What Can I Do?


After an experience such as the one we had in Pine Ridge, we, visitors from the dominant culture, cannot escape the inevitable question “What should we do?” This question is difficult to answer, and can be uncomfortable for a group such as ours, who strive to be sensitive and politically correct while still maintaining  idealistic values of activism and justice. I believe wholeheartedly in cultural sensitivity and respect, but we must be careful to make sure that cultural sensitivity does not cancel out empathy and compassion and paralyze us. When respecting someone’s culture gets in the way of supporting them on the level of human survival, I think that no longer counts as sensitivity. Culture includes what the people are living today as well as what they should be living ideally or what they experienced in the past. When discussing Indigenous issues, it is easy to slip up and offend someone, whether they are Native or not, and many people avoid even talking about sensitive subjects for fear of saying the wrong thing, so these issues remain unaddressed.

There has been so much injustice towards the indigenous people of the Americas, all committed by our European forbears. It is easy to slip into “white guilt”, which can effect us in several ways; it can lead to attempts to do some type of service work to settle one’s conscience, which can sometimes be of use but often is not what people really need and has no long term results. Guilt can also take us too far in the other direction; we become too afraid of offending or doing the wrong thing that we do nothing. We tell ourselves that what the indigenous people need is to be left alone to rebuild their culture without the interference of nosy whites trying to right the atrocious wrongs of their ancestors. We are frightened to act, afraid of doing something wrong, and instead we do nothing.

I agree that Native cultures need space and time to return to their roots and revive their traditions, but this can be a bit difficult to do for a family of 11 with no real source of income living in a single trailer with only blankets for windows during a South Dakota winter. Yes, what the Lakota really need is jobs, a source of steady income, healthy and affordable food, a stable government, and their lands returned to them, but acknowledging this does not decrease their immediate need to put food in their children’s mouths and shoes on their feet.

I found myself struggling with many questions after leaving the rez. What was our purpose in visiting the community? Who really benefited? How could I go back to my cozy bed, nice clothes and beautiful campus without doing something to make the lives of these beautiful people a bit easier? But what could I do? I don’t have the qualifications or skills to build houses or start businesses or fight in court.

I may just be an idealistic college student who is out of touch with reality, but I don’t believe standing by and doing nothing will benefit anyone. Even just raising awareness helps, and keeping Native people and their struggles in our minds has a positive effect. I’ve realized this more after seeing how highly the Lakota value and believe in prayer and thought. Yet if I can do more, and do it in a way which is actually helpful, I want to pursue that. I feel that the Earth Ship project with Celinda and Robin could be a successful, practical project, as long as we do our research, actually go through with it. The plan is to build an Earth Ship, a sustainable house which requires very little heat or water, for Big Mike and his family. This would give Big Mike a safe, warm place to live and would and would take the considerable stress of heating a home off of his family. I don’t know if this project is actually feasible, but I want to do my best to make sure that we pursue, while still remaining sensitive to the needs and desires of the people for whom it will be built. I don’t know if this is necessarily the best or correct thing to do, but if we can follow through with this project, we would be able to make a lasting and real difference in a family’s life, someone who has done so much for our class and our school over the years. One house will not cure the people of alcoholism, find people jobs, or return stolen lands, but if done correctly and with help and collaboration from the Lakota community, it would make real change, no matter how small.


Posted in Block 3: 2011-12 | Leave a comment

Coming Back to Something Old

I closed my eyes, focusing on both my breath and Celinda’s breath, and grounded myself in the moment. I repeated in my mind over and over “Let me be a hollow bone” continuously and let myself linger in that phrase and its meaning for me. It was hard not to wander to times where I haven’t been a hollow bone, where my ego had taken over, making me a person I do not see as my true self. As I let go of my ego, let of these thoughts of inadequacy and guilt, my inner chant began to change especially as the pipe started going around, and each time I heard Celinda’s word’s exhaled. The chant changed from let me be a hollow bone to let us be hollow bones and thought of us as a group first and then expanded to all people, my family, America. I think the focus on children led me to want to focus my prayer on society and how our actions can affect the children and our future. I wished for community and I wished to be apart of that community centered on love and goodness. As I entered into this state, I lost all concepts of time and space and with each breath I felt my mind expand. I felt the center of my forehead expand and contract with each deliberate inhale and exhale. Through this space, in my mind’s eye, lingered a purple circle of light that expanded and contracted as well through my breath. I have never had such a physical feeling of my own mind and was fully immersed in the process. My focus was broken when Melissa sweetly uttered “here” as she handed me the pipe. I was grateful to have such a lovely energy break me from my time in silence. My experience with the pipe the first time was anxious, as I had had my eyes closed almost since Celinda had started the ceremony. I had missed everyone else turn with the pipe, and was entirely nervous I was going to do something wrong. I felt a beautiful energy from the pipe; I felt its age, its grace, its history but was almost glad when I passed it, slightly uncomfortable with its emotional weight. Throughout the whole ceremony I felt that nervous feeling “am I supposed to be here??” I was happy when the pipe came around the second time because I was able to see all of you pray as you exhaled.

Looking back on this experience, I know that I had a much easier time connecting in both space and energy here at Shove with all you than at Pine Ridge (not to make any sort of hierarchy of personal spiritual moments, because I have no intentions of doing so). I anxiously wrote the above as soon I returned home, afraid to lose the experience to faulty memory. I was a bit self-conscious to share, (I’m only posting this now, around a month later) perhaps because my experience was so individual and contained in my own mind. I realize now, because of my comfort with all of you, that this was an experience that came from your energies as well as my own and I want to thank all of you for sharing your minds and your space with me for the past block. When I first came into the class, I recognized most everyone from passing days at CC, but you were almost all strangers to me. I wasn’t sure how it was going to change my experience from those that had close companions to share the trip of this class with. Although I haven’t gotten to truly know any of you, which is no easy feat especially within a time span of three and a half weeks, I clearly feel the progress we have made as a group and look forward to furthering my relationships with all of you beautiful people.

Posted in Block 3: 2011-12 | Leave a comment


Celinda set the intentionality for our final pipe ceremony to be gratitude. I am currently sitting outside a coffee shop in California feeling grateful for the opportunity to be here with Kendall and feeling grateful to have the space and time to reflect on the experiences from this past block. I have decided to write a poem. It’s called ‘Gratitude’.



It filled our space

and shaded out the intricate elements

of that song with the catchy rift

so we were left with the essentials:

the trumpet, imbued with clarity, soaring over the drum line.

The little things that piled up,

and crowded our space, blew right out the window

with that excessive musical matter,

as we drove down the coast.

‘What’s the plan?’ was never a question.

We spoke of friends and experiences

that transcend time.

Laughs and smiles constantly returned to our faces.

We never felt worried or uneasy,

nor felt the burdens of structure.


We drove down the 1,

with the vast ocean constantly by our side.

It welcomed us to share

and to be as open with it, as it is with us.

We meandered left and right on the coastal road,

and our conversation did the same.

Stories that unfolded the layers of various relationships and

explored observations of the ‘why’ and the ‘how’

presented themselves in constant lull.


The warmth and consistency

of this light is not unlike the friends we constantly spoke about.

These people provide us with support

and a springboard of inspirational ideas when we ask questions.

As we drove down the coast,

with our sunglasses on,

music and words entered and left the space.

The sun constantly shown and

we felt the love of our friends and family

with each smile that they brought to us.

Posted in Block 3: 2011-12 | 1 Comment

Subtle Colonialism in the Form of Processed Foods

During the morning of our second day at Pine Ridge, the class stopped at the nearest place for coffee. This place is a combined gas station and grocery market, of shockingly limited options for nutritious eating and serves as the primary source of food for the Reservation community. As I walked through the aisles of the store, I tried to think of what I would eat if I lived on the Reservation. The only item I could think of consuming was a container of rolled oats and a bag of grapes. The aisles of processed, high fat, high sugar junk foods overwhelm the small corner of “fresh produce” that consists of iceberg lettuce and few other vegetable and fruit items of poor freshness and comparatively high prices. How can this nation of people be empowered in any way regarding their cultural identity and communal strength when there is a disturbing health crisis of food deserts, obesity, and diabetes?

One of the most obvious indicators of malnutrition is obesity, despite the common misconception that those who are obese are not going hungry. Pine Ridge Reservation, a vast 2.2 million acres, is a food desert. Western foods of the junk food corporate industry are killing the community. During one of my morning runs, I watched as a massive truck with the image of Pepsi-Cola on the sides drive through the Reservation. I felt this marked a subtle symbolism of the continuing colonialism today. Food is a huge component of cultural identity, by shifting food traditions by allocating infertile lands to Reservations and supplying Western processed foods in the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), is incredibly problematic.

In 2010, there was a court hearing to address and review the FDPIR. In this hearing, issues of healthy foods, education, and allocation are discussed. A quote from the beginning of the hearing:

I have hoped to hold this hearing to take a closer look at 
the FDPIR program, which in my opinion, does not get enough 
attention. It is unfortunate, but a fact of life is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease herein Washington, D.C.: out ofsight, out of mind. And while the tribes have continued to 
work hard for their communities, they are, unfortunately, notalways given the attention they deserve from Congress. With 
that said, we are long overdue in reviewing the effectivenessof this program. In fact, we went back and looked at the 
official records and could not find--andI state, could not--
find a hearing that focused exclusively on Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations at any time in the recent
past. So your comments are even more important.

The full transcript can be found here.

Additionally, it seems from a  news article that the opening of a Subway provided quick and easy access to more nutritious and fresh foods than those available in the small convenience grocery store. The article and video can be found here.  And here, an interesting article from Native American Netroots, which is a “forum for the discussion of political, social, and economic issues affecting the indigenous peoples of the U.S, including their lack of political representation, economic, deprivation, health care issues, and the on-going struggle for preservation of identity and cultural history. I found this article to be particularly helpful because it details what individuals can do on a personal, local, and national level. The suggestions for getting involved on a national level include:

*Contact your members of Congress; demand that they fulfill the nation’s statutory obligation to fund the Indian Health Service (IHS) fully.

* Lobby for additional funding for culturally-appropriate diabetes research and prevention programs through IHS.

* Lobby for federal funding for tribal initiatives to maintain diabetes management and traditional treatment programs, including tobacco and alcohol cessation programs.

* Lobby for federal funding for investment and development dollars to bring healthy food initiatives and businesses to reservations.

* Demand that federal assistance programs distribute healthy foods, such as whole grains, and provide access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

* Lobby for funding for research and development, through the National Institutes of Health, the Indian Health Service, and the Association of American Indian Physicians, dedicated to prevention, treatment, and education programs in Native populations.

Posted in Block 2: 2014-15 | 1 Comment

The Reality of Residential Schooling

Few could have anticipated the cultural genocide that would take place for decades in the form of residential schooling. The path to such extreme cultural assimilation began in the late 1600s when John Eliot erected praying towns for Natives in an experimental effort to convert the indigenous peoples to a lifestyle of Christian beliefs (2). With the ideological belief of white supremacy, manifest destiny, and xenophobic perspective, President Ulysses Grant created a policy to set aside funds for the creation of educational facilities to be run by church and missionary society on Native reservations. The policy rationale became known and understood as ‘Kill the Indian and Save the Man.’ Richard Pratt, a key figure in the first erections of cultural assimilation schools argued that it would be better to have a cultural rather than a physical genocide. This philosophy laid foundation for the first off-reservation school, Carlisle. (2). An even more surprising rationale was publicly stated by Carl Schurz, the former Commissioner of Indian Affairs who felt that Natives had a “stern alternative: extermination or civilization” and eventually concluded that it would be more economic to choose a cultural rather than a physical genocide. It would cost “$1 million to kill an Indian in warfare, whereas it would cost only $1,200 to school an Indian.” These practices and policy initiatives quickly transferred over to Canadian governmental initiatives in which residential schools were erected and run by Churches throughout the nation in the late 1880s. The goal of residential assimilation was stated by the Law Commission of Canada as “to re-socialize people by instilling them with new roles, skills, or values. Such institutions break down the barriers that separate three spheres of life: work, play, and sleep. Once a child enters, willingly or not, almost every aspect of his or her life is determined and controlled by the institution.” (5). With this, decades of traumatically disturbing cultural atrocities would ensue.

The residential school system abducted children from their homes as young as three to age eighteen, removing them from their families, communities, and placing them under the care of Christian educators. In Canada, over 150,000 Aboriginal children spent time in residential schools, and experienced malnourishment, inadequate clothing, rampant disease, physical and sexual abuse, and punishment for displaying any traditional cultural practices, especially their native tongue (1). In one case, John Boone, a teacher at the Hopi school, had sexually abused over 142 boys (2). It was later discovered through investigation that schools were involved in pedophile rings and children were involuntarily sterilized as well as used for medical experimentation.

In the lens of the sacred, residential schools were extensions of a sacred narrative of missionary work to civilize and ‘elevate’ Aboriginal peoples (1.) Children were forced to worship as Christians and speak English. Torture was used as punishment for children who didn’t comply with the strict assimilative ways. In Canada, chronic underfunding increased the issue of malnourishment, inadequate clothing, disease, and forced manual labor. Residential schools operated as late as the 1960s in Canada and as late as the 1980s in the United States. While the abuse and practices of cultural assimilation were incredibly similar amongst the American and Canadian residential boarding schools, the government response to the appalling history of forced assimilation is vastly different.
The Canadian response began with the investigation and Report of Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1991, which concluded the situation as a “reign of disciplinary terror, punctuated by incidents of stark abuse—continued to be the ordinary tenor of many schools,” (1). Public outcry followed the public investigative report and prompted involvement of the Truth Commission of Genocide in Canada to issue a report as well. This report detailed the involvement of church and government in the murder of over 50,000 Aboriginal children through the residential school system caused by instances of beating, poisoning, hanging, starvation, strangulation, and medical experimentation (2). This information, along with many other documented sources, prompted Canadian government to publicly and formally apologize while holding itself and the churches responsible for the abuse.  In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized and solidified the apology by compensating former students over $1.6 billion (1).

In comparison to Canada, the U.S has remained mute on the issue, rendering the American public uninformed and uninterested in the need to address the history and move forward. One reason for this lack of response is due to the deliberate destruction of any documentation of student enrollment and what took place at the residential schools in the U.S. This is an atrocity in itself because the boarding schools violate human rights legal standards, such as the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the Convention of the Rights of the Child (2).

Furthermore, even with the end to residential schooling in the late 1980s, the abuse and trauma is endemic. The residential institutions imposed powerlessness, shame, low self-esteem, and issues with self-concept. Children were taught that their way of life and their identity was inferior and uncivilized. Additionally, separating the child from their parents and family results in a loss of family structure and quality of family life (4). The loss of cultural identity through assimilation and loss of language is a traumatic loss. The exposures to such trauma result in long-term emotional and psychological issues, which create disconnection and de-spiritualization within Native communities. Today, there are over 10,000 lawsuits in Canada citing cultural genocide (4). In the U.S, there hasn’t been a formal apology, nationwide acknowledgement, any sort of reparations, or support. It is a disgrace to humanity and the ultimate shame.


Video used in class presentation: https://vimeo.com/109425133

















Sources Cited:

(1) = Woods, Eric. A Cultural Approach to Canadian Tragedy: The Indian Residential Schools as a Sacred Enterprise. 2013. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society

(2) = Smith, Andrea. Boarding School Abuses, Human Rights, and Reparations. 2004. Social Justice, Vol. 31, No. 4.

(3) = [Used in Film] Kuokkanen, Rauna. “Survivance” in Sami and First Nations Boarding School Narratives. 2003. American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. ¾.

(4) = Barton, S., Thommasen, H., Tallio, B., Zhang W., C., Alex. Health and Quality of Life of Aboriginal Residential School Survivors. 2001. Social Indicators Research, Vol. 73, No. 2

(5) = Llewellyn, Jennifer. Dealing with the Legacy of Native Residential School Abuse in Canada: Litigation, ADR, and Restorative Justice. 2002. The University of Toronto Law Journal, Vol. 52, No. 3


Video Links of Footage Used in Film Presentation:













Posted in Block 2: 2014-15 | Tagged | Leave a comment

I do not know this place

I do not know this place.

Every telling of history tastes an awful lot like past-tense with the qualifying pre-tense:

“was, were, no longer theirs, stolen” with the underlying tone of a little more than


I do not know this place. Because knowing requires understanding and distance limits

connection with what it feels like for you heart to stop beating momentarily as the truth

is reinforced beneath cinderblock archways:


I do not know this place.

Perpetuating cycles of poverty inflicted upon people by institutions of “protection” for the

sake of human progress; move forward, up, on, over, through to the means of destruction

because there’s a highest peak somewhere and the victor’s flag must occupy it.

Push out for preservation.

I saw this land for the first time beside a gas station and a tombstone; everything moves

around a center.

I looked upon this place as an outsider. I do not know this place. But the concentric

circles show themselves as songs raised up through the willows beneath soaring moons,

receiving the voices drifting the only place they can: up.

Blurring boundaries between realms unknown but so saturated with life that I felt they

must be there. Everything moves in circles.

Sacred land people sacred song prayer struggle sacred balance struggle struggle balance

word prayer song people land.

The layers remain beyond my comprehension with the language I have.

Without words, ungrounded.

My eyes fell upon this place as my eyelids hung heavy beneath the dark heat of the womb.

The skin of the Mother bursting with the ability to live again.

Resilient and ancient, pulling through to present.

Voices calling four ways to four directions of the earth and the spirits, they came in circles

of song around a center.

Beneath my eyelids, I looked up circles within my horizon.

Concentric circles dancing around a fiery center.

Open spaces were sharp edges introducing tension toxic stretching thin.

I do not know this place. But I saw this place in the messages that sink below the skin,

blood, bones, soul. Every breath a prayer exhaled to the winds.

I do not know this place.

But I saw this place. My eyes fell upon the beauty, strife, and struggle to back everything

that rightfully belongs.

I do not know this place.

But I saw this land breathing, pulsing, stirring alive. This place is real.

Everything moves around a center.


-Emma Brachtenbach

(A spoken word piece attempting to put words to the lack of language and understanding available to describe what I saw while staying at Pine Ridge.)

Posted in Block 3: 2011-12 | 1 Comment

Hunting Rituals of the Northern Plains

For my final presentation, I looked at indigenous hunting rituals among tribes of the northern plains. I was unable to find many sources on this topic until I found Howard Harrod’s book, The Animals Came Dancing, in the library and it provided exactly the information I was looking for. I found there to be a great diversity of religious ritual practice around the hunt. However, there were certainly common themes and practices found amongst many tribes. One example of this was the widespread use of ritual bundles and the importance of the sacred objects within them. Another very common element was the presence of dances where people would imitate the sounds and movements of animals. The rituals often focused on drawing the buffalo herds closer to the villages and to further communicate with the animals in order to gain their perspective on the hunt as well. They used dead animal parts in order to communicate with animals, as they didn’t see these two things as separated as we do. What struck me the most while making this presentation was the fact that this used to be such a large part of the religion, but is now almost completely obsolete. This whole side of religion has become lost because the purpose is no longer relevant, but they should not be lost to history because this level of appreciation for animal life is something that our world needs to move back towards.

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Media Team

We set out to document our time in Pine Ridge and create a meaningful video based on our experiences, what we saw on the reservation, and what the Lakota people had to say about a variety of things. Inevitably, the scope and focus of our project changed once we got to Pine Ridge and after we returned to Colorado. Our experience in Pine Ridge didn’t line up with our expectations. The people we had wanted to interview and focus our film around had a difficult time answering our questions in a straightforward way. We were confused by other media representations of reservations that we’ve seen. And we were confused as to how to go about portraying what we’d seen in a way that was meaningful and truthful to our experience. I don’t know if any of us were satisfied with the material we had to work with before starting the editing process, but we made the best of the content we had and are happy with the result.

Some of the questions that came up throughout the block that we attempted to answer:

  • What should the goals of any media be?
  • Do creators of media have a responsibility to the people they are representing?
  • What did we want to accomplish before going to Pine Ridge?
  • What are our goals in creating a representation of our week in Pine Ridge?
  • How do we capture and represent someone’s self-identity?
  • How do typical media portrayals of Pine Ridge (and reservations more generally) affect the people there?

We could talk for hours about the ill effects of the dominant media portrayal of Pine Ridge or about the problems people at Pine Ridge face. But we didn’t want to focus on these things because they weren’t what caught our attention. It’s often non-vocal things that don’t get enough emphasis in media representations—the subtle interactions, the gestures and touches, the land, the dogs. These are the things that we felt defined our experience in Pine Ridge and give the people there their character. Without further ado:

Posted in Block 2: 2014-15, Independent Projects | 1 Comment


I left the final pipe ceremony feeling absolutely euphoric. My emotions were soaring and I could not wipe the smile off my face. The ceremony was the perfect combination of prayer, reflection, honesty, and connection. To begin the ceremony we shared things we are thankful for. After smoking the sacred tobacco Celinda said she’d be tickled if we shared a touching moment that happened at Pine Ridge. Through this prompting I heard reflections and memories that had not yet been shared. It felt like everyone finally reached a new level of processing and understanding of what that experience meant. I was able to voice gratitude for an experience that I had not yet put in words. I was grateful for the opportunity to do so.

The lighting in Shove was stunning. The stained glass was fuzzily reflected off the stone green floor and when I would look up the actual glass piece was piercingly sharp and vibrantly colorful. I would allow myself brief moments of spacing out and gaze upwards at the window before concentrating again on prayer.

The entire ceremony was lovely but my uncontrollable happiness came specifically from the hugs goodbye. Unlike the first time we did this there was no awkwardness or stifled giggles. Physical contact is a way that I gain comfort with people. I frequently feel a lack of contact with people because it can make people uncomfortable. I try to be sensitive to peoples comfort zones and will stifle my urge to be constantly touching people. There is a significant lack of physical contact in the classroom and it may be for good reason. In our case, however, there was nothing more appropriate than hugging hello and goodbye. Every hug was accompanied by whispers of thanks, compliments, or I love you’s. It warmed my heart. Today, the next day, I still feel cheerful from our perfect conclusion to the block.

-Whitney Perry

Posted in Block 2: 2014-15 | 2 Comments

Placing Blame

It blows my mind that the alcoholism rate for adults in Pine Ridge is 80%. The US National alcoholism rate is only 15%. This is just one of the many statistics that highlight the stark differences between life off and on the Res.

While there are a number of complex factors that go into, cause and perpetuate this statistic, the main factor, the core problem that all other problems on the Res can be reduced to, is poverty. If poverty were reduced, alcoholism rates would decrease. Reducing poverty requires a lot: access to food, water, living space, health care, education, community, love, healing, support, jobs, motivation, leaders, role models, opportunity and hope, among others.

We often look to indigenous communities and assume that alcoholism is the bane of their existence, that unless they abandon their drinking addiction, it’s hopeless, and that it’s impossible to fix what’s already broken. This reinforces the idea that Aaron Huey, National Geographic photographer and indigenous community activist, put so well: that the last chapter to any successful genocide is when the oppressor can look at the oppressed and say, ‘what are you doing?’ ‘You’re killing yourselves, you’re killing each other.’ Americans blame alcoholism as the reason indigenous people have it so hard in the US. Well why are they alcoholics?

On top of blaming indigenous people for a problem that we created, we never apologized for stealing their lands, for murdering their husbands, for raping their wives, for all the evil we did. Instead we blame them. We say that it’s their fault and that they need to stop drinking.

My hope is that we, as a country, wake up, that we recognize our history and our shortcomings, and that we take action to rectify some of the damage we’ve done. While I don’t know what needs to happen, an apology needs to come first.



Posted in Block 2: 2014-15 | Leave a comment