I have spent the past couple of days since returning back to campus trying to process the many complexities and emotions from my time in Pine Ridge. I decided that if I waited until Sunday to write this blogpost that perhaps I would have made sense of it all over the course of the weekend; instead, what I’ve come to realize is that I may never fully process the trip. The experiences I have had on this trip are ones that I now realize I will carry with me throughout the rest of my life, becoming a reference point for the establishment of certain ethical and moral dilemmas that I will likely spend the rest of my life continuing to work through, whilst also providing me with the unique opportunity to observe a culture very different from my own, in its many intricacies. Since returning back from Pine Ridge I have had a few dozen people ask me how the trip was. As of now the only valid response I have come up with is “amazing.” When it comes down to it, how can you ever possibly summarize an experience of that grandeur concisely? An experience that has left me further questioning societal values, equally disturbed and intrigued by a culture struggling to find the balance between ancient traditions and modern necessities amidst a veil of prejudice from the outside world. A trip that has led me to question the ethics of “spectating” on a different culture and whether the value of education truly does outweigh the potentially harmful outcome of this spectating, as Mike Junior tried to assure us. It has left me questioning how one can help and support a culture without imposing a superiority complex and whether a group of indigenous people can come to live in harmony with a group that historically promoted their extinction.
I suppose that if I had to choose one moment from the trip that most profoundly impacted me it would be the experience I had during the first sweat lodge. I had been forewarned before getting to Pine Ridge of the “sweat lodge experience,” hearing that for many it is a very emotional experience and can even be a spiritual awakening of sorts. I had been told by Celinda and by the Little Boy family that the ceremony only works if you pray, otherwise the dynamic of the entire lodge is thrown off. I generally do not consider myself to be a very religious person so the prospect of praying to me was slightly daunting, as it is a task that I do not perform often. However, I didn’t want to ruin the ceremony so I told myself before hand that I would force myself to pray. Little did I realize how physically difficult it would be just breathing in the sweat lodge. By the fourth and final door I found myself lying flat on the ground, physically unable to sit upright, struggling to breath. As I lay there, I criticized myself for my inability to focus on the ceremony and my inability to pray in my physical state – so desperate was I for oxygen it was all I could focus on. All I could do was pray that it would soon be over and hope I would make it out alive. I later realized this very sensation was exactly what the sweat lodge was about. As I lay there, thinking I was about to pass out, I realized the miracle that is every breath of life we take. The drumbeat resembled the beat of my heart and the rhythm of the earth and thus the universality that ties us all together.
When I went outside after the ceremony I started crying. I had never before appreciated the miracle that underlies every breath we take, each one so full of life. I have learned the power of will, the body’s extreme adaptability in trying survival situations, and just how much I take for granted, down to every last breath.