to criticize our presence, or disapprove of the Little Boy family’s role in welcoming our class into ceremony and sharing their sacred spaces. The family, despite feeling entangled in the politics at times, continued to educate us and invited us to pray each evening. Whether we were Lakota or not, Mike Jr. explained, we can all pray to a higher power during sweat. We prayed for Mike Sr.’s health as a group of thirty classmates, community members, and family members, and the energy created through prayer in the lodge was overwhelming. It was beautiful. The sense of acceptance and unity that permeated in the air during ceremonies and meals allowed me to set aside any doubts.
I will always remember the final Lakota handshakes and the last hugs. Jamie’s final words to each of us will forever stay with me. She said that we are always welcome there. We are always welcome to join the family in ceremonies. She extended an invitation to each and everyone one of us to return in July, the third week, for Sundance. She thanked us numerous times for spending the week with her family. The sincerity and kindness embedded in her invitation really made me feel strongly about the bond we had created. Our experience was more than just educational. It transcended a mere understanding of the Lakota religious traditions and opened my eyes to a way of life, a bigger place in my heart for spirituality, and the strength of the bond created between many different people through religious ceremony.