This past week at Pine Ridge was a week that I definitely won’t forget. It was unique from any experience I have had in my life thus far, and for that I am extremely thankful to Bruce, the Lakota people, and the rest of our class for making it possible.
The drive to Pine Ridge was long, filled with relaxing music, chatting, and pure anticipation of what was to come. When we finally arrived, I was both excited and nervous for the experience. I connect to religion (obviously, I am a religion major), but have never found myself to be a very spiritual person. I can never seem to effectively meditate or anything like that, so I was a bit nervous about the various ceremonies, and if I would connect to them. I also hate being excessively hot, and don’t handle heat well. I am from Maine after all…I once passed out because it was 90 degrees, oops. In this way, I was nervous about what to expect from the sweat lodge, and how I would react to it.
I decided to just go into the experience with an open mind, and also from a more academic view. For me, I was less focused on myself having some crazy spiritual moment, and more on the Lakota people and how they express their culture in terms of traditions and ceremony. If I had some crazy spiritual awakening, great. If not, I would experience a culture completely foreign to me, which would also be great. I went in with no expectations for my own spiritual growth, which I think was positive for me.
We started off at the site of the Battle of Wounded Knee. I was struck at the cemetery how many people had died so young. It was really eye opening and upsetting; it was a rarity for someone to have lived past the age of seventy, which is completely different from the environment I was brought up in.
That night, we had our first sweat ceremony. I was glad that it was only two doors, as opposed to the typical four. It was a perfect entry into the sweat ceremony. I was definitely really hot during the ceremony, but felt okay the whole time. I really loved the singing the first night; there were a lot of community members there who all sang really well, and the singing definitely distracted me from the heat.
The next day, I really enjoyed helping Rose making the tobacco prayer ties for the final ceremony. It was nice to just relax, help out, and talk and joke around with the group. I also enjoyed meeting Precious, one of the funniest looking dogs I’ve ever seen, but also oddly adorable.
That night, the sweat ceremony was really hard for me. I don’t even think it was because it was a full four doors instead of two, although that couldn’t have helped. I was just unbearably hot, to the point where I was concerned I might pass out; it was a bit scary. I got out of the ceremony, and immediately put snow all over my face and hair. I could tell the snow was freezing, but I was still so hot. I had to force myself to put on my shoes because I knew it was bad to be barefoot in snow, but I was just still so hot. It was a pretty unpleasant experience for me, and made me scared to go back into the sweat lodge later.
I really liked the hike up Bear Butte the next day, despite my lack of appropriate footwear. It was a beautiful view from the top, and I felt connected to the land, especially after doing my paper on Bear Butte. It was awesome to be able to see something I had researched just days before. It made me sad to think that this land has been put in jeopardy by non-Natives for such a long time. The government’s relationship with Native Americans is something that is shameful, but it’s not just ancient history—sacred land is still being taken from Natives today, and it is appalling and I don’t really understand why it still happens.
We didn’t have a sweat that night, which I was secretly glad about; I was still a bit shaken up about my experience the night before, so was happy to have a bit of time to work up the courage to do it again.
Our last day, Thursday, was a lot of fun. We went to Mike’s house, and just hung out there for hours. We found an adorable stray dog, which we appropriately named “Pup-Pup,” and developed a scheme to dog-nap him. We realized we didn’t even need to be stealthy about it, as Jamie said, “He’s a stray. Take him. Take all the strays you can!” Our plan was to come back after sweat, and if he was there, it was a sign that we had to take him home with us. Lauren even said she would “pray for the four-legged” in sweat in hopes that Pup-Pup would return to us. Alas, Pup-Pup did not return, so we did not take him…probably better in the long run, but still sad!
At sweat that night, I hesitantly entered, and coincidentally sat by Big Mike, which I hadn’t done before. As we were starting the service, Big Mike said, “I can tell the girl next to me is nervous, but she will be fine.” Typically, I would brush off a comment like that and not think anything about it, but I felt like he was right…I would be fine. I instantly connected to this ceremony, which was kind of weird for me. I found myself praying for my grandma, who hasn’t been in the best health recently. I was surprised to find myself close to tears about it, which was really weird. I almost felt like I wasn’t in control of my own body. I also didn’t feel hot at all; I was completely comfortable in the sweat lodge, and was barely even sweating. Big Mike grabbed my hand and put a type of herb in it. He told me I was in need of help, and that he would help me. He told me to smell it, so I did, and it calmed me down a bit. He then told me that a spirit was going to come talk to me, and to not be afraid, and I wasn’t. Sure enough, Big Mike’s spirit guide came to talk to me (in the form of Big Mike’s voice), and said something about me needing help, and that he knew I was hoping to find a spiritual meaning in this experience, but that I wouldn’t admit that to anyone, which I guess was sort of true. He then said he was going to give me some medicine to help me. When he did it, I’m not sure if he was pouring something on me, or if I was crying, or just sweating, but something was dripping from me profusely. That sounds disgusting, but oh well. It was a really intense experience for me. Instead of counting down until the ceremony ended and feeling uncomfortably hot like the last sweat, I found myself actually enjoying the ceremony and connecting to it; I could have done more doors actually…I felt cool as a cucumber. I’m a skeptical person, so I tried to act like Big Mike had no effect on me during the ceremony. I must have just hydrated better that day, or maybe it was cooler…in the end though, I kind of decided he did affect me. I’m so glad I sat next to Big Mike, because it was a really cool experience.
Coming back to CC, I’ve had time to reflect on my experience there. So many past students have told me to take this class because the time spent in South Dakota is “life changing.” Was it life changing? Yes, but maybe not for the typical reasons people say. When talking about the class, people have said, “I had the craziest experience…my arm went numb for an hour and I couldn’t move it,” or “I saw so many spirits, it was crazy.” Those things happen I’m sure—I had my own pretty amazing experience in the sweat lodge when I sat next to Big Mike, and it was an experience that is pretty unexplainable to me, and that I’ll remember forever. However, the class was more life changing to me in terms of just interacting with the Lakota people and seeing their lifestyle. It was eye opening to witness such poverty, and yet these people were still happy and committed to maintaining their traditions, when it has caused them so many problems in their lives. Witnessing their dedication to the Lakota way, despite experiencing such hard times was more impactful to me than my own spiritual experiences.