The question of authenticity was an incredibly conflicting factor in my hesitations about the journey to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. My confliction really grew in the van driving to South Dakota while reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Learning about the absolutely horrifying history of cultural assimilation and the cultural massacre of various native tribes complicated everything I felt and thought. While driving through the vast lands of the Reservation I felt silenced by the history embedded into the land, and an overwhelming sadness of the reality and truth of what America is built upon. I found myself trying to sort through all of the complexities of my place in this course and trip by first understanding the word “we” in the narrative of America’s history with native tribes. “We took their land, we killed their people,” concepts troubled me and I began to trail back through my personal ancestry to understand if I was a part of that group of killers. My ancestry is from Ireland, France and Eastern Europe. My father’s grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe to escape the Germans and my mother’s grandparents fled Ireland during the time of extreme poverty and famine. Then I thought that, this means I am not a part of the “we” equation regardless of my white skin. But maybe I am in a sense a part of the “we” because I have done very little for cultural and human rights. And doesn’t knowledge entail responsibility?
With this, I found myself at the site of Wounded Knee. I couldn’t walk around the site for more than a minute when I began to cry. I sought solace walking away from the site and class, looking out onto the land scattered with deteriorating trailers and piles of trash. In this silence, I struggled to grasp with my passion for indigenous rights that has been the root of my academic path at CC and a significant part of my personal identity and the crushing sense of sadness I felt. With the sense of guilt, question of authenticity, being an outsider, and question of my place in this complex issue—I felt no clarity or any answer.
Each morning I would run, sometimes on the main road and other times on the dirt road near the Lakota Waldorf School. Running was incredibly helpful in beginning to unravel the complexities of this place and my emotions. The beauty of the land, in its vastness, the gentle slope of the hills, and the way early morning light illuminated different colors of the grasses and trees, evoked peace. On one of my runs 5 ecstatically happy dogs joined me, and we ran along a dirt road, past cattle and gorgeous fields. I ran without a music, phone, or watch and I felt blissfully disconnected which allowed me to connect to the present of this place. When I reached the end of the road, I stopped to listen to the hundreds of birds chirping in the trees, and the sound of the wind rustling leaves and tall grass. The love of the dogs, the happiness of the chirping birds, and the beauty of the land were rejuvenating in my confusion of navigating the complexity of the Reservation.
Sitting on the floor of Mike Jr.’s home, Mike told the class he didn’t want us to feel like we needed to problem solve or distance ourselves with cross-cultural misunderstanding, but to learn and to be present in this experience. Mike Jr. and all of the other community members who engaged with the class were giving us tools for cultural awareness. I think cultural awareness could be significantly helpful in the process of understanding the history and future of native tribes in America, because so many people are very uninformed and culturally naïve, including myself. I learned from the love of the sweet animals, the openness of the Lakota community members, and the pain of a heart-wrenching history, the need for cross-cultural compassion is imperative. I am uncomfortable with notions of superficial distinctions, such as the idea that I’m a privileged white American so what is my role in helping this underprivileged minority. I think it is healthier and more productive to view this is as we are all passionate about compassion, so as a human being who is pained by the suffering of other humans who are denied the basic right of culture and agency in their own identity, how can I help.
While hiking with Mike Jr. at Bear Butte, he spoke of a prophecy his elders told him. In the prophecy, his role was to share the native culture and keep the passion for spirituality and sacredness alive. In this, Mike Jr. said, “I am only a prayer tie.” I think it is important to be humble in trying to help with such a complex issue, while also being effective by harnessing the authenticity, insight, and resilience of a prayer tie.